I’ve pointed out many times before that most sexual people view most physical touch as exclusively sexual and/or romantic, regardless of whether the touching involves actual sex or genitalia, and how this is harmful, limiting, and frustrating for asexuals and anyone who wants nonsexual, nonromantic physical affection in their life. I’ve also mentioned the disparity between what the average sexual person assumes about asexuals and physicality, versus what asexuals actually feel and think about physicality, due to sexual people’s unawareness of nonsexual physical intimacy and touch. It’s pretty common for sexual people who know nothing about asexuality to assume that asexuals don’t want or like any physical intimacy or affection, beyond the casual friendly hug, and they make this assumption because from their perspective, even the nonsexual/nongenital acts on the spectrum of physical intimacy is ultimately sexual in nature or potentially sexual because they lead to sex and are only of interest in the context of sexual attraction.
This is why, for example, a lot of heterosexual men will only cuddle or hold hands with women. Cuddling or holding hands are not sex acts, they do not involve genital contact or orgasm, they do not require sexual or romantic attraction to be performed, and yet these straight men would never think about experimenting with this kind of physical affection in their friendships with other men or even with women they aren’t sexually/romantically interested in. Part of this has to do with the stigma against homosexuality, but that couldn’t even be an issue at play if not for the fact that people are coding these nongenital physical interactions as implicitly sexual and/or romantic in the first place. My problem is with that basic implication, not so much with the heterosexism.
I think a lot of sexual people have been or would be surprised to learn, then, that a lot of asexuals are very physical people–whether in romantic relationships or in general–and that some of us want and can appreciate physical intimacy that is not just affectionate but sensual. For example, I’m very open and interested in exploring physical, sensual encounters that involve bare skin, a great degree of bodily closeness and touching, and a lot of emotional intimacy–and I know that, that would confuse a lot of sexual people not just because they see that kind of physicality as foreplay leading up to sex (and if it doesn’t lead to sex, what’s the point?) but because some of them actually see that kind of physical intimacy as “sex.” They personally can’t separate sensual physicality from genital sex, so all of it gets boxed into the broad term of “sex.”
This is weird to me. I understand using nongenital physical intimacy as foreplay in actual sexual contexts or as supplemental to sex in a romantic-sexual relationship, but I don’t understand sexualizing and romanticizing nongenital touch to a point that it can’t happen in your life, unless it’s connected to sex. I’ve always thought, since I was a child, that it was really sick and fucked up that our culture sexualizes (and romanticizes) physical intimacy so much, that most of it is off-limits in friendships and family relationships and so many straight people refuse to integrate physical affection into their same-sex friendships because they don’t want to appear gay. I have a better understanding now of the dynamics at play behind the situation, like the physical touch escalator and sexualizing/romanticizing touch in the interest of romance and sex supremacy. But on some very personal level, the whole thing still baffles me.
I’m deeply convinced that if we lived in a world where people had much greater freedom to share physical affection and intimacy in nonsexual and nonromantic contexts, with friends and family members, there would be a dramatically higher rate of overall happiness, sense of security, emotional well-being, etc. I believe that it would create more meaningful, more emotional, and more loving friendships and family relationships. I believe it would bond people more closely and intensely. I believe that it would take a lot of the desperation for sex and romance away from romantic/sexual people who are single. If we, as a society, saw touch as caring, loving, and nurturing–not sexual or romantic–we would be free to experience it a lot more often, with a wider variety of people, regardless of sexual orientation or romantic status or whether we were monogamous vs. polyamorous. The benefits would be amazing, and I frankly can’t see any downsides.
I can see the logic of viewing nongenital physical intimacy as sexually coded if you’re someone who can’t avoid becoming sexually aroused by physical intimacy or if you’re uncomfortable being physical with anyone outside of sexual and/or romantic contexts. But that’s your individual experience, not something you should project onto other people or on touch between humans in general. Just because you only want to be physically intimate/affectionate with people you want to fuck, doesn’t mean that all human beings connect nonsexual physical intimacy to sex. Or romance.
So wanting to cuddle, hug, co-sleep with, massage, even kiss someone doesn’t make you gay or straight or bisexual.
It doesn’t make you sexual at all. It doesn’t make you romantic, either.
What makes you sexual is sexual attraction to others and a desire, a need, for partnered sex. What makes you straight, gay, bi, or pan is your desire for sex with a certain gender or genders. What makes you romantic is your ability to fall in romantic love with people and your desire for romantic relationships, whatever that means to you.
You can be a very physical, sensual asexual or aromantic person. You can want to cuddle, kiss, hug, caress, hold hands, share a bed with someone and simultaneously have no sexual interest in them and/or no romantic feelings.
I have to remind you that arousal never obligates anyone to have sex: some asexuals can actually get aroused during cuddling or kissing or being physically intimate but that doesn’t mean they want to have sex or that they SHOULD have sex. Arousal is an involuntary physiological reaction. We can’t control what arouses us, when we become aroused, etc, and the body doesn’t always get aroused because of sexual stimuli. Arousal can happen for a variety of reasons. It can happen despite a person’s cognitive wishes and feelings in the moment. Just because you get aroused, doesn’t mean you have to do something about it. I think that’s a pretty radical idea for a lot of sexual people, especially cismen. If you’re cuddling with a friend you don’t want to fuck and you get turned on, you don’t have to take the cuddling into a sexual direction. You can stop cuddling if the arousal makes you uncomfortable, but you could also just ignore it and wait for it to go away. Arousal isn’t even always an indication of sexual attraction; it can happen just because you’re touched or touching someone in a certain way, without any sexual feelings or attraction at all.
Here’s how I categorize touch:
Sensual, Not Sexual Physicality
cuddling, with clothes on
cuddling, with clothes off (typically, with underwear still on)
caressing and stroking the body, over clothing or under clothes/without clothes on
kissing the body (excluding the genital region and possibly breasts)
kissing the mouth (close-mouthed, no tongue)
kissing the mouth (open-mouthed, with or without tongue)
playing with hair
sleeping in the same bed (or one sofa, close together on the floor, etc)
penetrative genital sex (vaginal or anal)
oral sex (vaginal, anal, and blowjobs)
manual sex (stimulating genitals with hands and fingers)
using sex toys on genitals
dry humping genitals against each other’s body, clothed or unclothed
mutual masturbation (two people masturbating in each other’s presence without touching each other’s genitals)
engaging in kinks and fetishes that are genitally arousing and pleasurable
I would say that the sensual, nongenital forms of physical intimacy and touch can be sexually-coded or erotic, but only if and when there is sexual attraction and desire going on between the two people sharing it or in the person who is offering or requesting the touch. The same goes for whether they are romantic gestures or not. It isn’t the actual behavior that is sexual or romantic; it’s the intent, the feelings, the attraction motivating the behavior.
So, from where I’m standing, as a celibate asexual and aromantic-spectrum person who doesn’t want to have sex with anyone, most of the stuff I listed in the sensual/nonsexual category is stuff that I can do in nonsexual, nonromantic relationships. Most of that stuff, I actually really like and enjoy and want regular access to. And to make it more interesting: I’m only comfortable being very physical with someone if I know that the touch and intimacy is nonsexual and nonromantic for them too. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise–why would I want to be involved with someone who wants to fuck me and date me, if I’m an aromantic asexual?–but a lot of other asexuals actually only want or participate in physical intimacy with romantic/sexual partners, who they’re having sex with. For many romantic aces, physical intimacy and sensuality is romantic in nature and they wouldn’t do it with friends. I’m just the opposite: I only want to be physically intimate and sensual with friends who love me nonromantically and preferably who are not sexually interested in me at all.
Physical, sensual intimacy and touch feels loving, close, affectionate, beautiful, emotional, and even passionate to me–in the right context–but it doesn’t feel sexual or romantic. At most, it can have an erotic energy, but that energy is not exclusively or inevitably linked to genital sex in my eyes. I can’t describe how I know it isn’t sexual or romantic, because it’s a feeling–and all feelings are ultimately indescribable. I just know, internally and viscerally. I can feel the difference between my nonsexual, nonromantic energy and someone else’s romantic, sexual energy. Romantic or sexual energy directed at me freaks me out, turns me off, sends me running in the opposite direction. It isn’t a safe context in which to be physically intimate with someone, especially in a way that is so emotionally open and intense, for me. The behaviors could be exactly the same, with or without romantic/sexual energy, but they feel different based on that attraction, intention, desire, etc.
It’s the difference between: “This person wants to be physically intimate with me because they’re my friend and they love me.”
And, “This person wants to be physically intimate with me because they want to fuck me and/or date me and have a romantic relationship.”
From my perspective, if I desire physical intimacy with someone, I’m always coming from the first perspective. I want to cuddle with you, hug you, kiss you, touch you, etc because I love you (nonromantically) or feel emotionally attracted to you and want to be closer to you. I don’t want to fuck you, and I sure as hell don’t want to date you or be romantically involved with you in any way. My touch is not a means to those ends, nor is it an expression of those kinds of feelings.
I know that for a lot of romantic-sexual people (and some romantic asexuals + aromantic sexual people), the idea of heavily sensual physical intimacy being totally nonromantic and nonsexual will never totally compute because it is so unlike their own experience, but I hope they eventually come to accept that touch and physical intimacy can work differently for people who don’t experience sexual and/or romantic attraction and desire.