Sexual [or] Intimacy

Photo by Anastasia Sklyar

“Do you love him?” “No, we’re just friends.”

“They were ‘intimate’ with each other.”

“During lockdown, we were only allowed to visit a person if we had an ‘intimate relationship’ with them.”

I’ve been finding that there’s a lot of confusion out there about the difference between intimacy and sex. The quotes above show how we often use love/intimacy as a stand-in to describe sexual/romantic relationships as though they are basically the same thing. It seems that heterosexual Christians in particular struggle with the idea of intimacy that is non-sexual (like when people make rules about a married man not pursuing close friendships with women because that would be ‘inappropriate’), but I’ve also been noticing that for myself I’ve internalised some of this thinking too. Every time I instinctively go to tell a friend I love them and then stop and censor myself because I’m not sure if it would be ‘appropriate’ to say “I love you” to another man, I have bought into the idea that deep love is sexual and therefore inappropriate in a platonic friendship. Even the ways we try to soften and qualify expressions of love (like saying “I love you, no homo,” “love ya, brother,” or “I love you, dude,”) add qualifiers to distance ourselves from a simple expression of love that might be assumed to convey sexual interest–because without qualifiers, the assumption is always that intimacy = sexual interest.

Shout-out to all the asexual folk who have given this far more thought than the rest of us and who have paved the way for discussions on non-sexual intimacy. I found this quote from a secular book on asexuality extremely insightful:

“Friendships are often assumed less serious, less involved, and less important than any relationship that involves sex and/or romance. The word ‘just’ appears in front of friends for that very reason. If people didn’t believe sexual relationships automatically rank higher than nonsexual ones, the phrase ‘more than friends’ wouldn’t be so common. People wouldn’t refer to friendships as arrangements in which ‘there’s nothing between us.’ In reality, friendships can be among the deepest relationships people have—and that goes for everyone, not just aromantic people.”

Julie Sondra Decker, An Invisible Orientation, 37.

If intimacy is sexual, then a person can only be truly loved by entering a sexual relationship. Celibacy is not a legitimate option, singleness becomes a curse, and being asexual means you cannot find love.

If intimacy is sexual, then cultivating intimacy with someone is hugely problematic [for a Christian] unless you are married to that person. We’d need to worry about not being too close to someone, not leading them to think we are too committed to them as a person, and we’d avoid showing deep love to anyone else in our efforts to remain appropriate and respectable.

But here’s the thing. Intimacy is not the same as sex. Sex is not the same as intimacy.

If it’s not sexual, it’s not sexual.

Being intimate doesn’t make something sexual. Being tender, loving, or vulnerable doesn’t make something sexual.

Being sexual makes something sexual.

We need to repent of the ways we’ve sexualised intimacy and closeness and made such expressions of love ‘inappropriate’. If we are concerned that something lacks ‘appropriateness’ or ‘respectability’, then we need to name that we are playing the Respectability Game, but we must never confuse social respectability with morality.

We must never confuse social respectability with morality.

If it’s not sexual, it’s not sexual. To make this a bit more concrete, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of things that are sexual, so if you’re worried, you know what to look out for:

Things that are sexual

  • Sex
  • Engaging in activities for the purpose of sexual arousal

Wow, that didn’t take long to read, hey? It’s almost like not everything has to be sexualised after all!

For comparison, here’s a list of some things that are not inherently sexual regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the persons involved [not exhaustive]:

Things that are not sexual

  • Saying “I love you”
  • Being alone in a room/car with someone of the gender/s you’re attracted to
  • Being close friends with someone of the gender/s you’re attracted to
  • Writing a heartfelt letter or card
  • Hugs that last longer than 3 seconds
  • Holding hands
  • Putting your arm around someone
  • Snuggling
  • Stargazing together
  • Buying flowers for someone
  • Talking to the same person every day
  • Sending a thoughtful ‘good morning’ text
  • Having a picture of someone you love as your phone background
  • Having affectionate nicknames for someone
  • Crying into someone’s shoulder
  • Going on a holiday together
  • Living together
  • Going out for a 1-1 meal (and paying for someone’s dinner to show you love them)
  • Having a weekly coffee date
  • Being attracted to someone
  • Having someone be attracted to you
  • Dressing nicely to be seen as beautiful by someone
  • Telling someone they look beautiful (note: this one can be twisted to become sexual harassment, so guys, please just don’t go there, and leave the rest of us in peace to affirm each other’s beauty in wholesome ways)
  • Making lifelong commitments to sharing life with someone
  • Becoming a part of someone else’s family and having them become a part of yours
  • Love

There are so many beautiful ways to exist in intimate relationships and show each other love without sexualising it. If it’s not sexual, it’s not sexual, and we should probably stop getting all worked up about it and just let people keep showing love in all the beautiful non-sexual ways God has given us.

Hugs and kisses,

Love Matt.

P.S. What would you add to the list?

4 thoughts on “Sexual [or] Intimacy

  1. As a Women who is SSA I have a best freind (who is straight) who is the same gender who I love and tell her that all the time. She also says “I love you” or “Love you” to me.

    There is absolutely no romantic feelings between either of us. She is simply my best friend who I love and can share deeply about our lives together.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful, concise, and valuable piece.  As a Christian Side B man, I think what can be a challenge for me is navigating that second point under what is sexual: “Engaging in activities for the purpose of sexual arousal.”  I have enjoyed and desired physical touch/affection in the context of close friendship, but at some point I started worrying about what my motivations were.  Is a desire for physical arousal part of my motivation?  And then there was an occasion later that year where I think such a desire may very well have been in my mind when I did something that outwardly seemed innocent (briefly squeezed the upper arm of a friend whose shoulders I had my arm around).  And more generally, it feels complicated to probe my motivations given that physical arousal can easily happen whether one is purposely trying to make it happen or not, and it can feel nice even when unintentional.  Any suggestions for how to discern and handle one’s motivations?  

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there and thanks for your really thoughtful questions here! I think you’ve touched on some really complex nuances. I don’t know if I have any clear, black-and-white answers for you, but here are a few areas for consideration that I think would lead to more clarity:
      1) I think we need to keep differentiating between things that are a moral issue versus things that are wisdom issues. Lots of stuff can be unwise or unhelpful for certain people without being categorically sinful actions, so where I as Matthew Ventura decide to draw a line that’s helpful for my chastity ought not always be the same as where your wisdom might lead you to draw a line. This stuff is complex and ambiguous.
      2) I don’t think physical arousal is always the best metric for sexual morality. Particularly for male bodies, arousal can be a very physiological response to very neutral things like new underwear, a full bladder, and rolling over in your sleep. Interactions with people can be arousing not because they’re sexual but because our bodies responded in a particular way. I’ve experienced numerous times when someone sent me a text affirming me and expressing their loving friendship to me, and my body was so overwhelmed with the emotions of being affirmed that I became physically aroused. The interactions in all cases were completely chaste and God-honouring, but my body reacted the way it did. Does that mean I should avoid putting myself in compromising situations in which people affirm their love for me? I don’t think so. But I also wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking out those conversations *for the purpose of* stirring arousal. At the end of the day, I think a lot of things that invoke arousal do so precisely *because* we’ve hypersexualised so many expressions of love, and the experience of many people I know has been that as we reclaim loving intimacy as nonsexual, our bodies eventually adjust and respond appropriately. For a man who’s never been hugged, a hug might evoke a huge amount of arousal. But when a person is regularly being embraced by loving friends in nonsexual ways, the act of a hug becomes less associated with sexual intent. (Of course, there’s all the wisdom issues of how you might normalise those things without unhelpfully arousing oneself in the meantime…)
      3) I reckon each person needs to discern practices for evaluating the motivations of their own hearts – it’s hard to prescribe things for each other. For me, a few key questions that help are: would I feel comfortable doing the same thing with my biological brother (or sister)? Would I feel comfortable doing the same thing with a friend of a gender I’m not attracted to? Would I feel jealous if this person did the same thing with someone else?

      Sounds like you’ve given these issues some deep thoughts yourself. Would love to hear your contributions as well!

      Like

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