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The Wordsmith's Forge - Nonsexual Intimacies (Part 1 of 5)
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Nonsexual Intimacies (Part 1 of 5)
I have a batch of stuff on nonsexual intimacies that I'm going to post in sections for Asexuality Awareness Week. 


Many stories focus on sex and romance. Those are overwhelmingly the kinds of intimacy featured in fiction. Even outside the immediate sphere of erotic and romantic stories, they comprise major subplots in most genres and many stories. Attention to other types, expressions, and experiences of intimacy is rare. This largely ignores nonsexual family relationships such as siblings or parent/child. It shortchanges close professional relationships such as a cop's beat partner or a soldier's buddy. It tends to leave asexual people off the map altogether. Even for readers who like stories about sex and romance, this can get old -- especially if the writer doesn't pay any attention to the development of intimacy but just shoves the characters into bed as fast as possible.

Nonsexual forms of intimacy can add a great deal of depth and variety to fiction. On one end of the spectrum, they provide extra steps to support the journey from meeting a potential mate through romance, sex, and marriage. In the middle, they convey the import of family and professional connections, distinguishing those from more casual acquaintances. On the other end, they form much of the glue in primary relationships for people who don't base their ties on sexuality. Sex and romance are valuable, but they're not everything. Nonsexual intimacies are the "show don't tell" conveyance for the rest of the serious relationship field. Here are some examples and their story influence.


Personal & Body Care

This category covers stuff that has to do with body boundaries and maintenance. Ordinary adults do some of these things for themselves. Parents do some for their children. Caretakers or hired professionals may do them for people who can't manage on their own or just want someone else to do it. These things can express caring or comfort in a relationship, with varying degrees of intimacy.

Hair care. Brushing, braiding, washing, cutting -- all of these involve a lot of careful touching in ways that many people enjoy. Hair braiding is a bonding experience in some cultures. In fact, grooming is a bonding technique for social primates in general. People without close ties to others often treat themselves to regular salon visits as a socially acceptable way to meet the need for touch and interaction.

Shaving. This involves an unusually high level of trust, especially if the person is using a straight-edge razor or something else with an exposed blade rather than just a buzzer. Although it can apply to women, shaving is one of the few forms of physical intimacy that is most closely associated with men due to their facial hair. Initiaton into shaving is a major milestone for becoming a man, not just for boys during puberty but also for transsexuals during transition.

Bathing. This varies by culture; in America most people bathe alone but some other cultures practice communal bathing. A bath is usually more intimate than a shower, although a public bath can be non-intimate and small shower stall can be intimate. It's also different when two people wash each other (an exchange of intimacy and affection) than when one person washes someone else (more of a caretaking or protective gesture).

Feeding. A classic romantic motif involves lovers feeding each other, but it works as a way of providing and caring for someone in any context. Like bathing, it can also clue whether both parties are participating equally or one is taking care of the other (temporarily or regularly). This one has an existential flavor since survival depends on food supply.

Massage. The tone can be clinical, casual, nonsexually intimate, or erotic but it all comes down to a lot of skin contact. Some cultures, such as Swedish and Japanese, are far more comfortable with massage than American culture is; but you can still find it in America. Some Asian traditions offer orgasm (a "happy ending") as a non-erotic physical release, which is useful in contexts where erotic interaction is not desired but the body's needs are demanding.

Taking care of someone sick/injured. A natural part of family life, this can also crop up between professional partners or even strangers in some circumstances. It involves one person doing things that the other normally does alone, but currently finds difficult or impossible. This is a great way to break down walls for one of those stubborn characters who is impregnable under ordinary circumstances -- hence the popularity of hurt/comfort fiction.

Touching parts of the body not usually handled by strangers. The body divides into areas with different permissions. Strangers may shake hands, casual friends may slap each other on the shoulder. Only close relationships tend to involve touching the face, feet, inside forearms, nape of neck, etc. 

Seeing someone without their adaptive equipment on. This includes glasses, dentalware, prosthetic limbs, a wheelchair, etc. Adaptive equipment is part of one's presentation to the everyday world, and taking it off can be as intimate as removing clothing, for many people in many contexts.

Removing or putting on someone's glasses. This one is worth special mention both because it's the most common version of a not-very-common motif, and because it's intimate without being overwhelming. It's something one might do for a friend who falls asleep on the couch, for instance. That makes it a good way to show that a relationship is becomingintimate.

Undressing someone. This can be kind of a one-way experience if the recipient isn't awake, and is often awkward for both people if they are awake. Sometimes it happens because hands are out of commission, but a more common example is someone passing out drunk. Overheating is another good reason. Different circumstances can imply different levels of intimacy.

(Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

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puffbird From: puffbird Date: October 25th, 2011 04:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Interesting! It got me thinking.

As a wearer of corrective lenses, not having them on leaves me feeling vulnerable. And my vision is not that bad; I can still see without glasses on. I think it's partly because vision is so important, and any impairment to it is instinctively a problem; and also partly because I usually only remove them when I'm at my most vulnerable (showering, or sleeping).

So having my glasses removed by someone else really is an intimacy; it implies a certain level of trust.
fayanora From: fayanora Date: October 27th, 2011 01:56 am (UTC) (Link)
In the Lyria universe, there are additional options. Telepathic communication *can* be an intimacy. Then there's something called soul-speak, which is like telepathy, except it can't be overheard by others (telepaths can overhear one another with practice) and is not bound by distance. Two people could literally be lightyears apart in distance and be able to soul-speak without being overheard.
Learning magic together can be intimate, too.

Is cuddling mentioned in any of these? I read them but forgot.

Glances and significant looks can be intimate as well. But you might have mentioned that already.
kaname_nakajima From: kaname_nakajima Date: November 25th, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
you have no idea how much i freaking love you for these lists, they are going in my faves for future reference <3<3
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 26th, 2011 07:17 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed these so much. I've also done some fiction and poetry about asexuality.
kaname_nakajima From: kaname_nakajima Date: November 26th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
i must give it a read some time ^^ see, i have a little trouble writing intimacy, childhood issues make that hard lol, im good at tragic writings though >:3 but yeah, will most certainly keep referring back to these lists in the future
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 4th, 2011 01:38 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>> i must give it a read some time <<

I recommend the Schrodinger's Heroes stuff, in which Ash is ace. The Odd Trio, linked on my Serial Poetry page, also has an ace hero.
cheriola From: cheriola Date: January 7th, 2012 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is a very helpful reference list for me, thanks! (Though I find that I already consider most points in my writing, because they're common tropes.)

I'd like to add a few, if you don't mind.

Before you start outright feeding someone, you might be comfortable drinking from their cup, sharing a bottle, or letting them sample food from your plate. Parents often finish what their kids don't eat. (Because it makes washing up easier, oe because they grew up in a time of scarcity, such as during or after a war.)

How about sharing hygiene items? Starting with something simple, like a hairbrush, and maybe you do know that girlfriend well enough to privately ask for an emergency tampon. Male friends might help each other out with condoms.

Speaking of hygiene items. I know that in some cultures a couple beyond the first dating phase might store their essentials in each other's bathrooms.

And in other cultures, women won't go to the toilet in the hearing range of someone of the other sex unless they live under the same roof and are part of a family or intimate couple. (Men normally lose all shame in this regard during military training.)

Whispering in someone's ear is quite intimate. It means getting up close into someone's personal space *and* at least gives the appearance of sharing secrets.

Also, physically helping someone in ways that invades their personal space. For example giving someone a leg up over a wall, or helping a short person sit on a high ledge by lifting them by their waist. Or keeping their hands warm by holding them without any romantic implications. (Men often have better periphery circulation / can keep warm through shivering more easily than women. Though I've done this for female friends, too. A thick layer of insulation does have its advantages sometimes.)


Leaning against someone to sleep on the bus requires a certain level of intimacy. Leaning one's head against someone's lap is something usually only children and lovers do. Same with sitting between someone's legs.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 9th, 2012 05:44 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>>This is a very helpful reference list for me, thanks! (Though I find that I already consider most points in my writing, because they're common tropes.)<<

That's good to hear.

>>I'd like to add a few, if you don't mind. <<

What a great list!

>>And in other cultures, women won't go to the toilet in the hearing range of someone of the other sex unless they live under the same roof and are part of a family or intimate couple. (Men normally lose all shame in this regard during military training.)<<

People who are into theatre or historical re-enactment can also get quite blase about that and about dressing/undressing in a room full of people.
insubstantially From: insubstantially Date: November 20th, 2012 02:45 am (UTC) (Link)
As someone with zero desire to be sexually or romantically entangled [at any point in time [ever]] I have difficulty finding ways to connect with people beyond the initial scope of a friendship. These are very good lists for writing reference [also because they establish the possibility of something in the space between "friends" and "lovers" that is usually left blank].
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 20th, 2012 02:59 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>> As someone with zero desire to be sexually or romantically entangled [at any point in time [ever]] I have difficulty finding ways to connect with people beyond the initial scope of a friendship. <<

I've written a fair bit about asexuality, including fiction and poetry as well as this nonfiction. I aim to portray positive examples so make it easier for people to imagine the possibilities and explore what they might want.

One thing I've been mulling over is the different types of bond -- someone might want a permanent, primary relationship that is neither sexual nor romantic but fulfills a similar purpose in terms of social contact and stability. In Sherlock Holmes fandom, the relationship between Sherlock and John is sometimes framed that way, as nonromantic primary partners. I've also got a set of three dancers over in Torn World (one asexual and two sexual people) who are in a primary relationship together.

>> These are very good lists for writing reference [also because they establish the possibility of something in the space between "friends" and "lovers" that is usually left blank]. <<

Lifefriend and partner are two possibilities in that range. I agree that more options and exploration here would be helpful.
bsrb666 From: bsrb666 Date: April 19th, 2014 04:48 am (UTC) (Link)
I love this list. I'm thinking about printing it out and giving it to people who tell me I flirt too much or make everyone think I'm a slut and going 'see, it's not dirty like you think, it's friendly intimacy'...

I don't like getting physical with someone unless I'm comfortable with them and they're my friend. When I do, I enjoy touching, petting, cuddling, kissing on the cheek, that sort of thing. It's how I show affection with those I care about. It's not sexual, just friendly, and it annoys me that it's deemed sexual or sluttish to be that way. (Or maybe I have too many dipshits in my life...)

I also used to help care for people who couldn't do most things an able bodied person can do, like bathing, bathroom duties, feeding, etc, and quickly became blase` about those things most people (in American culture anyway) find personal and embarrassing. I also help my grandpa with a lot of such things too, and as a result, I feel just as comfortable helping a friend into or out of clothes or helping them with some hygiene need as I am punching them in the arm for being silly. It's just something you do for someone you care about.

Continuing my rant up there, I dislike how these things are typically portrayed in a sexual way, or only between sexual partners. Friends do these things too, and like you mentioned, those in a health care position do them, though probably not on an emotionally bonded level as friends/family. I am not asexual, but I do enjoy non sexual intimacies with those close to me, and I personally think many people in American society would be much happier if we weren't so stingy with these things, at least among friends.

Anyway, sorry for rambling and probably not making much sense. I just love this list, and kept going 'aha see, I'm not nuts', even though talking to the computer kinda disproves that.

Ooh I do have to add that letting someone take off/put on your glasses is a weird intimate thing. I wear glasses and have had this done, and I never considered it intimate til it happened. I was like 'whoah that's weird' because for one, you have to get close to someone to do that, and for another, that person has to trust you with their sight (at least for those like me who can't see diddly without the glasses), and that's a huge thing I think. I dislike handing my glasses over to someone who doesn't wear any because I'm afraid they won't be gentle (even though 99% of people know how much glasses are needed), but I'm fine with trading glasses with someone because I know they know how important it is.

For me removing my glasses in mixed company leaves me unsettled. I feel vulnerable because I have such a hard time seeing, and I've been wearing glasses since 5th grade (I'm 26 now...so a long time). They're pretty much part of my body, not just an addition. I feel naked without them.

Ok, really done rambling now. I'm off to read your other lists. I promise not to rant on them >.>
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 19th, 2014 05:02 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> I love this list. <<

Yay! I'm glad I could help.

>> I'm thinking about printing it out and giving it to people who tell me I flirt too much or make everyone think I'm a slut and going 'see, it's not dirty like you think, it's friendly intimacy'... <<

Go for it. I think it would be good for more people to know these things. And no, it's not dirty or slutty. I hate it when everyone's mind goes straight to the gutter and they refuse to consider nonsexual options. Now who's "oversexed" ...?

>> I don't like getting physical with someone unless I'm comfortable with them and they're my friend. When I do, I enjoy touching, petting, cuddling, kissing on the cheek, that sort of thing. It's how I show affection with those I care about. <<

That makes sense.

>> It's not sexual, just friendly, and it annoys me that it's deemed sexual or sluttish to be that way. (Or maybe I have too many dipshits in my life...) <<

You may very well have a dipshit surplus. But hey, try looking for people who are touch-dominant or skin-hungry. They are often more open to nonsexual touch.

>> I also used to help care for people who couldn't do most things an able bodied person can do, like bathing, bathroom duties, feeding, etc, and quickly became blase` about those things most people (in American culture anyway) find personal and embarrassing. I also help my grandpa with a lot of such things too, and as a result, I feel just as comfortable helping a friend into or out of clothes or helping them with some hygiene need as I am punching them in the arm for being silly. It's just something you do for someone you care about. <<

Ah, that explains a lot. It shifted your boundaries from the cultural average. You're not slutty; you're just differently civilized. That's okay.

>> Continuing my rant up there, I dislike how these things are typically portrayed in a sexual way, or only between sexual partners. <<

I agree.

>> Friends do these things too, and like you mentioned, those in a health care position do them, though probably not on an emotionally bonded level as friends/family. I am not asexual, but I do enjoy non sexual intimacies with those close to me, and I personally think many people in American society would be much happier if we weren't so stingy with these things, at least among friends. <<

I'm sure society would be better if people got more healthy touch and bonding activities.

>> Anyway, sorry for rambling and probably not making much sense. I just love this list, and kept going 'aha see, I'm not nuts', even though talking to the computer kinda disproves that. <<

You're making perfect sense to me. You're not nuts. You're not alone. There are other people who feel the same way. Browse around my writing and audience, you'll find them.

>> Ooh I do have to add that letting someone take off/put on your glasses is a weird intimate thing. I wear glasses and have had this done, and I never considered it intimate til it happened. <<

Sometimes we don't notice a boundary until we touch it.

>> I was like 'whoah that's weird' because for one, you have to get close to someone to do that, and for another, that person has to trust you with their sight (at least for those like me who can't see diddly without the glasses), and that's a huge thing I think. I dislike handing my glasses over to someone who doesn't wear any because I'm afraid they won't be gentle (even though 99% of people know how much glasses are needed), but I'm fine with trading glasses with someone because I know they know how important it is. <<

Yes, that makes sense.

>> For me removing my glasses in mixed company leaves me unsettled. <<

I'm the same way. My glasses are part of my self-image. This is often true with adaptive equipment, and especially with things people use all the time rather than just occasionally. Same with a wheelchair or a prosthetic limb; the human brain incorporates them neurologically into the bodymap.

>> Ok, really done rambling now. I'm off to read your other lists. I promise not to rant on them >.> <<

Yay! I like comments, by the way, don't feel shy about talking in my blogspace.

zuki_san From: zuki_san Date: June 25th, 2014 02:21 am (UTC) (Link)

I want you to know

I've come back to read this set of essays/discussions over and over again, though the years, and I still appreciate it.

It's interesting to reflect on which parts appear most relevant or interesting, as my life and circumstances change.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 25th, 2014 02:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: I want you to know

Thank you! I'm so glad you find it useful. Yes, I come back and re-read it too.
paantha From: paantha Date: August 2nd, 2014 12:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, lovely and very helpful. I'm going to link this to my group of writing buddies.

Also, here's another one for you: treating their house like your house. With regular acquaintances/friends, I will be somewhere between stiffly formal and polite to reasonably relaxed, but I am always the guest and they are the host. With very close friends, those guest/host boundaries melt. This is typified by things like: visiting/phoning/etc. with little/no announcement and/or at non-standard times (e.g. later at night than is "polite"). Oh, and things like visiting someone, walking straight into their kitchen and *offering them* a cup of tea whilst making your own.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: August 3rd, 2014 07:50 am (UTC) (Link)

Yay!

>> Oh, lovely and very helpful. I'm going to link this to my group of writing buddies. <<

I'm glad you found this so useful.

>> Also, here's another one for you: treating their house like your house. <<

Good one.
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