For the asexually curious and the curiously asexual

Pax Victoriana

I’m going to write a post about how asexual and homo (/bi/pan, but I’m not going to write that every time) sexual needs conflict. It has absolutely nothing to do with recent controversies. I’m just very, very bad at timing.

The actual reason I’m writing this post is because I had an exam earlier this week on queerness in Victorian America (ok, it was on Turn of the Screw. But they’re basically the same thing). This was then compounded by a certain show doing a breathtakingly good realisation of a queer couple in Victorian London (no spoilers, I promise. Apart from that one).

It’s a stereotype of asexuals that we want to reverse sexual ethics to the way they were in Victorian times (NOTE: For this post, I’m going to assume Victorian America and Britain were a monoculture, and conveniently ignore everything that was going on in the rest of the world). While most asexuals are sex-positive, and would hate to see a return to the judgement of 19th Century morality, it’s difficult to argue strenuously against. Because, well, the Victorians were surprisingly amazing at coming up with alternate relationship forms to the traditional sexual and romantic man and woman.

Let’s define some of the things we’re looking at here.

The basic Victorian ideal was a romantic friendship. This was a relationship, normally between two people of the same gender, either or both of whom could be married. It involved a deep friendship, normally the primary relationship of both people involved, which extended to gestures a 21st Century audience would see as sexual- kissing, sharing a bed, but didn’t involve any sexual attraction. In New England, this idea evolved into a Boston marriage, where two women lived together as if husband and wife. The idea evolved in a time when spinsterhood was likely and eternal, a married woman couldn’t have a career, and a household without a man was seen as incomplete. There is a certain air of neccessity around the Boston marriage. Wordsworth, for example, describes an old, poor woman:

“By the same fire to boil their pottage,
Two poor old Dames, as I have known,
Will often live in one small cottage,
But she, poor woman, dwelt alone.”

There is a strong sense of economic justification, of necessity, to the Boston marriage, even though there is evidence that many of the Bostonians were what we would term proto-feminist in their outlook.

There are some very good ideas in these lifestyles. Romantic friendship can involve the re-classification of many of the elements we think of as being part of capital R Relationships. There are elements of touch and sensuality in there, but, most importantly, there are elements of commitment and prioritisation. The Boston marriage, while coming from a deeply patriarchal place, confirms that a partnered existance has significant material benefits, cheaper living, company, someone to look after you in case of illness, etc. It allows people who can’t neccesarily access these benefits in the way they’re normally procured, through significant romantic and sexual relationships, access. It’s been mentioned before that such benefits can be really important to aromantic people.

So Victorian breaking of the friendship/relationship binary can be incredibly helpful and relevant to the modern aromantic. The traditional models we have for ‘non-traditional’ relationships are largely same-sex, which I think further alienates hetero-aligned people who have few models and lots of other issues to contend with. But it’s worth asking why they’re same sex. And I think this is because the models I love have long been features of homosexual oppression.

Because no-one in the 21st century seriously believes that everyone in a romantic friendship or a Boston marriage wasn’t fucking. Because it’s kinda obvious that these relationships were the last escape of people whose love was illegal or shameful.

We’ll find our inspirations, a hope for a new future buried deep in our past, are built not on the noble premise that relationships can be taken apart and re-assembled, that love is user-servicable, but on the idea that some people’s lives are too shameful to countenance. The question about Victorian morality is harder than we thought.

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Comments on: "Pax Victoriana" (2)

  1. Kristin said:

    As someone who is asexual, a soon-to-be musicologist focused on 19th century Europe, and someone active in steampunk and neo-Victorian stuff, I often get asked (or have it presumed) that I am a prude who wants to return to “Victorian morality,” whatever that means. This problem could be solved if the people who assume this actually knew anything about (1) asexuality and/or (2) nuanced discussions (“moral” and otherwise) about 19th century approaches to social issues.

    Also, people seem to neglect the whole you-can-admire-someone-without-thinking-their-ideals-are-perfect thing. Yeah…

    • Weirdly enough, I’m in both the Steampunk and the LGBT society at university, and they have a pretty big crossover. I asked a friend whether she thought there was some overlap between queerness and steampunk and she immediately and instinctively said there was- we spent a long time trying to figure out where that instinct came from.

      So, yeah, queering Victoriana is something I find a really interesting excercise.

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