How Adopting an Asexual and Aromantic Identity Has Made Me More Resilient

This is for the June 2016 Carnival of Aces: Resiliency

A really long time ago, I believed that I was going to eventually end up in a sexual/romantic relationship, and that it was just a matter of meeting the right person. Over time, I gradually realized that it was a) not happening and b) there was more to why it was not happening than not meeting the ‘right person’.

I was luckier than some people in that this was never a great source of distress in my life. However, I did make some half-hearted attempts to try to meet the kind of person who would at least be someone I’d be interested in trying sex/romance with. Identifying as asexual put an end to that (it was years later that I started identifying as aromantic).

What would have happened if I had not identified as asexual when I did? I don’t know. I don’t regret the (futile) attempts I made to get any kind of romance/sex in my life, but I don’t think I would have benefited from further attempts, so I think it’s just as well that I stopped when I did. Just this alone – to cease trying to bring sex and romance in my life – increased my personal resiliency, since it allowed me to focus more on things which did a lot more to develop myself as a person.

My identity also helps me deal with how other people react to the lack of sex and romance in my life. Before I took on an asexual identity, people often made comments about sex and/or romance which I felt uncomfortable with. But I did not understand why I was uncomfortable. Now, I understand that I have a very different perspective than most people do on sex and romance. That explains a lot of the dissonance I feel between my thoughts and other people’s thoughts on these things. Whatever people think of me, my perspective on my own sexless life is 100% valid. That makes me more resilient in the face of ignorant remarks made by other people.

And finally, I know, thanks to other asexual and aromantic people who have discussed their identities, that I am not alone. I don’t know why people feel a need to find themselves in others in order to feel like it’s okay for them to be themselves, but that is how human nature is, and I am not an exception. Knowing that it’s not just me gives me an additional bit of psychological resilience.

For more about what I have to say about asexuality and resilience, I suggest this old post about living in Taiwan as an asexual.

Alliance of the Non-mono Folk in the USA, Part 3: Ties among the 19th Century Groups

In the previous post, I introduced some prominent groups in the United States which practiced non-mono relationships, either celibacy or poly relationships. In this post, I will discuss how groups who sometimes had very different ideas about how to do non-monogamy became allies.

Their Rejection of Monogamy Was a Part of a Greater Context

None of these groups rejected monogamy just for the sake of rejecting monogamy – they all saw it as a part of something bigger. This was all going on as the United States was becoming an industrialized society.

Ann Lee herself, the founder of the Shakers, grew up in Manchester, England. When she was born, Manchester still had a predominantly agricultural economy, but by the time she left Manchester, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and the living conditions of the working classes was far more miserable than the lives of the townspeople Ann Lee would have known as a young girl. It has even been speculated that, due to the increasingly crowded living conditions in Manchester caused by the industrial revolution, sex became increasingly public, and problems caused by unplanned pregnancies became increasingly obvious, and that all of this might have led Ann Lee to have become more anti-sex than she might have been if she had been born a century earlier. Though the Shakers are best known nowadays for their crafts and for being celibate, there is a reason why they rejected private property, and to a large extent they were trying to create an economic model which could compete with capitalism while being much more humane. Shakerism greatly influenced Karl Marx and other communist intellectuals. In fact, it could be argued that the greatest impact Shakerism had on the world was economic (or rather, the way people thought about economics).

It was not just the Shakers – all of these groups rejected the institution of private property to some degree. Even the Mormons, who in the 20th century gained a reputation for being anti-Communist, experimented with abolishing private property in the 19th century. And all of these groups considered private property and monogamous marriage to be so deeply intertwined that one could not truly eliminate private property without also eliminating monogamy. To them, the purpose of monogamous marriage was to sustain private property over multiple generations, and to assert men’s ownership of women.

That brings us to another issue – all of these groups were much more strongly in favor of gender equality than mainstream American society in the 19th century. Most of these groups saw monogamous marriage as one of the primary ways that men oppressed women, which for them was all the more reason to reject monogamy.

I do NOT think it is a coincidence that the Icarians – the only major ‘communitarian’ group which not only practiced monogamy, but which forbade poly relationships and was also anti-celibacy – was also the only group which did not allow women to vote in community governance meetings.

Nowadays the Mormons have a reputation for sexist, but in the 19th century Mormon women had more rights and privileges in the Mormon community than most American women did in their communities. For example, the 19th Century Mormons supported women’s education, and said that if women had adequate education, they could do many things just as well as men. Mormon women could vote in community affairs, and Utah had women’s suffrage in 1870 – only one other state/territory in the USA (Wyoming) granted women’s suffrage even earlier than that. I’m not an expert on Mormon history, but I wonder whether or not it is a coincidence that they gave up the practice of plural marriage around the same time they became more supportive of capitalism and less supportive of gender equity than mainstream USA society.

(Side note: I used to think that polygyny was inherently more patriarchal than monogamy – I no longer think this. There are certain polygynous systems which are less patriarchal than certain monogamous systems – for example, the polygynous 19th century Mormons were less patriarchal than the monogamous Icarians. What matters is the details, not whether it’s polygyny or monogamy).

In addition to being concerned about economic justice and women’s rights, all of these groups also tended to support other ‘liberal’ causes of the day, especially abolitionism (that made things really interesting when these non-mono groups tried to set up communities in the South – especially if it was a community which accepted black members). Vegetarianism was also very common – for example, many Shaker communities set aside a table in the dining room just for vegetarian members of the communities – and most of the Oneida Perfectionists were vegetarians. There were even a few people who nowadays would be labelled as ‘vegans’ or ‘animal rights activists’ (most famously Amos Bronson Alcott).

So How Did These Groups Ally with Each Other?

First of all, everybody loved the Shakers. They were the oldest and most visibly successful of all these groups, and everybody wanted to copy at least some aspects of Shakerism. Sometimes the Shakers responded to this by saying “well, since you think we are so wonderful, why don’t you join us?” Obviously, some of the people who admired the Shakers did not want to, for example, take vows of celibacy, which is one reason why they set up their own communities rather than just join the Shakers.

The 18th century Shakers wanted to withdraw from the world, not participate in it. In fact, withdrawing from the world was an important strategy for them, since they were often assaulted, particularly during the American Revolution when they were often suspected of being agents of the British (in truth, the Shakers were neutral in the American Revolution, and refused to fight on the behalf of either side of the war). In the middle of the 19th century, the Shakers were much more involved in worldly affairs, for example, many Shakers were abolitionists who worked with non-Shaker abolitionists (Frederick William Evans is the most famous of the Shaker abolitionists).

These groups sometimes traded communities with each other – for example, the Harmony Society sold one of their communities (by ‘community’ I mean ‘land and buildings’ and not people) to the Owenites (who named it ‘New Harmony’). Also, when people became dissatisfied with one group, or when a community failed, it was common for them to move to a different group.

The Shakers used the Gospel of Matthew (22:30) to justify their rejection of marriage – and since they did not support sex without marriage, that also meant no sex. John Humphrey Noyes, the leader of the Oneida Perfectionists, used the very same line in the gospel as evidence of why monogamous marriage is wrong – but to him, it said nothing about sex, which meant that sex was still okay.

I find the relationship between the Shakers and the Perfectionists a perfect example of how celibate and poly groups could be allies. On the one hand, the Oneida Perfectionists, like everyone else, loved the Shakers. When the Oneida community finally dissolved, some of them chose to join the Shakers (in particular, the ones who believed that ‘special love’ was wrong thought that it was better to be celibate than to enter a monogamous marriage). Likewise, when there was an organized campaign against Oneida community, some of the local Shakers came to their defence, and one say that the Oneida complex marriage was “vastly purer than some of the most respectable marriages of today” which demonstrates that, to some Shakers, monogamy was more abhorrent than sex, and that they did not consider poly sexual relationships any more immoral/sinful than mono sexual relationships.

The Attacks Were the Same

Even though these non-monogamous groups were so diverse, many of their critics launched the same kinds of attacks on them. For example, the Shakers were sometimes accused of being harlots and promiscuous because they allowed unmarried men and women to live together (did the critics not get the part about Shakers being celibate, or did they simply refuse to believe that men and women could live together without having sex?)

Likewise, even though the Oneida Perfectionists were the most enthusiastic about having multiple sexual partners, some of their critics accused them of emasculating and reducing the sexual ability of their men (to be fair, this may have had more to do with the Oneida Perfectionists’ peculiar birth control method – which was actually as effective as modern day birth control pills at preventing pregnancy – as with the Oneida Perfectionists’ rejection of monogamy).

Often, one group was pitted against another, with rhetoric like ‘even the ghastly Mormons maintain the distinction between husband and wife, unlike free love commune over there’.

So, next time…

Though I know something about the practice of non-mono relationships in the United States in the 20th century, I know nothing about how non-mono groups with different philosophies related to each other. Therefore, I am going to skip the 20th century completely, and go straight to the 21st century in the next part of the series.

Alliance of the Non-mono Folk in the USA, Part 2: Introducing the 19th Century

Read Part 1 Here.

There was a great deal of social experimentation in the middle of the 19th century in the United States, which, among other things, encouraged the growth of both celibate and poly groups. The reasons for why this happened are complex, but these groups tended to be most active when the economy was in decline, and in places with good communication/transportation. Upstate New York, which had good communication/transportation thanks to the Erie Canal, and which experienced an extended economic depression in the middle of the 19th century, had a relatively high concentration of Shakers, was where the Church of Latter Day Saints got started, and was the location of the Perfectionists’ most successful community, Oneida.

The Celibate Groups: the Shakers and the Harmony Society

By far the largest and most influential group which rejected monogamy in the 19th Century USA was the Shakers (the Church of Latter Days Saints had less power/influence in the 19th century than the Shakers). The Shakers rejected both sex and marriage. Their founder, Ann Lee, was apparently strongly opposed to sex, and her rejection of marriage flowed from her rejection of sex. However, among Shakers, this view was not universal: there seem to have been some Shakers who felt more strongly about monogamous marriage being wrong than sex being wrong. In any case, sexual abstinence AND not having marriage were both key parts of the Shaker lifestyle and religion.

The second most famous celibate group was the Harmony Society (a.k.a. the Rappites). Though they did not regard sex as being as evil as the Shakers did, they also had religious reasons for believing that celibacy was the best way to live. They also did not practice marriage.

The Theist Poly Groups

By far the most famous and long-lasting poly group from the 19th century was the Church of Latter Day Saints, though they transitioned away from ‘plural marriage’ between 1890 and 1904 (there is more info about this here). ‘Plural Marriage’ was polygyny – one man married multiple women. Unlike some of the other poly groups from the 19th century, the Church of Latter Day Saints always accepted monogamous as well as polygamous relationships, and they obviously supported the institution of marriage.

Another famous theist poly group from the 19th century were the Perfectionists, specifically Oneida Perfectionists. The Oneida Perfectionists practiced ‘complex marriage’. Since it was, indeed, complex, I am not going to try to explain it, but there are two things I want to note. First, it involved both men and women having sex with multiple people. And second – and this is the more important point for me – the Oneida Perfectionists were opposed to ‘special loves’. What was ‘special love’? First of all, if someone showed a strong preference for one sexual partner over others, this could be considered a ‘special love’, and therefore wrong. Ditto for strong romantic attachments between two people. People who showed too much more affection for their own biological children over the other children of the community could also be criticized for having ‘special love’ – the idea was that everyone was supposed to love all of the children.

The Secular Poly Groups

The largest – and most diverse – of the secular poly groups was the Associationists, who were inspired by writing of Charles Fourier. Fourier had many wild ideas, some of which were outright ridiculous. To be fair, some of his ridiculous ideas – such as his prediction that increased human activity spurred by the industrial revolution would eventually increase global temperatures – turned out to be true. Fourier’s philosophy was that people should pursue their passions, especially their sexual passions – for example, people with homosexual inclinations should have sex with people of the same gender. He was a big advocate of well-organized group orgies. The various Associationist groups all chose their own ways of interpreting Fourier’s ideas, and thus the way they were put into practice varied widely.

Another famous secular poly group was the Owenites, founded by Robert Owen. In the 1820s, he was vocally opposed to the institution of marriage (specifically, he said that marriage was one of the “trinity of most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon [the] whole race.”)

Whereas the theist communities tended to prescribe specific approaches to sexual/romantic relationships (whether that was complete abstinence or having a specific type of poly structure for relationships), the secular communities tended to let people figure that out for themselves, whether it was some form of non-monogamy, or whether they decided to have conventional monogamous relationships after all.

Now that I have introduced some of the prominent non-monogamous groups from the 19th century United States, in the next part I will discuss how their ideas about gender and communal property informed their non-monogamy, as well as how groups with different philosophies related to each other.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Most of the information I have about these 19th century non-monogamous groups comes from the book Paradise Now by Chris Jennings. If you want to know more, I highly recommend reading the books.

Go to Part 3.

Alliance of the Non-mono Folk in the USA, Part 1: Introduction

On the surface, from the perspective of contemporary American culture, people who willingly live without sex are the very opposite of people who openly acknowledge having multiple sexual partners simultaneously. However, in practice, these two groups are united by the fact that they are not practicing mono relationships.

First of all, it is worth noting that there is an assumption that someone who has more than one sexual partner is having sex more often than someone who has only a single sexual partner. This is not necessarily true, in fact, I am not even sure there is much correlation between # of sexual partners and frequency of sexual activity (though obviously there is a correlation between having zero sexual partners and never having sex).

Ever since the United States was founded in the 18th century, (serial) monogamy has been the social norm for adults. Monogamous marriage is the only kind of marriage which is legally recognized, but even outside of married relationships, it is considered ‘normal’ to only have one socially recognized sexual partner at a time. People who deviate from monogamy – either by having zero sexual partners, or by having 2+ sexual partners simultaneously – are both deviating from this norm. They are especially deviating from it if a) their consider their lack of sexual partners to be desirable or b) they choose to treat their multiple sexual partners with respect, such as by engaging with all of them with honest communication rather than ‘cheating’ and trying to hide the relationship from the ‘primary’ partner.

From the inside perspective of people who reject having a single sexual partner – either by not having any sexual partners, or by having multiple sexual partners – there is a natural alliance based on facing the same social stigma of being non-mono. That said, as in any alliance between different groups of people, there have always been internal conflicts, but that is beyond the scope of this series of blog posts.

Even though the outside perspective often pegs the people with no sexual partners as ‘not being sexual enough’ and people with multiple sexual partners as being ‘too sexual’, outsiders paradoxically also often conflate the two groups, by shaming the people without any sexual partners as being too sexual (huh?) and the people who have multiple sexual partners as not being sexual enough (huh? again). That is because outsiders also understand that both groups are rejecting monogamy, and have a bunch of claims they make of non-monogamists in general, regardless of whether they are intensely theist anti-sex celibate non-monogamists or godless ‘sex-positive’ polyamorists.

It is also important to consider the context of choosing between a mono and a non-mono lifestyle – in particular, social status of women, private ownership of property vs. communal ownership, religion (or lack thereof), and social class.

In the next post of this series, I will focus on people in the United States who chose a non-mono lifestyle in the 19th century, including groups such as the Shakers (theist, celibate), the Church of Latter Day Saints (theist, poly), the Owenites (atheist-friendly secular, poly), the Perfectionists (theist, poly), and the Associationists (atheist-friendly secular, poly).

Go to Part 2.