The Need for Asexuality in Theological Discourse by Lachelle Schilling


Asexuality is an orientation that is misunderstood and marginalized. That is, if it is allowed a presence at all. I consider myself to be sensual, loving to receive and give pleasure, affectionate and romantic, and longing for a relationship that respects my bodily boundaries which happens, for me, to mean physical touch that does not include genital sex.

The recognition of asexuality into our theological and theoretical discussions can offer another way of understanding agency and the erotic in our lives. It can help us access the sacred narratives we long to have deeper connections with. In addition, when we allow a more holistic and generous understanding of asexuality as it is actually experienced by those who self-identify as such, it creates a livable space for us to exist, to imagine in midrash, perhaps, among the abstinence narratives which can be problematic in theological literature, our sacred presence.

Consider Mary, the “Virgin Mary” who was told she would have a child in a very queer way. This story is not usually understood in a way where God is meeting the needs and desires of a woman. The promise of labor is more of an unsolicited gift. But what if it could be imagined differently? What if, as we assume about her friend and mentor Elizabeth, she longed for a child, far before she received the message she would have one? What if, instead of understanding the holiness of Jesus as being the outcome of a virgin birth, unmarred by full humanity, we imagine that Jesus is holy because a woman’s sexual preferences were respected? My midrash dreams that Mary is an asexual woman, whom the Holy Spirit intercedes for, not for the non-sexual stasis of a sacred genealogy for a sinful world, but for Mary, whom I imagine wanted a child, but not through genital penetration with Joseph. She was not a virgin, someone who was “not yet.” She was complete, mature already. When she said “How can this be, since I do not know a man,” she does not speak in terms of the past (have not) or the future (have not yet), but the continuing present. If we think of Mary as asexual, we cannot enforce a lifelong celibacy, honor her sexual purity, or infringe on her innocence. She is not unerotic, but she is passionate and wanting. This is my midrash:

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a young woman betrothed to a man named Joseph.

Mary was in the garden, lying under a tree, delighting in the cool evening breezes and the last breath of sun. Her flesh on the dirt sent stirs of tingling through her thighs and dark oceanic eyes. Her lips were still wet from the pomegranate seeds she had been licking the juices from. She was savoring the moments of solitude that she knew might be lost with her new upcoming roles of wife and . . . who knew what else. As the sun began to sink, Mary noticed a short, handsome woman coming toward her in the distance and waved her over, feeling a thrilling surge of energy between them.

“Greetings oh favored one, in your sensuality and depth of emotive wisdom, your mother-lover God is with you.” The messenger sat down on the grass to enjoy the earth’s vibrations and continued. “The Mother has heard your desires, and encourages you to bear a child so that he may help you and a community of other queer-loving beings help dismantle structures of oppression and privilege.”

Mary sat up. “But how will this be since I am asexual, preferring to be touched in so many ways, just not in ways that might bring a son?” she asked, confident her mother-lover would never ask her to go against her ways of loving.

And the angel answered her, “You will not need to be entered into by a man. Although many feel exceeding pleasure by this activity, I know you have a thousand other ways that are more enjoyable for you. The ruach, the womb, Sophia will create an intimate connection between you, a meeting of wombs, and your powers will overshadow each other, and therefore the child will be called holy.”

Mary closed her eyes and remembered her close friend Elizabeth and felt a need to be with her. Such news always brought need for a community. So Gabriel and Mary went to their good friend’s house.

There was indeed a meeting of the wombs and a stirring of passions that Elizabeth and Mary felt before they even saw each other. Elizabeth cupped Mary’s face in her hands and kissed her. They retired to the sanctity of the workshed, warm with recent activity, the place Elizabeth felt most at home and enjoyed a long conversation, Elizabeth mothering and Mary mothering, and Gabriel doing the same. They sang together, making up new words, the new language they would need to describe this miracle, the three women creating their own trinity to birth children and each other into the world.

LaChelle Schilling is a doctoral candidate in the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She is living in Oklahoma raising awareness about asexuality and writing her dissertation entitled Queering Asexuality: A Discourse of Desire and Intimacy. 

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Categories: Sexual Ethics

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18 replies

  1. Very interesting perspective, one I’ve never thought about before. Gives me something to think about. Thanks!

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  2. LaChelle, Good to hear from you. I deeply respect your queer reading of Mary, but I do take issue with stripping her of her sexuality, something the church has invested much time and resources in. Still, if you read her from a paradoxical location, she holds the same kind of tension found in what can be the Great Paradox’s: virgin/mother, life/death, God/man, etc. Meister Eckhart (14th century) dedicated much of his writings to such themes. Instead of our Western sensibility of a stance of either/or, what about both/and?

    My other hesitation is a self-identity of asexuality come from a healthy place where the body/psyche is not injured by another, i.e. molest or trauma. Such kind of assault inflicts wounds at the cellular level of our bodies and can take deep work to heal. In such cases the real work is not the reflective turn to asexuality, but rather the healing located in the tangled energy and embrace with another.

    For medieval mystics (Hadewijch in particular), the language of sexual union, complete with telling details of orgasmic release, functioned as their linguistic vehicle for the kind of intimacy experienced with the Divine. Which is to say, the role and importance of sex, in my estimation, can be essential to our spiritual growth. Here again, the paradoxical nature: virgin women writing on sexual union, affirming the role of sex.

    Again, good to hear from you and thank you for a very provocative entry point into thinking about Mary.

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    • I wouldn’t exactly call it a “stripping her of her sexuality.” The reality of asexuality as one’s sexual identity IS the very essence of how being sexual works in that orientation. For example, a heterosexual chooses to become sexually intimate with a partner genitally and a homosexual chooses to be genitally involved with a partner because that is how each expresses their love most fully. When we understand sexual interaction as much more than intercourse or genital stimulation, the concept of asexuality becomes more graspable to those of different sexual orientations.

      As a person that does not identify as asexual, I understand how it can be a topic that is easily misunderstood. Another good article written by Paul Cox (http://acentric.tumblr.com/post/8650405210/were-married-we-just-dont-have-sex) may give a different viewpoint on asexuality that could help raise awareness in those who have limited experience with asexuals.

      This blog is fantastic and the midrash exciting to read. Thank you, Lachelle, for the beautiful interpretation and a reflection on an experience that I would have never otherwise heard on the birth narrative of Christ.

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      • Right, an important element to keep in mind, even when understanding the term of asexuality is to remember that the prefix -a also means in fullness of or in completion of. Think about sleep vs. asleep or live vs. alive. I consider the prefix -a to hold somewhat of a double meaning in this regard. Sexuality includes but is so much more than the desire for and the practice of particular sexual acts. The ways in which we are relationally oriented toward each other, sexually and otherwise, embrace a context of desires, fantasies, practices, and intentions. Thank you so much for your comment.

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    • Cynthie, I love your references to the erotic spirituality of the medieval mystics. It is a topic I am using as a connection to my theories in my dissertation and so it is wonderful to have someone else notice it as well. I do not think we are in disagreement there.

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      • P.S. – But it is not only the “role and importance of sex” that they establish, but within that and overlapping is the erotic, physical touch, and perhaps most dominantly deep, ecstatic intimacy. Sex can be inclusive of all of these elements but does not necessarily claim an exclusive hold over any of them.

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  3. Congratulations for birthing a generative, sensual and liberating creation of the Marian story that gives us some insight into celibacy not as queer, but as a particular determination to remain free.

    Your virgin generative powers brought to mind Monique Wittig’s wise admonition to her sisters:

    “There was a time
    when you were not a slave,
    remember that.

    You walked alone,
    full of laughter,
    you bathed bare-bellied.

    You say you have lost all recollection of it,
    remember.

    You say there are no words to describe this time,
    you say it does not exist.

    But remember.
    Make an effort to remember.

    Or failing that, invent.

    -Monique Wittig

    Forgive me if I digress in my comment from the importance of your contribution as it stands alone to influence the Christian constructs in significant ways. I see your contribution reaching us through the loving and unapologetic power of creation. However, there is a longing in me to bring in, to include other feminist spiritualities–not religions–into the discussion about the existing narrarratives on the subject of sex discernment, judicious restraint and application for sublimation of subtle energies in the spirit art-science experiment called spirituality. Why? because I believe that in the “global” atmosphere that defines our changing social, racial, class and gender constructs there is ample room for “borrowing” not appropriating, as I will later explain, from the non-linear narrative achievements of other cultures, where the issues of sex, gender fluidity, asexuality, liberatory celibacy and other related topics have been presented in stories little understood and explored in the contexts of Feminism, religions and Women’s Spirituality.

    More specifically, I am referring to stories which deconstruct embodiment into a non-hierarchic continuum with spirit. Perhaps our language limitations are the trap. In this case, I am referring to what Western academics erroneously refer to as Hinduism (Vasudha Narayan, Religion Studies Department, University of Florida, Gainesville)–which is more appropriately called Universal or Perennial Religion–a complex system of multiple, endlessly particular and subjective liberatory spiritualities.

    What you call “asexual” reaches me this morning as an additional facet/term to the mystic/spiritual passion and celibacy called “brahmacharya,” a Sanskrit term little understood in the English language, for something that I am writing on Indian enlightened women.

    This morning as I looked further into Irigaray’s intersubjectivity, and into poststructuralism, to make sense about the ways in which Indian spirituality traditions had seeped into the fabric of Western academic discourse in recognizable but covert ways, so typical of the colonial “subject’s” tendencies to appropriate the “object” but unacceptable in feminists works aiming at deconstructing the language of interlocking systems of oppression, I came across the tensions and contributions among Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray.

    You may find this of interest to your research to emplace asexuality into the dominant Euro-androcentric constructs of the topic of sex. For me, the discussion on Irigaray and Butler opened up a desire to see a more inclusive–Global?–discussion about the stories on gender across the three bodies (a “Hindu” construct meaning body, mind and spirit) and not only on what I consider an unfortunate narcissistic obsession with the physical body on the top of a hierarchic agreement. I believe that in order to deconstruct the gender and sex issue we need to put the body in a lower rung from “abstractions” like ethics, intelligence, identity, desires, the ability to discern for the good of self and Self within the perception of a continuum or uninterrupted connection with the “other.”
    http://sexgendernature.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/feminists-judith-butler-and-luce-irigaray/

    Irigaray admits to having studied Indian spiritual traditions, philosophy, cultures and psychology. Without a story to support the formative and performative…. , J Butler refutes the biological accounts of binary sex, which comes very close to what is found in gods, goddesses and enlightened men and women in India, who through the deliberate discipline of “brahmacharya” (which has been inaccurately translated as “celibacy” in English–while it is impossible to translate a term from a high context language like Sanskrit into a low context language like English in only one word–referrence to Edward Hall high/low context cultures theory).

    What I mean to say is that as long as we do not call to account Western postmodern theories which have subverted or appropriated from the “other,” be it Eastern, Middle-Eastern, foreign, or India’s in this case, we might be missing a significant opportunity to deepen and expand our horizons in feminist spirituality. Disregarding and distorting intellectual contributions from the past without applying the same academic rigor for citation and references in an era of globalization, can keep Western theorists and spirituality scholars stuck in the neverending thrill of “discovering” new theories without resolving or bridging chasms which have already been bridged in other “exotic” philosophies (from where some renown Western philosophers like Heidegger, Derrida, Focault have “borrowed,” and a significant new theories and academic programs have stemmed) keeps academics exclusively informed by Eurocentric and Christian social constructs spinning around the same limiting patriarchal constructs we have internalized–something like only working with a nail and a hammer.

    In addition to your contribution in exquisite artistic narrative. For a constructive critical analysis of much that is lacking in our analysis of terminology, I believe that we need to look beyond the Eurocentric texts. I am delighted to discover how Chakravarti Spivak emerged as a force with all the normative, formative and performative tools that she inherited from her Mother country to interpret Derrida… but as a non-spiritualist, her narrative stops where Indian spiritual philosophies can take us further into bridging normal to paranormal to supernormal gaps in propioperception from body, gender, mind, the invisible force some like call spirit or Goddess/God.

    I apologize if this is longer than a response engaging with your powerful story, I felt a refreshing breeze of synchronicity between your views about “asexual” and my experience of sensual, erotic celibacy. I used to understand asexual as insentient, and found your arguments fascinating because I am writing something about an Indian enlightened queen who crosses gender lines outside of the scope/scrutiny of society. Yours In Goddess, Vrinda

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    • Yes, it is difficult not to be curious about what, for instance, Indian religious and cultural practices offer on these topics. I have considered such texts and rituals, but I will have to look more into the one you mention. I just want to be careful to articulate that I am not seeing asexuality as something contributing to a more spiritual life, but instead that allowing ourselves to have agency in our (a)sexuality (for those whom this applies) is salvific.

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  4. brahmacharya— Isn’t this what Gandhi did with young girls? And I’d call this patriarchal “practice” into question.

    This article is long over due I’d say. Women need to be free to very clearly define our own sexuality, and we need to get as far away from anything the male says about sex. We really don’t know fully what women want, when the world is defined in terms of PIV (penis in vagina) as sex to begin with.

    The legend of Mary is full of these lovely contradictions, but my bottom line is always, what is the punishment for women who get pregnant out of wedlock (read male sexual ownership) in ancient Israel? Stoning, death. How would a young woman of marriagable age escape that fate? And you might get at the origins of the virgin birth myth.

    That said, asexuality is as valid a sexual expression as the obsessive focus on genital sex.
    It is the woman who defines exactly what is her highest and best self within this.

    And I feel, as my outsider status dictates, that the heterosexual social construct is very limiting for women. Within lesbian culture, we have always had sexual relationships with women, but also, equally important, we have had deep and abiding romantic friendships with women that don’t involve sex at all. If we escape the traps of modern society, and follow the call of lesbian integrity, which means not giving in to heteronormative behavior in any way at all, this asexual lesbian community is a source of great erotic power.

    I’d say, because of the toxic waste dump known as male produced pornography and porn media, that even the sacred romantic sexuality of lesbians gets co-opted.

    All women deserve to create sexuality in our own image, in what serves us best. And anything that decenters genital sexual relations as women define this, is one of the most radical and life changing possibilities out there.

    Lashelle, you are onto something.

    The male sexual takeover of the world, and the ownership of women’s bodies by men contaminates all of us. We have a right to be free of this, and to have a grand life of our own making… free of everything but our own deepest desires… free of childbearing, free of birth control, free of pressure to have sex with men. All heterosexually married women have a right to completely reject PIV as a sexual practice, for example. Men could sign contracts stating this. Now wouldn’t that change things!

    We should ideally have the freedom of safety…. which all lesbians have. We can be within women only space, free of the male gaze, free of their rapist minds, free of their toxic pornified souls. I have no fear at all being in a woman’s home or apartment late at night, talking quite intimately. There will be no rape or coersion, but women who go to some man’s house late at night are rape bait, and the police and public will say so. So this romantic freedom within lesbian context is the assexual as well.

    And what if women want no definition at all, what if women want an assexual power, for as the legend goes, Mary was free of all PIV, and was the only woman who could escape this fate. When childbirth means death, to have PIV with a husband meant that men define sex as their power over women. Every time a man gets a woman pregnant, he actually threatens her life and health, and no men really think about this do they? Their sexual pleasure comes first. I think men actually get off on this, and take great sadistic delight in getting women pregnant.

    Assexuality within theology would be a powerful force to challenge all of this.

    It would get us off the genital obsessions that have even invaded lesbian life. In this day and age, the very powerful romantic friendships I have with women now get misread as sexual relationships. In years past this never was the case. You might say this is a lesbian loss of our own garden of eden.

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    • Your response is very powerful. I feel the same stirrings reading it as when I read Boston Marriages. To validate romantic, but asexual, relationships, and also, paradoxically, to expand what sex means (I feel as if I have engaged in such erotic musings despite how others might disagree) can only expand what are possible, livable ways of being. I simply long to create the safety that you suggest.

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    • I found a lot to make me thoughtful in your post, but from my personal life, I worried quite a lot about my wife’s health when we first discussed having a child (I broke down in tears shaking during our first discussion about it). Not that every generalization has to cover every case, though, I know. My feelings might not be common (I hope they are, but…)

      I would despise a man who was callous enough to look forward to his partner’s pain and suffering during childbirth (so, glad I didn’t have to know the awful person who wrote that passage in the Christian Bible’s Genesis, where the male God curses Eve — and could that passage still be twisting our culture? I hope not but I’m not going to the kind of church that would preach on that.)

      I really feel struck by the safety you feel with women, and I have to say envious; most of my fears for the safety of my loved ones (male and female) are from possible threats by other males.

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  5. Thank you for bringing asexuality to the discussion table. It’s so often ignored and/or misunderstood. I’m a non-theist, but I find your queer/asexual reading to be very interesting, and a poignant example of how people of faith connect with traditional religious icons/figures in non-traditional ways.

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  6. Turtle Woman, Gandhi’s transgressions on brahmacharya have stuck to the minds of those loaded with colonial sentiments against Indian spiritual culture and choose to define mystic, erotic freedom from objectivization in terms of someone who achieved political fame. Unfortunately, your comment reflects the prevalent sentiment in Westerners. However, it is shallow and misinformed. You may want to look into Anandamayi Ma, Ammachi Ma, Ma Yogashakti… Sri Ramana Maharshi, and brahmacharya as siddhi in the lives of Indian saints. When people called Gandhi “Mahatma” it was a passionate reaction to one who was instrumental in ending colonial power in India. Great soul or mahatma was not attached to Gandhi as a thoughtful, well discerned appellative, it was more as an emotional response in gratitude for his courage, vision and spiritual charisma to unite the people in one country (later two). The Sanskrit term brahmacharya has been around for over 30,000 years, it relates to sublimation of that energy force which has the power to create human beings, or when properly restrained for a cause higher than self-serving and self-gratification, it can lead a mystic to superconscious experience. I wish that there were one woman in the world able to unite women and men with an iota of the simplicity that Ganshi achieved satyagraha. Gandhi failed in brahmacharya, and exposed himself to the mockery of others smaller than him in character and valor in his autobiography. Failing once does not mean the end of self-improvement. For practitioners of panentheism, progress in the practice of brahmacharya is the most practical way to love all humanity and not objectivize any body for self-gratification. The ideal of brahmacharya is not easily perfected by all. However it is a noble ideal achieved by a few extraordinary people.

    Undignified half-truths out of cultural context are not useful to women’s solidarity. It just exposes male bashing tendencies.

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  7. I don’t think it is male bashing to call out preditory behavior in males. These so-called “cultural” practices are about grown men sleeping with nude underage girls, there is no two ways about this. It is about male supremacy and patriarchy and is well documented in the east and west. How girls are treated and used and abused worldwide is a feminist issue, whether it happens in the U.S. with catholic priests raping children, or a so-called “saint” like Gandhi doing the same sorts of things. We know a lot more about rape and child abuse than we did when Gandhi was a live, but the “cultural” argument isn’t going to cut it in a feminist world. Calling out potential child rapists, and questionable “spiritual” male invented practices is a horror story. So don’t try to hide behind colonial fascades….. child rape and exploitation is just that. So bottom line, Gandhi is not off limits, and he didn’t liberate the women of India.
    His ideas on non-violent resistence came from British suffragists who pioneered these political tactics.

    So is it male bashing to call out brahmacharya for what it actually is? Is it male bashing to call out genital mutilation for what it is? Is it male bashing to question the global plague known as male supremacy propped up by religion? Well, who matters more, the sainted Gandhi or the little girl he is exploiting? I’ll take the little girl’s side any day as a feminist.

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  8. Turtle Woman,
    Thank you for the instructive opportunity to engage in our differences. This is not meant to convince you, it seems that you are pretty convinced. I wrote my comment in order to shed a more balanced light on the other particular examples which you chose to ignore for the sake of other readers.

    I condemn all forms of rape (whether physical or mental forms of oppressions) and human indignities.

    “to hide behind colonial fascades…”
    Gandhi was not perfect, no political figure needs to be. Rape is wrong, no woman should ever be violated in body or mind. You do not acknowledge mental rape or violations, I hope you consider the fine line and multi-directional streams between physical and mental. Gandhi experimented in ways that some male supremacist practices in his country had condoned. Those practices are not representative of the whole country, Sanatan Dharma nor of Non-dualist philosophy/spirituality, and the multifarious branches of spirituality and spiritual subjectivities promoted in India.

    I recognize how your position fits biased assumptions quite accepted by a majority of people in the US. The colonial face is no facade in India. It has given fruition to the destructive “marriage” of the corporate and scientific sectors interests’ collusion with the US for the perpetuation of the oppression of the people of that nation and many other states and non-state lands (Gaza, Guantanamo, and on another scale in Puerto Rico). India is still an ideological colony of Eurocentric epistemes. But that is another topic. A different and distinctly important form of feminism has always been practiced in India, and few western feminists have explored it. Those who did have much to contribute. During the time that I spent at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Women’s Spirituality MA Program, I was fortunate and privileged to be exposed to this emerging feminist-womanist intersubjectivity.

    “His ideas on non-violent resistence came from British suffragists who pioneered these political tactics.” You say, “he didn’t liberate the women of India.”

    Again, I am sorry to read this biased and misinformed beliefs on this. He did not have to, there have been and are many Enlightened women in India (but you, and unfortunately even some feminists, choose to ignore them–or do you feel you have nothing to learn…? I hope we can keep the conversation open because what I hope that you hope to do is to clarify biased and demeaning constructs, or “blind spots”, on a topic which seems to be unknown territory or too exotic.

    “His ideas on non-violent resistence came from British suffragists who pioneered these political tactics.”

    Again you speak like a white supremacist and Eurocentric feminist–Audre Lorde and bell hooks come to mind. Have you read the Patanjali Sutras (they are a spiritualist, psychic, psychology and political treatise— the first theory on Complex Systems put into text, now appropriated as a “new” Western discipline)? Have you missed on the influence that Sri Aurobindo (on whose educational principles, based on Patanjali, the California Institute of Integral Studies was founded)… the influence that Sri Aurobindo had on Gandhi? Please check out the influence that Swami Vivekananda had on the revolutionary and saint Sri Aurobindo and on Gandhi?

    I am and have been open to put past narrow constructs through a mill or what in Indian philosophy is called viveka/vairagya, Sanskrit for spiritual analysis or discernment, what postmodern thinkers have “found” in deconstructing (intensely influenced by their readings of Indian texts)–but not in the service of Western utilitarian, Euro and egocentric, white supremacist views. I keep seeing the appropriation in the name of racism and prejudice against the contributions of the people of India, by those who essentialize the same example that you use to debase Gandhi. Using an individual tragedy like sexual misconduct, as a blanket statement over the spiritual traditions of a country about which you obviously know little.

    All sexual misconduct is WRONG! And rape is a crime of the lowest kind. That Gandhi and others like him have done WRONG does not reduce the man or the women involved to only their sexual functions. I understand that US cultural mores are too oversexed, perhaps that is why what you wrote reads like throwing the water with the baby.

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