“So you say they’re your partner but you don’t have sex. And you don’t identify as Asexual. So.. you’re basically friends..?”, I hear them ask someone, opening up about their relationship. Apart from the vastly inappropriate line of questioning, it gets me thinking of how we define “love” and “relationships” and when and how this definition got inseparable from sexual intimacy.
Let's look at what love does to our brain at the neurological level. An experiment conducted by anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues at Stony Brook University in New York state put 37 people who were in love into an MRI scanner. Their work showed that romantic love causes a surge of activity in brain areas that are rich in dopamine, the brain’s feel good chemical. These included the caudate nucleus, part of the reward system, and an ancient brain area called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA. “[The VTA] is part of the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, motivation, focus and craving,” Fisher said in a 2014 talk on the subject. Similar brain areas light up during the rush of euphoria after taking cocaine.
Sure, the “want” and the “craving” is likely to translate to sexual intimacy, more often than not, but is the sexual intimacy the only measure of the said “want” and “craving”? Is it not love when you feel their absence and crave to have them near you? When you wish to build a home with them? When you don’t feel joy to its fullest till such time as it is shared with them? But this looks a lot like “platonic” relationships or even friendships, some will say. Sure, it does. But is there really a hard boundary between the two as we’re conditioned to believe?
I do not speak of asexuality here. As someone who doesn’t identify as asexual at all, I’ve had romantic relationships involving varying degree of sexual intimacy, from none to even non-stop sex all day and its never been the only indicator of my feelings for my partners.
The issue with the way we’ve been conditioned to think about relationships and sex is that it derives its validity from fitting into a mould. And moulds are binary. You either fit, or you don’t. A relationship is either monogamous or it isn’t a relationship at all. You’re either a man or a woman. It’s love if there is sex, otherwise its merely friendship. Emotions, however, rarely follow these binary definitions, which, let's face it, are set only for the sole purpose of having some control.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert on love. Or sex. Or anything in between. But I do think that it's naïve to try and define a concept as complicated as love into a tight little mould, outside of which lies platonic friendship. What is love, if not the gradation of friendship? Isn’t friendship the very crux of a relationship culminating from love?
But what about sexual intimacy? Or the lack thereof? Apart from the dopamine chase of the earth shattering, romance novel level orgasms that we all crave so much, it’s but an expression of affection. To say that love can't exist in the absence of this particular form of expression, only reduces the perception of love to a crass primal level. Afterall, love isn’t non-negotiable for sexual intimacy. We’ve all had flings and casual relationships or just good old random hook-ups without associating sex with love. If sex is allowed to exist and be valid without love, then surely, love cannot be invalidated by the absence of sex.
Not to forget, the tapering sexual intimacy in long term relationships which is a fact both well known, and well researched. The love and the relationship in these scenarios are hardly ever questioned, and rightly so. Surely, sex three times a week for 20 minutes each can’t possibly define the depth of a relationship. I would go so far as to say that it’s the lack of friendship in a relationship that invalidates love and not the lack of sex.
Love is several things. Often complicated. While friendship forms an integral part of love and relationships, sexual intimacy is but one of the ways in which love is expressed. And definitely not the one in the absence of which a relationship loses its validity.
Though the intellectual debate on what does and does not form a part of a relationship is really just that. An intellectual debate. Afterall, who is anybody to question when two people identify as being in a relationship, sex or no sex? But it is important to understand that sex, love and relationships are concepts that do not come in one size fits all. These are entirely subjective to our own perspectives on life. The best we can do is accept that these are different for different people. That, and steering clear of questioning people on what goes on in their bedrooms.