What’s a Body to Do? The Place of Beauty and the Body in Non-Sexual Loves

Editor’s note: Deanna Briody, a guest contributor, has a Masters in Church History and Theology from Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. She currently serves as the Graduate Writing Tutor and Facilitator of Partnerships at Trinity.

“Are you gay?” Too many people have asked. Growing up, the question upset me, as it flowered—not out of any expressed sexual longing for women—but out of my observable preference for basketball shorts over skinny jeans, sports over The Bachelor, and persistent, stubborn boyfriend-less-ness over the more common (though often less than tempting) boyfriend-ed-ness. Each time I answered the question with a stone-faced “No. I’m not gay,” adding a huffy “but thanks for asking,” in my head.

I wasn’t lying. I had, since puberty, experienced more or less consistent sexual desire for men, and I had never been aware of anything similar directed toward women. Late in my college years, however, a new awareness dawned on me. I began to notice the presence of something like desire in a number of my closest female friendships. I could trace it back from friend to friend and locate its beginnings early in high school. It was, as far as I could tell, a longing for closeness, a longing to know and be known in my female relationships. The more I thought about it, though, the more clearly I could see that there was something physical about the longing. I was drawn to their beauty: face, eyes, intensity of expression, though these were always accompanied by a loveliness that went deeper than skin. All the same, I desired a physical closeness to the beauty—ostensible and otherwise—that I had seen.

As I became aware of this desire filtering up through my past, I became simultaneously aware of its ongoing presence within me. I would notice myself noticing women: at weddings, at volleyball tournaments, in coffee shops and movies. It wasn’t all the time. I don’t even think it was more frequent than it had been. But now, and for the first time, it was within my powers of observation.

I assumed for a year or two that this meant I was bisexual, but I admit the word never sat well with me. It tasted wrong in my mouth, not because I didn’t believe it was an authentic description of certain people’s experience, but because it felt inaccurate when applied to myself. I wasn’t sexually attracted to women. I was physically drawn to them. I didn’t want to sleep with them, but I did want to know them. There was no category for that.

We’re living in a strange cultural moment in America. For the first time in human history, the individual is expected to define him or herself (themself, eirself, perself, etc.). While this has contributed to a decrease in the ignorance and cruelty surrounding sexual minorities, its effects on people—whatever their sexual orientation and religious convictions—have been subtly destructive. Human beings were never meant to self-define. Defining humanity has been God’s joyful duty since the beginning, when he created humankind in his own image, made them “male and female,” and offered his eternal Yes over them, declaring the whole of all he had brought into being “very good” (Gen 1:27, 31). In the world as we know it, long stripped of perfection and squandering in sin, God continues to look over humanity and speak his Word of definition over each and every life: son, daughter, beloved; lost sheep for whom I have laid down my life; creature I have risen to make new.

Self-definition, then, is an insurmountable and therefore terribly confusing task to demand of any mere mortal, the secular unchurched as much as the conservative Christian. But that’s not the only sad side-effect of the contemporary focus on sexuality. Sex has begun advertising itself as the fundamental human identity marker. You are your sexuality, and your sexuality is everything.

Intermingling with both of these currents, and just as damaging for Christian and non-Christian alike, is the hollowing of friendship and its unqualified subordination to sexual love. In contemporary consciousness, a friend is comparable to a second-hand couch: comfortable to have around, disposable upon relocation, and incomparable in importance to one’s boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. We can see the evidence of this in Christian culture all too clearly. Despite the fact that the Church has from its infancy placed immense and unprecedented value on celibacy, the contemporary Church in the West holds up marriage as the pinnacle of human experience, and looks on singleness as a pitiable and lonely state from which one should seek escape as soon as possible.

Downstream of all these currents is the particular watershed that I’ve been sputtering and stumbling through—the pool at the bottom of these cultural torrents in which every person, I think, is near-to-drowning, whether they feel the burn in their lungs or not—and that is the ex-carnation[1] of non-sexual loves. Bodies play an obvious part in sexual relationships; nothing’s changed there. In modern day non-sexual friendships, however, we may as well be ethereal spirits, or as Jamie Smith says, “brains on a stick.” Judging from our language around the topic, prescriptive and descriptive alike, same-sex friendship is not only a non-essential in life, it’s also bodiless and averse to any and all aesthetical components. If ever beauty or the body enters the scene—if a man touches another man’s face, for instance, or a woman comments on another woman’s physical grace—the suspicion is immediate: homoeroticism or homosexuality is in view.

What’s come to my attention lately is the radical here and now-ness of that conclusion. Go to Egypt, China, Iran, or Kenya. Read the Bible. Skim letter exchanges between medieval monks. Leaf through the literature of the past, even books written as few as a hundred years ago. In no other time or place will you find so stringent and exclusive a linkage between physicality and sexuality, as if sexual relationships are the only kind in which our identity as creatures—made of skin and bone and muscle—matters. Nowhere else will you find such disembodied, and such emotionally distant, loves. Between friends in other times and places, it seems embodied intimacy is the norm.

In much of Africa and Asia today, it is common to see a heterosexual man walking down the street holding hands with another man, or a heterosexual woman with another woman. The gesture is not only normal, but entirely non-sexual in how it’s intended and perceived.

In Scripture we read of David and Jonathan covenanting to protect and honor one another, for “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1). We read of their devoted friendship, their mutual self-sacrifice, and their intense parting, in which “they kissed one another and wept” (1 Sam 20:41). In the first century, Paul writes to a younger brother in the faith, Timothy, displaying a similarly fierce and embodied affection: “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy” (2 Tim 1:4).

Fast forward 1700 years or so, and you can read Jane Austen’s female characters, who are usually married and visibly in love with their husbands, observing the beauty of their female peers. “Can you imagine anything nearer perfect beauty than Emma altogether—face and figure?” Mrs. Weston says to Mr. Knightley. “Such an eye!—the true hazel eye—and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health, and…there is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance” (Emma, vol. 1, chpt. 5).

Turn a century and a half later, and you can read of Sam and Frodo on a quest together to save Middle Earth, bound in irrevocable fellowship by their journey, leaning on each other’s presence when all else is lost. “‘You have [found me] now, Sam, dear Sam,’ said Frodo,”—after a separation that had nearly ended in death—“and he lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness…. He kissed Frodo’s forehead” (The Lord of the Rings, chpt. 1, book six).

The Lord of the Rings came out in 1954, and in the eyes of the original audience, there was nothing intrinsically sexual about the intimate friendship contained in its pages. Just over sixty years later, however, American readers respond reflexively to passages like this one: Sam and Frodo must be gay.

We have so magnified sexuality, in short, that it consumes and colors all things relational. To yearn for intimacy is to want for sex. To notice beauty is to lust after it. To have a body—in any relationship apart from a sexual one—is more or less problematic.

I’m not suggesting that every Frodo has a Sam, every David a Jonathan, or every Emma a Mrs. Weston. My guess is that friendships of that intensity and level of intimacy have always been rare—present, probably more so than they are today, but still a less-than-ordinary gift. I’m not suggesting, either, that if only people could get over the cultural pressure toward disembodiment and distance, everyone would begin suddenly noticing the beauty of all people. I am suggesting, though, that the assumptions we’ve made about intimacy, beauty, and the body, are false—harming all, confusing many. I am suggesting that it isn’t wrong to long for closeness, or to notice beauty, or to express an embodied affection. When submitted to the Lordship of Christ, these ways of relating are not sinful or unnatural, nor are they ever necessarily sexual; they can, should, and inevitably do play some part in our non-sexual relationships.

I’m coming to think it is right and good to notice that someone is beautiful (whether female or male, both body and soul), and to be drawn to them because of their beauty. It is, I think, a sort of entranceway into the truth, for though our ancient rebellion has drastically marred the bright visage of humanity, it is not altogether destroyed. Human beings still are beautiful. We retain the faded memory of our created glory, imprinted in skin and soul alike. When I notice a person’s beauty, therefore, I’m recalling, in the very act of noticing, the most ancient truth about her or him. I’m acknowledging the rightness of God’s first declaration over humankind. I’m echoing his original “very good” over creation; desiring as a creature to join in communion with what remains of the “very good” around me, as I should; and coming alongside the saints and angels and all the earth, in longing for the full and final restoration of that first “very good.”

“Beauty crowds me,” wrote Emily Dickenson over a century ago. I have always loved those words, as they capture the feeling of being pressed on every side by a force which accosts both body and soul. Dickenson captured the truth of the matter, I think, whether we allow ourselves to acknowledge it or not. My hope is that we would acknowledge it. My hope it that we begin to speak (again) of these realities, to put words to them, to make room in the cultural conversation—or at the very least in the Church—for beauty and the body to make an unblushing reappearance, released from the lie of being purely aimed toward sex, and free to re-enliven all our relationships according to the vision of our Maker.

[1] I borrow the term from Michael Frost, Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement (Westmont, IL: IVP Press, 2014).

12 thoughts on “What’s a Body to Do? The Place of Beauty and the Body in Non-Sexual Loves

  1. This is an absolutely awesome piece, and largely describes where I am. I feel myself aesthetically drawn to men, and tend to be fairly conscious about my own personal presentation. I’m also much more comfortable around other men than I am around women. And my interactions with other men tend to be more collaborative than competitive, and I’m generally more open to nuance and ambiguity than most men. That said, I’ve never experienced the slightest sexual attraction to another guy. And although I like the feeling of physical release that comes with sex, I don’t tend to desire other people sexually.

    I’ve come to conclude that sexual orientation is not a very useful concept, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’ve largely settled on asexuality, such that I generally tend to develop attractions to people in other ways.

    Anyway, great piece!

  2. The thing I don’t understand about pieces like the one above is the sheer horror they express about what other people might be thinking.

    You know if you’re physically attracted to someone. If you’re not but still have a tactile relationship with that person, then by all means hold hands and hug as much as you like. If other people jump to unwarranted conclusions about the nature of your relationship, shrug your shoulders and move on. Who cares what they think or the gossip they might spread?

    One of the least attractive aspects of cultural Christianity is the social pressure to conform. Christians who should not, if they’re following the precepts of their religion, judge and condemn and spread gossip, seem to do little else but. And then they quake in terror at the idea that someone might judge, condemn and spread gossip about them.

    Why is that? Why do Christians give the impression that the only thing they care about is their reputation? Is being well-regarded by your peer group that important to you?

    • I do find that American culture as a whole tends to be fairly judgmental about these sorts of things. And it’s fairly natural to seek to avoid social judgment, even if it’s irrational and stupid. People just don’t want to deal with the hassle unnecessarily.

  3. I find it interesting that you call the sexual identity “definition”—in my own experience engaging with folks on that level, the standard use of the terms is as *descriptions*, which may or may not be permanent. This could, however, be a side effect of how my own self-description as both aromantic and asexual affects who associates with me. (Summary: I have no desire for anything other than platonic relationships.) Conflating various types of attraction and desire is, ah, extremely rude, in the asexual community.

    That said, I do agree that sexual relationships get assumed and emphasized to a harmful degree—but I’m also unconvinced it’s unique to our era, and I don’t see how it’s any different from how majority experiences and interests commonly drown out the minority, as a general life experience.

  4. Pingback: On Identity | Strength of His Might

  5. Breathtaking piece, and it explains well the shades of gray that reside when it comes to romantic attraction, kinship, friendship, and all the things in between. And I felt like that first paragraph was me.

  6. I’ve reflected on this piece a bit more. Thanks so much for publishing it. It brings up a distinction that I’ve been seeking to make within an evangelical (PCA) context for two decades. I, like the author, experience physical attractions to certain persons of the same sex. I’m also rather attentive to my own physical presentation. (I spent 5 minutes this morning deciding which snapback cap looked better with my poofy black jacket.) But this physical attraction never engenders a concomitant romantic or sexual attraction. At most, it just leads me to want to meet the other guy and assess the possibilities of spawning a friendship.

    Evangelicals, obsessed as they are with the insights of Freud, believe that all attractions are reducible to a desire for sex. When Wes sought to make the distinction between sexual and non-sexual attractions in his debate with Denny Burk a few years ago, Burk simply dismissed the distinction without debate. For Burk (and for most evangelicals), it seems, non-sexual attractions are simply disguised desires for sex. But that theory just doesn’t seem to pan out. Go to a beach in Brazil, Portugal, Italy, or Greece. It’s clear that guys in those cultures have a certain appreciation for male beauty. Even so, male homosexuality remains rare in those cultures. And surely people like me have the ability to assess our own desires with some accuracy. I’ve been captivated by the male form for as long as I can remember. Yet not once have I experienced any kind of sexual longing for another guy.

    There’s a certain obsession among evangelicals concerning the rooting out of “soft men” and “hard women.” Any departure from “biblical manhood and womanhood” is viewed in the same light as getting it on at the local gay bathhouse. Something seems to be amiss in that calculus. So, I’m thankful that this blog is giving voice to those of us who don’t experience same-sex sexual attractions, but who also don’t fit within the narrow confines of “biblical manhood and womanhood.”

  7. Oh, this really resonated with me!

    As a teen, I once got the jibe, “You need a boyfriend!” in a moment of siblingly provocation.
    (I earned that for being a grouch that day. And probably for my up-to-then-lifetime of insufferable self-importance.)
    My instant response was, “I need a boyfriend like I need a hole in the head!”
    The game where other people decide that “everyone needs to be dating” really weirded me out.

    Anyway, other stuff that resonated with me was rejoicing in others’ beauty and physical forms in non-sexual ways!
    I think sometimes we can deal with that with more openness than we do.
    Definitely not by plowing down others’ boundaries, but starting with an awareness of “where social interactions are at” in your corner of the world, and proceeding with chaste, forthright actions.

    So, stories this reminded me of.
    My memories of living in Vancouver (Canada) for 4 years after college were SO marked by loneliness. (lived in the U.S. – mostly southern U.S. – all my life before that.)

    But sometimes we were able to invite over friends, or see friends at a prayer meeting or such.
    And I remember so clearly how for the last 5 to 10 minutes of every get-together, I was anticipating the part at the end where there would be hugs.
    And I’d just act like a little kid; my delight in hugging my friends was so obvious, whether male or female.

    Another time, on a public transit bus, I just plain told another young woman that I thought she looked so beautiful.
    I think her exact words in response were, “Oh my god, you just made my day!”
    Not gonna regret that one bit.

    A couple years later, I was walking down a quiet residential street, with my firstborn son in the baby carrier against my chest, and a lady shouted across the street, “You look radiant!”
    That was 10 years ago, and I remember the sheer delight of that moment.
    The sky was full of sunlight, and this anonymous stranger walking on the other side of the street was exulting in the joy that had come to me!

    Well that’s it for my stories. (not sure who I think I am, writing all that…)
    One caveat to people thinking of doing likewise:
    I am told that in college, my default position in a group dynamic was “everyone’s little sister.”
    And that’s a very non-threatening position.
    So that’s to say I can’t advise other people to blindly do the same things as me and expect similar results. :-/

    Also, I think it’s generally much, much easier for women:
    there’s lots of streams of conversation in our culture that say it’s good for women to tell other women they look beautiful and they are valuable.

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