A year ago today, I completed my Master’s degree, which I dedicated to exploring the theme of romance from an asexual perspective. This article offers a simplified summary of my research and applies it to one of my favourite T.V. shows. It originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of AVENues. I have added the bibliography.
For more on my experience as a Master’s student, see “Asexuality and Academia: My Awesome Year of Grad School”.
Scully loves Mulder, and Mulder loves Scully. It’s a wonderful romance. It’s just not a sexual romance. It’s not a physical romance. It is a caring, tender, respectful relationship. It’s an ideal.
– Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files
“What is Romance?” That was the question I spent a year trying to answer as I worked through my M.A. in English. The question came partly out of my undergraduate English classes, where the words “romance”, “romantic”, and “romanticism” kept popping up all over the place. But it also came out of personal experiences, like being told by my best friend that I shouldn’t expect too much of him because we weren’t in a “romantic” relationship. Huh, I wondered, what did he mean by “romantic”? I’d certainly known him longer than any of his recent girlfriends; shown just as much commitment to him; and shared at least as high a level of emotional intimacy. Did he just mean that I’d never had sex with him? Was that all “romance” was? Sex?
From the way modern people talk, you could certainly think so. “Sex” and “romance” are so intertwined that the words have become almost synonymous. Yet this has not always been the case. The word “romance” has a history that is long and complicated, and has carried a wide variety of definitions. Excavating these historical meanings may allow us to understand the word differently.
Let’s start at the beginning. “Romance” comes from a French word meaning “a language derived from Latin”. (“Latin” > “Roman” > “romance” – get it?) At first, it meant the French language, but then it also came to mean French literature. By the time it entered English in the 14th century, the word meant a particular kind of French literature: stories of knights, ladies, and chivalry. These stories had many themes: courage, honour, justice, loyalty, etc., but they also dealt with a particular kind of love, known as “courtly love”.
Courtly love occurred between a man and a woman, and was decidedly sexual. The most famous example is the adulterous relationship between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, first described by Chrétien de Troyes. However, courtly love has many distinctive features not directly linked to sex. It is authoritarian, governing the lovers’ actions and accepting no disobedience. It is comforting, and gives the lovers courage to face great dangers. It is exclusive, and can only be felt for one person at a time. It is also isolating, setting the lovers apart from the rest of society. These qualities could all theoretically be part of non-sexual relationships – and there are even some medieval romances in which they are!
Over the next four centuries, the definition of “romance” expanded to mean any story that was fanciful, exciting, or unrealistic, but it still referred to a type of story rather than a type of love. “Romantic” similarly meant fantastic, sentimental, or idealistic. It wasn’t until the 18th century that people started applying “romantic” to love – but even then it meant only an idealised kind of love, and could refer to either sexual love or friendship.
Then there’s “Romanticism”, a movement in 18th– and 19th-century literature and art that emphasised emotion over order. Romantic poets include people like Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats, while Romantic music was written by people like Beethoven, Chopin, and Wagner. Again, sexual love might be a theme for these artists, but they were just as likely to write about nature, God, or heroism.
If you want evidence that “romance” meant something very different two hundred years ago, just consider Jane Austen. Today, Austen is seen as one of the greatest romance writers of all time – yet she herself uses the word “romance” disparagingly. In Austen, “romantic” characters are those who have unrealistic expectations of life, love, and marriage. Austen is critical of these characters, and instead rewards those who are practical and down-to-earth.
Being anti-“romance” doesn’t mean being anti-love, however. Instead, Austen’s most successful marriages are “companionate”, reflecting the growing belief that marriage should be an egalitarian relationship similar to friendship. Over time, this companionship would become integral to our concept of romantic love.
As marriage began to look more like friendship, friendship began to resemble marriage. This is particularly true of the Victorian “romantic friendship”. Romantic friendships were intense bonds between members of the same sex that tended to form in youth, often in school settings. Often seen as closer to marriages than to regular friendship, they were characterised by passionate feeling and emotional expressiveness.
This might seem strange to anyone who thinks of the Victorians as uptight, stuffy, or emotionally repressed. Certainly, the Victorians had very strict rules about sexual expression. And yet within these rules there was a great deal of freedom to express non-sexual love. Same-sex friends could write passionate love-letters, exchange locks of hair, sleep in the same bed, and even live together – because none of this behaviour was seen as sexual!
That all changed at the end of the century. Freud taught us to see sex in everything. The Oscar Wilde trials proved how dangerous having the “wrong” sexuality could be. With increasing awareness of homosexuality came pressure to abstain from any act that might be perceived as homosexual. Increasingly, a relationship could either be a (sexual) romance, or a (platonic) friendship. “Romantic friendship” dropped out of use.
In the 20th century, “romance” became almost exclusively associated with sex. Gradually, the rules around sexual expression relaxed, and we celebrated our new sexual freedom. Yet, in terms of platonic expression, we remained quite restrained. In some ways, we were as uptight as the Victorians. They could accept same-sex intimacy as long as it wasn’t sexual; we could accept same-sex intimacy as long as it was. The romantic-platonic binary remained firmly in place.
Then, in the 21st century, the asexual movement started to challenge that. Asexuals distinguish “romantic attraction” and “romantic orientation” from their sexual counterparts. Asexuals openly form relationships that are “romantic” without being sexual. Suddenly the word “romance” has been rescued from redundancy and given a new meaning. It’s not quite the meaning it had for the medievals, the Romantics, or even the Victorians. But it offers us a way to understand romance that isn’t limited to sex, and a way to experience it that isn’t confined to sexual relationships.
So what is romance? How does it differ from friendship? Which relationships qualify and which ones don’t?
Even after a year of work, I still don’t have an answer. There’s no one definition of romance that a relationship either fits or doesn’t. Perhaps the best we can do with a given relationship is to compare it to other romances and look for similarities.
Let me give a fictional example that helped to shape my adolescent views on relationships: on The X-Files, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were FBI agents who investigated paranormal phenomena – and also shared an unusually close friendship. Now, anyone who’s watched the show in the past fifteen years (I haven’t) knows that these characters did, eventually, enter a sexual relationship. But for the first five seasons (in my opinion, the only ones worth watching) the relationship was completely platonic. Was it still a romance even when they were “just” friends?
Well, let’s return to medieval romance and the characteristics of courtly love. Is Mulder and Scully’s friendship authoritarian, comforting, exclusive, and isolating? Absolutely! They regularly risk their lives for each other. They make it clear that they trust each other – and only each other – completely. When they are reassigned to separate divisions, they continue to seek each other out and resist working with any new partner. Their shared sense of purpose is once described as foli à deux, “a madness shared by two”.
How about Victorian romantic friendship? Mulder and Scully aren’t as effusive as the Victorians, but they do occasionally give monologues praising each other’s virtues. When one of them gets sick, the other is always right at their bedside, a common image in Victorian literature. While they don’t live together, they have the keys to each other’s apartments. Mulder even enjoys a good relationship with Scully’s mom.
Does that make it an asexual romantic relationship? Not if you think those relationships are limited to asexual people. But maybe they’re not. History suggests that romance without sex was available to a variety of people in a variety of periods. Maybe it still can be.
Romantic friends, platonic lovers, asexual romantic partners, lovers without benefits. Call them what you will, people are sharing romance without sex all over the place. They don’t get a lot of recognition as yet, but that’s because most people still have a narrow, 20th-century understanding of romance.
Let’s change that.
- Krueger, Roberta L. (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Jaeger, C. Stephen. The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.
- Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
- Oulton, Carolyn W. de la L. Romantic Friendship in Victorian Literature. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2007.