Intimacy Guide

Being cognizant of our intimacy needs and how we are comfortable expressing our intimacy can make our relationships smoother. However, along with our needs, we also have privileges associated with our sexuality. Our needs and privilege are constantly intersecting and providing us with a framework that we are living with. Understanding these can provide us with insights of where we draw our strengths.

SocMed Caption: TW: Mention of & discussion about sex.

Do you folx also feel the pressure to have healthy queer relationships despite only having been exposed to heteronormative messages on-screen and in real life? Loving relationships with space for hard, uncomfortable conversations, when it seems like you have barely given yourself the chance to explore your boundaries for your body, mind and other parts of yourself? Are you also baffled when real-life sex with the person(s) you love does not align with how movies like to portray it?

Sex educators @puppyvedi and @sangyaproject have put together this Intimacy Guide of sorts that will help you have this conversation with yourself as well as your intimate other(s). Do share what it brings up for you in the comments – we’d love to hear from you!

What is sexuality?

Sexuality is the holistic term for someone’s sexual preferences, values, behaviours, attraction and more. Most of the time, sexuality is spoken of in terms of binaries – heterosexual versus homosexual or male versus female though increasingly, the discourse is becoming aware that people can experience their sexualities in a myriad of ways.

What is intimacy?

Intimacy can be understood as closeness between two or more people. This closeness could be physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual or any other form that you deem important. Intimacy is often understood as being present only in romantic relationships. But romantic relationships can exist without intimacy and intimate relationship can exist without sex / romance.

A part of a healthy relationship includes the feeling of trust, belongingness and ability to be vulnerable. This also means that within a safe, healthy intimate relationship you are able to be yourself, express your needs and feel wanted in ways you are comfortable with.

In context of one’s sexuality, your need for intimacy in a way that you find comfortable can be expressed and met. You too meet someone else’s need for intimacy in ways that you find comfortable with.

Intimacy is the polar opposite of violence, toxicity and cannot in spaces that are abusive. Given that intimacy can exist in so many different ways within our lives, intimacy can be experienced with many people in our lives. One can experience the closeness, vulnerability with friends, family, chosen family, coworkers and more. During the pandemic, people often experienced what can be called skin hunger or touch starvation. This is because intimacy can be considered a biological need.

Being cognizant of our intimacy needs and how we are comfortable expressing our intimacy can make our relationships smoother. However, along with our needs, we also have privileges associated with our sexuality. Our needs and privilege are constantly intersecting and providing us with a framework that we are living with. Understanding these can provide us with insights of where we draw our strengths.

Making sense of my own intimacy

How one experiences intimacy is highly subjective. We try to make sense of our intimacies in various ways. Remember those ‘5 signs that he’s into you’ articles? Weren’t they all about intimacy?

Here are a few questions that you can ask to make sense of how you experience and express intimacy:

  1. What are the ways in which you like to show affection?

2. How do you know when you like someone?

3. How do you feel when you are attracted to someone?

4. When someone is attracted to you, what are the things that you would like them to say or do?

5. How would you like to hold space for a friend who is going through a rough time?

6. How would you like a friend to hold space for you?

7. Do you like being touched and/or hugged? Who can hug you? Who can’t hug you?

What are the parts of your body that is okay for a stranger to touch you while talking?

What are the parts of your body that is okay for a friend to touch you while talking?

What are the parts of your body that your partner can touch you while talking?

Does this change if it’s in public?

How do you like resolving conflict or have difficult conversations?

How would you like your friends / partners to bring up difficult topics?

What are your triggers and how would you like to communicate them to your friends / partners?

Breaking out of the Charmed Circle to redefine intimacy

What’s the Charmed Circle and what does it have to do with intimacy, you ask?

Well, if you pay close attention, everything.

First introduced in her 1984 essay “Thinking Sex”, Gayle Rubin theorises a Charmed Circle which assigns hierarchical valuation to varying sex acts and splits the wide spectrum of human sexuality into two broad binaries- one that is driven by ideas of romantic love, marriage, and reproduction, therefore seen as ‘good’, and the second that is driven by ideas of individual autonomy and liberation, also seen as ‘bad’ and placed outside the circle of ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviour.

While the language used here is specific to sexual acts and sexual relationships alone, it’s important that we observe the magnitude of ‘othering’ that individuals might face for falling in the outer circle. Who decides what behaviours fall in this inner circle of ‘good behaviour’? Who decides what relationships are valid and which ones aren’t?

More importantly, does this bifurcation lead to social isolation and moral policing alone, or does it pour into the language used in everyday court proceedings, healthcare and public policy, as well as infrastructure, thus acting as a tool for legal and medical ostracisation of some identities over others? And what does this mean for people who belong to castes that are already marginalised, or neurodivergent people whose needs are already seen as an afterthought or an ‘exception’ to the rule?

And in a world that’s intricately designed to accommodate some identities more than others, what does the power of touch, physical contact, vulnerability and emotional proximity really mean for people from the queer community, who often build stronger bonds outside their birth families and must rebuild their pack from scratch?

In an interview with TK Smith for Art Papers, artist Diedrick Brackens says, “I would like to imagine that I could be intimate with a broad range of folks who don’t identify as queer, in the same way that I would be with people who do. That’s a very complicated space to access, especially with other men.”

When queerness, queer friendships and queer love can be so complicated, can intimacy really look identical for us all? Can intimacy, affection and the full extent of human connection only really be experienced in conventional, romantic relationships?

In Christina Tesoro’s piece on Reimagining Intimacy, sex educator C. Kai adds, “I think our society typically views intimacy as a connection that comes from sex, when in fact it’s about the intention and energy you create with the loves in your life. It’s also incredibly helpful for me to have platonic intimacy because then I feel like I’m not seeking romantic connections out of skin hunger or filling a void. [Platonic intimacy] means showing up equally in my platonic relationships as I do in my romantic ones. I want my friends to feel supported by me and to build relationships that are sustainable and have longevity.” Tesoro also speaks to Ariel, a stripper, who says, “I am a hugely tactile person and I’m also a very intimate person so platonic intimacy with my friends and my family is a huge part of my life. It shows up in a variety of different ways: there’s lots of cuddling, sleeping in the same bed, spooning, hair stroking, hand holding, that kind of thing.”

Ariel is not unique in these demonstrations of affection and comfort. As people who are at high risk of enduring verbal, physical and emotional violence in spaces that claim to be safe for all (eg. birth homes, schools, hospitals, etc.), we often discover our true desires by wading our way into spaces and communities that might better understand us. Between receiving disproportionate access to quality medical services, standing up to families, guardians and other authoritative adults, to seeking legal support through situations that most of our ‘inner circle’ peers might never face, many of us only really experience safety, support and true acceptance after branching away from our birth families and finding people who are… more like ourselves. And when you finally encounter people who are more like you, who breathe, sleep, and live like you, can your connections to them really be restricted to romantic and/or sexual forms alone?

So where do we safely navigate these varied forms of intimacy when accessing our community and finding our own people can be such a daunting challenge? How do we access true intimacy  when our society pedestalizes the concept only when it occurs within the confines of a legal marriage? Do we erase our queerness to better fit in with this self-determined inner circle? Or do we start holding them accountable for the countless lives already lost to ‘conversion therapy’, institutional violence and systemic erasure? How do we ensure that the stories of Anjana Harish and Professor Siras do not fade into oblivion and turn cherished members of our communities into yet another statistic?

In a broken system that’s determined to quantify an individual’s worth by assessing their willingness to conform to the beliefs of ‘the inner circle’, maybe intimacy isn’t necessarily just about sexual connection or touch. Maybe intimacy to you, is about calling for a cup of chai for your friend because you know they’re about to come down with a cold. Maybe intimacy is about sending your sibling or colleague a picture of a plant that you walked past because it reminded you of them. Maybe intimacy is about finding a space where you and your chosen family can drown out the sounds of traffic with your combined laughter alone, or dedicating a weekly/monthly time slot for online interactions with people in your life who you might otherwise struggle to spend quality time with.

Maybe true intimacy is about examining the Charmed Circle and unlearning everything it implies about your right to build healthy, consensual, and intimate connections, so you can finally discover what the word truly means to you.

About the author

Tejaswi Subramanian

Tejaswi is journalist and researcher whose attention is captured by post-colonial human relationships at a time of the Internet of Things. She can't wait to become a full-time potter soon, though!