Building connections through non-sexual intimacy

You can fall in love in 36 questions. That was the thesis of Mandy Len Catron’s widely-read “Modern Love” New York Times essay, in which she tested psychologist Arthur Aron's experiment to see if he could make two people fall in love in a lab.

The experiment requires two people to answer a range of questions about family, friendship, memories and more. There’s nothing inherently sexual about these questions. In fact, these questions allow for people to connect intimately in general.

“Although that was framed in terms of a romantic relationship, there’s actually nothing about them that particularly has to fall in that context,” said Carrie Jenkins, a philosophy professor at UBC who specializes in the philosophy of love.

She said this experiment is one way to foster non-sexual intimacy with people in your life.

What is non-sexual intimacy?

Non-sexual intimacy is any intimacy that doesn’t include sexual acts, such as physical, emotional and intellectual intimacy.

Physical intimacy includes any kind of non-sexual touch, such as hugging and cuddling. Emotional intimacy can involve divulging personal experiences or feelings to another person.

Finally, there’s intellectual intimacy, which Jenkins defined as trading and working through ideas together, and stimulating each other intellectually.

What are the benefits of non-sexual intimacy?

Jenkins said non-sexual intimacy, and intimacy in general, are essential to combatting loneliness.

“[Loneliness] is actually very bad for people in terms of mental and also physical health, and it can affect all kinds of things like life expectancy,” she said.

In her research, Jenkins studies meaning in people’s lives. She’s found that a lot of meaning can come from emotional connections with other people.

“[Through intimacy,] we are able to form connections with one another that enable us to make meaning out of those connections and out of our own lives,” she said. “None of that has anything to do with sex.”

Touch hunger, which has become more prevalent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, can be addressed through physical forms of non-sexual intimacy.

“There are real benefits for our health and wellbeing of being intimate with other people, psychologically, emotionally and physically, but that doesn’t have to be sexually,” said Jenkins.

Non-sexual intimacy can happen outside of a romantic relationship

Amatonormativity refers to the idea that everyone should be seeking an “exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship.” Elizabeth Brake, who coined the term, argues that this results in people overlooking the value in other types of caring relationships.

Jenkins said that people can search for non-sexual intimacy outside of a romantic relationship.

“One of the things that I think we’ve tended, culturally [and] socially, to do over the last few hundred years is try to bundle [all kinds of intimacy] together and get the sense that one person has to do or provide or be all of those things, and that should be your one romantic partner.”

Physical, emotional and intellectual intimacy can all be present in friendships, something that Jenkins said shouldn’t be overlooked, especially since some people don’t look for or have a romantic relationship.

But boundaries still exist with non-sexual intimacy

Just like sexual intimacy, consent matters when it comes to non-sexual intimacy.

Jenkins said establishing boundaries and consent for non-sexual intimacy should be done in a similar way to sexual intimacy. She emphasized the need for clear communication, and making offers, rather than requests for non-sexual intimacy.

“Offer to spend time with someone rather than asking them to spend time with you,” Jenkins said. ” Make it available to a person rather than asking them to give something to you.” ❦

This article is part of Intimacy, The Ubyssey’s 2022 sex issue. You can read more here.