Romance ≠ Sex

May the gods grant me patience because I am incredibly sick of the implication that because two (or more) people are in a romantic relationship that necessitates the relationship also be sexual.

This came up when I was doing research into people’s opinions on the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale in Good Omens, categorized as “special friendship” and “bromance” and a “platonic love story” according to one Forbes article. Look, I get it, that with the case of this particular Angel and Demon their relationship is nebulous and hard to define because they are more than men. Their relationship is beyond comprehension and understanding and their perspective beyond what we can hardly grasp in terms of what they mean to one another. That bond is so incredibly tight that they are undoubtedly more than friends. That cannot be argued. They are each other’s everything. They are most definitely a couple.

Let’s be honest, what people are really arguing over here, is whether or not Crowley and Aziraphale have sex.[1]

To be honest, this question doesn’t interest me so much as it annoys me, and here is why: there is an idea that for a relationship between two people to be legitimate and recognized, there have to be sexy times. You’ve probably heard of it in the term “consummation of marriage.” The annulment between King Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves went much simpler than the annulment between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon not only because good ol’ Henry had since ditched Catholicism but also because their marriage was unconsummated — they never had sex, so they weren’t really married.

When I was writing my capstone paper this past Spring I uncovered some queer themes in the Vita Prima Brigitae, one of the Lives of Saint Brigit, which was transcribed in Latin around the 9th century. There was a lot of queerness to unpack in this particular life, but the main thread was the close relationship between Brigit and Darlugdach, to whom Brigit was a mentor. A few different chapters in the Life demonstrate this, but the relevant one to this case is in chapter 97, wherein Darlugdach has a “tryst” with a man, with whom she had mutual desire, but then departs from him to sleep in Brigit’s bed, and the guilt and fear she feels makes her get up, pray to God, and burn her feet with coals as a punishment.  She then confesses to Brigit in the morning, not realizing that Brigit had observed her the night before. Brigit praises her and heals her so that there is no trace of burning and accepts her back wholeheartedly. When I first articulated this in my paper my advisor helpfully wrote in the margin that “sometimes people just sleep in their beds.” Well, yes, they do sleep in their beds, without having sex, with their intimate partners who are more than just friends. Things can be romantic, without being sexual. I want to be clear that I don’t blame my advisor for the assumption she made that I was implying they also had a sexual relationship, because the fact of the matter is that I think it can be argued that they may well have, but that is another argument, which I shall save for another day.[2]

Moving beyond my own research interests, and back to the Ineffable Husbands, I was actually pleased to see the general acceptance of the fact that the two of them are in such a close relationship; I just wish it wasn’t with so many qualifiers. While I did criticize it earlier, I don’t actually have a problem with calling the relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley a platonic love story, as long as the romantic aspect is also acknowledged. What I don’t appreciate is the conflation of the idea that because the relationship is platonic it is only a friendship and not a romantic relationship.

Love, sex, and relationships are complicated, and not everyone goes about them and/or thinks about them in exactly the same way. So it makes sense that when we consider fictional characters or historical figures we paint our expectations around these things onto them. That’s a treacherous tightrope to walk on however, because when we encounter people who don’t conceptualize things in the same way that we do that’s where conflict arises.

It may seem like a simple thing when it comes to fictional characters — and for the most part it is. The question of whether or not Crowley and Aziraphale are lovers in the physical sense doesn’t (on the surface) have much to do with anyone in the real world. That said, their representation manifests in the real world in a way such that they do have a very real effect. Fiction changes people, in ways both good and bad, and to ignore its effects does a disservice and can be dangerous. Without accounting for the ways in which fiction changes people there is a major contributor to patterns of behavior that gets ignored.

Fiction helps build empathy for people with different experiences and backgrounds, and it can be used to develop and refine the conceptual frameworks we use to understand the world.  Fictional relationships like Crowley and Aziraphale’s provide a lens with which to look at relationships in the real world, and thus provide a way to understand relationships that may be unfamiliar to a reader or viewer who does not have experience with those relationships. The problem comes from when the person who is unfamiliar tries to paint the familiar model on to a relationship that does not fit into that schema. That is to say, not every person fits in to the same shiny box, and not every romantic relationship needs to include sex. So, for me at least, when I am faced with the question BROTP or OTP? I have to say that the answer is a resounding Yes.



[1] I am not unaware of the beautiful and wonderful amount of people within the Good Omens community who wholeheartedly embrace the idea of Crowley and Aziraphale as aro or ace partners. I am totally down with that school of thinking. This post is more a response to people outside of that, who fall into the problematic line of thinking I have described above. I use the Ineffable Husbands as an example precisely because there is so much support for them and the subtext is functionally text, and thus it is within their relationship that my argument is strongest.

[2] For those interested, this is the footnote I used in the paper: “It is entirely possible, and indeed plausible, that the two were sharing the bed in a non-sexual way. Intimate relationships do not need to be sexual to be meaningful, and given the general shame felt around sexual activities it would make sense for them not to be in a sexual relationship, even if they were in an intense and loving emotional relationship. That said, the text does not rule out the possibility of them having a sexual relationship, and in fact, as my later analysis of chapter 94 of the Vita Prima indicates, the text contains details that specifically encourage such an interpretation. Whether or not the relationship was sexual, however, I maintain that they had a close emotional relationship.”

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