Time and time again, I am transfixed by the thoughts and philosophies of others–especially famous writers and thinkers–as it concerns sex, desire, love, intimacy, and relationships.
Generally speaking, I have a strong opinions about lots of things. Especially all of the above. But I’m aware my opinions are influenced by my upbringing and lived experience. Not only am I limited by what I have done, learned, and experienced through my relationships with others, but time in which I live also exerts its own special blend of influence. Throw in the dynamics of intersectionality, privilege, hetero-normative behaviors… it’s a big ol’ mess to unpack. So I’d rather focus less on theoretical pursuits and more on the shit I can actually do. In all things, a lush is nothing if not an active participant; let’s just say all my years of liberal arts education have shown theory to be quite, well, passive. Why theorize when you can DO? Why not take the insights realized by others and use that clarity of mind to navigate our own lives to greater risk as well as benefit?
So this week I give you, dear readers, a passage from the great feminist thinker Susan Sontag. As soon as I read it, I felt Sontag had been reading my mind. She is much more apt and compelling than I, and thus:
“Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t. And why do people want to be in love? That’s really interesting. Partly, they want to be in love the way you want to go on a roller coaster again — even knowing you’re going to have your heart broken. What fascinates me about love is what it has to do with all the cultural expectations and the values that have been put into it. I’ve always been amazed by the people who say, “I fell in love, I was madly, passionately in love, and I had this affair.” And then a lot of stuff is described and you ask, “How long did it last?” And the person will say, “A week, I just couldn’t stand him or her.” (via Brain Pickings)
As far as my past partners are concerned, as well as experiences I’ve gathered from close friends, I find this so incredibly true. Those whom I love are not necessarily those with whom I have sex. But the expectation of our culture is that they should–that I should have sex with those I love, and love those I have sex with. But why should love be part of a sexual relationship? Sex can be without love, and still fulfilling and worthwhile and incredible. In fact, to set aside the expectations that love as an emotion adds to the relationship, I’d argue that for (or with!) certain people sex can be better in the absence of love. Setting aside emotion is freeing in its own way. You leave your expectations and ideologies at the door to the benefit of your sexual experience. That is not to say sex is not mental or emotional; it is. However, to set aside the idea of love is to focus on the immediate. Instead of focusing on the future–its possibilities, where the relationship will lead, how you can prolong or deepen your connection, what you have come to expect from him and what he expects of you–the focus on the now: the person touching you, gazing on you, inside you, on top of you, behind you… you get my drift. It is a very rudimentary concept, and yet humans are naturally inclined to create stories and dramas out of all we see and experience. I’m not arguing that everyone take this perspective, but to not consider or examine its possibilities does perpetuate the mythology that love and sex ought to be codependent experiences in order for men and women to flourish.
Sontag also has a wonderful perspective on sex and friendship, and I find it incredibly applicable to my own friendships (many of which are with men):
“I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship — love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, and it can be tender and involve a desire to hug or whatever. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person. … Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent.” (via Brain Pickings)
A former partner once told me that all friendships between heterosexual men and women operate, whether consciously or subconsciously, on the understanding that between them exists a “Break in Case of Emergency” box. In times of need, or “emergency”, one friend can shatter the box to pull the alarm and safely rely on the other to respond appropriately. The alarm? Sex. In essence, the idea that one friend is just waiting for the other to shatter the glass and pull the alarm, thus turning their friendship from one of platonic love to sexual love.
Having many close friendships with heterosexual men myself, I don’t doubt that the curiosity exists. There are times I’ve wondered whether one male friend might be interested sexually, and what that might look and feel like. Usually my curiosity is founded in just that–curiosity–not desire or passion, or even fondness. It’s more of an abstract what if? But to act on it, or assume there’s going to be a natural friends with benefits relationship? Ridiculous. Like Sontag, I agree that friendships can be erotic and full of love. So much, in fact, that I consider my closest friends to be extensions of my biological family; if anything, I rely on them and trust in them more. So to say that heterosexual men and women must at some point have sexual feelings towards the other is reductive, simplistic, and a total misappropriation of our culture’s values and beliefs towards sex and love. While the “Break in Case of Emergency” box is perhaps true for some types of friendships between men and women (or women and women, or men and men), I don’t think it’s a useful perspective or stereotype. In fact, I think its quite harmful because it misleads men and women to have limited expectations for their own friendships and sexual relationships. And it leads individuals outside such friendships to make incorrect assumptions about appropriate or healthy behavior between them. Who hasn’t seen the sitcom about the hetero male and female friends who, inevitably, end up in the sack together? (Zooey, my sister, I’m looking at you).
All I’m saying is that sex and love can be complicated. But they don’t have to be. You can make your own rules, and the rules can evolve over time. The trick is finding partners who are willing to respect and abide by them. At least, that’s how this lush tries to live her life.
Until next time,
The Blushing Lush