I want to tell you a story about some friends of mine.
Ted and Maria were a warm, intelligent couple in their 60s. Despite various family problems, financial disappointments, and the ups and downs of raising kids in a blended family, they were happy together.
One day Maria goes for a routine physical. There’s something in her blood work that the doctor doesn’t like, so he sends her for more tests. A month later she collapses, and spends weeks in a local hospital in serious condition. As she gets worse, the doctor suggests Ted and Maria prepare for the possibility that she will die.
The couple has always been pretty straightforward with each other, so they discuss her professional legacy, practicalities like money, and the details of when and how she wants to die.
All that done, Ted says to her “since we want to make sure that we have everything covered, we should also discuss what you want if you get a lot better.” Maria looks him in the eye and says “Sex!”
She never recovered. Her loved ones miss her, and of course life goes on for the rest of us.
But the story is intriguing. There she is in bed dying. She hasn’t enjoyed food in a month, everything hurts, she’s practically forgotten how the sun used to feel on her face, and she can’t concentrate enough to read (much less write) two sentences in a row.
And she says that if she gets better, she wants sex.
Here’s what I think: not for the orgasm. Probably not even for the 20 minutes of pleasure (although that would be fine, of course).
Rather, Maria says “sex!” because this is how she visualizes feeling alive. And perhaps feeling healthy, or graceful, or celebrating (rather than enduring) her body. Maybe feeling close to Ted.
For Maria, like most of us in less dreadful circumstances, sex wasn’t just about sex.
And this deeply human truth is missed by many professionals who talk about sex–using models like “sex addiction” or attachment theory, or those who value premarital “chastity” and virginity.
Models like these propose that there’s a right way to want sex, a right way to experience sex, and right goals to have for sex. But for everyone—emotionally healthy people as well as everybody else—sex isn’t just about sex. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a human thing.
Sex is completely malleable—it’s about whatever we load into it. Sex is a living metaphor for how we want to feel, what we want to think about ourselves, what life means, and ultimately what’s important to us.
The trick is to be honest with ourselves about what we want from sex. When we aren’t, we may use sex mindlessly, creating trouble for ourselves or others. Using sex to feel youthful, for example, is fine if we admit to ourselves that that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we’ll wear a costume or role-play during sex, or choose activities and position that help us feel carefree. Otherwise, we might try seducing 22-year-olds—which rarely goes well for the middle-aged.
Similarly, a college-age woman might want to use sex to feel adult or independent. That’s fine, if she’s willing to do the internal work to admit this to herself, and therefore choose partners and situations that are physically and emotionally safe. Otherwise, she may be one of those women who gets roaring drunk en route to the frat house, conflicted about her own behavior and feelings, far less able to make good adult decisions around sex.
A way to express our unique vision of the meaning of life—yes, that’s a lot of weight for sex to support. On the other hand, assuming that sex has to have the same off-the-rack meaning for everyone insults both us and our sexuality. Sex is about way more than what the bodies do; it’s about how the people living in those bodies feel.
And that is so human.