I was on a podcast yesterday when the interviewer (call her Claire) said something like “Well, of course everyone wants to feel connected during sex.”
“No,” I replied.
“Well, no grownup really wants sex to be like, just two bodies hammering away at each other.”
Again I disagreed: “Sometimes grownups do,” I said.
She was both exasperated and curious. “Well, if connection isn’t the universal thing people want from sex, what is?”
“There isn’t a universal thing that everyone wants from sex,” I said. She was incredulous. “Not love, not pleasure, not gentleness, not roughness, certainly not reproduction, there are no universal desires involved in sex,” I continued. “Not in our time or place, not in another time or place, not ever, nowhere.”
“Then why,” Claire asked, “if connection isn’t a universal desire in sex, why else would someone bother to have sex?” (Note: we were talking strictly about consensual sex.)
“People have sex for a jillion different reasons,” I said. “In fact, the same person may have sex for very different reasons during the course of a month, and certainly during the course of a lifetime.” She asked me to name some, so I did. Here are reasons that people have sex that don’t involve emotional connection:
~ Expressing or experiencing autonomy;
~ Wanting to feel manly or womanly;
~ Validating one’s heterosexuality, homosexuality, or other sexual identity;
~ Wanting to feel graceful, adequate, youthful, or normal;
~ Wanting to acquire power
~ Wanting a physically intense experience
~ Wanting to feel or be creative
~ Wanting to forget about or contradict one’s last sexual experience
~ Wanting to feel aroused
~ …and of course, raw physical pleasure
“That’s quite a list,” Claire acknowledged. “But sex without emotional connection is meaningless,” she said.
“Yes, for some people it would be,” I said. “But sex itself is meaningless. We give it meaning. Or to put it differently, people try to arrange sex that is meaningful to them. What that involves is different from one person to another; it can even be different for the same person from one sexual episode to the next.”
“But sex has to have meaning,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. “Why do we assume sex has meaning, or should have? And further, why do we assume that what makes sex meaningful to Mary will make it meaningful to Leticia? People go out to dinner for different reasons, they buy cars for different reasons, get a dog for different reasons, and go to the gym for different reasons. And those reasons may change over time. Why should sex be any different?”
“Because sex is different,” she said.
“That’s a common cultural idea,” I said. “Sexual exceptionalism: that we need special ethics for sex, special decision-making for sex, special spirituality for sex. And a special meaning-making psychology for sex. But that just isn’t true,” I emphasized. “Sex is like everything else in life, only different.”
We approach sex with all the life skills we have, which are rarely enough. We bring our willingness or hesitation to communicate; our acceptance or rejection of our bodies; our shame or pride about who we are; our fears or comfort about men or women; and our beliefs about how much people can be trusted, just to name a few.
Everyone having sex does it while being an imperfect human (living in an imperfect body). Feeling ashamed (or angry) to be imperfect interferes with sexual relaxation and enjoyment just as it interferes with parenting, friendship, and other significant activities. Judging or rejecting ourselves isn’t something we save for sex—for those so inclined, it’s a 24-hour option.
My interviewer Claire had one more question, a common and deceptively simple-sounding one: “What’s one tip you have to help a person have fantastic sex?”
“Oh, I’d never try to help someone have fantastic sex,” I replied. “My advice is to give up that dream, and instead to desire sex that’s more enjoyable. And here’s how I would advise people to make sex more enjoyable:”
(1) Don’t do it when you don’t want to, or when you’re too tired;
(2) Accept your body exactly as it is;
(3) Tell your partner one thing he or she doesn’t know about your sexuality or your body; and