(For Part 1, click here.)
A common way people talk about sex, especially in the past decade, is in terms of heat: She’s hot; he’s a hottie; we had hot sex. In the world of hot, it’s natural to focus on friction, which is what produces heat. Sex becomes bump-and-grind; the friction produces the heat, and the heat makes the sex good. There are plenty of books on the subject, including a series by Tracy Cox, who describes herself as “an international sex, body language and relationship expert.” She began in 1998 with Hot Sex: How to Do It and continued with Hot Relationships: How to Know What You Want, and Keep It Red Hot!; Hot Love: How to Get It; and the Hot Sex Handbook. In 2006, she increased the temperature with Superhotsex. Welcome to a world in which everyone is hot and happy.
But we should take note of a phrase commonly used to describe an argument that is intense but which doesn’t really advance our understanding; we say that such an engagement “produced more heat than light.” As someone who grew up on the frozen prairie of the upper Midwest, I’m aware of the need for heat to survive, but in terms of expanding our understanding of self and other, it seems that light is more helpful than heat.
So, what if our sexual activity – our embodied connections – could be less about heat and more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not really heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light? There can be no recipe book for that, no list of sexual positions to work through so that we may reach sexual bliss. There is only the ongoing quest to touch and be touched, to be truly alive. James Baldwin, as he so often did, got to the heart of this in a comment that is often quoted: “I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And, if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
But what about when touching becomes, well, boring? A friend raised this question. This talk about mystery and light is all well and good, she said, but in the real world it’s not so easy to keep sex in such a lofty position. People in long-term relationships may have kids, jobs, and other stress in their lives that may lead their sex lives to become routine and unsatisfying for both partners. In such a situation, why not use an outside stimulus such as pornography to jump-start the sexual aspect of the relationship?
The question is important, in part because so many people face exactly that situation, but also because it reinforces my point. When sex becomes, in this formulation, boring, when a couple even stops having sex, why must we assume that the goal is to immediately resume sexual activity? If the goal is intimacy, sex is not the only route to that. If for some reason the sexual path to that connection is no longer open in the way a couple has known it in the past, would not a period of trying to understand that change be appropriate? Before prescribing a treatment, such as sexually explicit media, would it not be better to spend some time on the diagnosis? In a culture that is compulsively sexual in public, it’s not surprising that people feel the need to be constantly sexual in private. We can understand sex as a natural and healthy part of human existence and also understand that it also can be healthy for people to go for periods of time without being sexual.
When one doesn’t rush to reestablish sexual activity, other ways of knowing another person and oneself have time to emerge. For example, couples whose frequency of intercourse or genital sex drops often find that a sense of intimacy can come from other ways of touching that typically aren’t thought of as sexual but can take on an erotic and sexual quality. Couples may also find out that not immediately rushing to re-create an established pattern of sexual behavior can create new space for talking, which can lead to a new sense of connection.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 1)
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Making Love, Giving Life
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics
What Is It That Ails You?
It Happens All the Time in Heaven
The Holy Pleasure of Intimacy
Just Now and Then