There’s a growing tension between people who sleep around while remaining unattached, and people who think at heart that people in general crave monogamous relationships. This site has published two articles in the last few days that highlight this distinction: Raul Felix wrote about feeling disgusted with himself when he has sex with a girl he doesn’t care about, but unable to stop it from happening again. Chelsea Fagan wrote about how people don’t really want unemotional sex, and how the fear of appearing “needy” drives dishonesty and unhappiness in modern relationships.
These articles aren’t in response to one another but to me they represent two sides of the spectrum — one saying sex is so meaningless he actively has negative thoughts about the person he is sleeping with, and the other saying what we really want is long-lasting connection and often emotionless sex is something we put up with so that we don’t appear weak or needy — thus increasing our desirability to the person we hope to enter into an official relationship with (because the sex itself isn’t meaningful enough, so we use it as a tool to get into a Real Relationship).
I’m worried thinking about this. Because, and I’m going to admit something really gross about myself here, I don’t ever worry about being “too needy” because I feel like everyone needs me more than I need them. That’s a really shitty thing to say. I love the people in my life, I’m super lucky to have them. But, I usually want to be alone more than I want to be around others. I want to feel what everyone else feels, pleasure and connection with others, but… it escapes me.
In his article, Raul isn’t worried about being needy at all, he’s the one worried the girl is going to get attached. But this is an equally alien in concept to me. I’ve never thought while hooking up with someone, “Eww, why am I hooking up with this person, they’re gross?” If I thought that, I would leave. The closest, I think, is this time I hooked up with someone who had a weird penis, but even in that case I was anxious because I was aware of how self-conscious he must be and whether I’d make that worse, not whatever weird misdirected anger at this guy’s biological circumstances that would, I think, be the female equivalent of Raul’s article.
What I’m saying is, going from one end of the meaningful-emotional/meaningless-sex-fueled spectrum to the other, I’d expect to fit in somewhere, but I can’t find myself anywhere on it. I’m emotional and I’m driven by my own happiness — which is at odds with being in a traditional relationship. But I have too much empathy for people trying to live their lives to feel sex with them is truly meaningless — or, more selfishly, it would bum me out because I know that it makes me unhappy to think negative thoughts about other people so I wouldn’t actively engage those thoughts the way Raul does.
I love how many people (internet commenters and my real life friends) are connecting with those articles and relating to them, but I feel more alien than ever because I can’t do the very human thing of relating with other people’s very honest experiences. I want meaning, I’ll always want meaning, but I don’t want it to come with some kind of suffocating obligation. I can’t do that. But I’m wary of participating in the hook up culture rituals knowing how detached the other person can be.
What my own intuition tells me is that just because an experience is primarily sexual doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful. We associate sex with cheap or thoughtless but there’s no effective argument that supports this idea. It’s just a sort of superstition.
Albert Camus, who, in the week before his death, confessed his love to 5 different women, addressing each woman “as the love of his life.” It’s erratic and a bit impulsive to the naked (female) eye, sure, but most importantly: it was abundantly true. As James confirms, “He probably meant it every time.”
I’m not arguing that we should be happy and content with a loving husband even if he does have 4 other wives; no, what I’m arguing is that men have the capacity to love—sometimes more so than women—and we shouldn’t dismiss it as bogus just because it doesn’t resemble our approach to love.
Peter Altenberg was a German intellectual from Vienna who lived during and partook heavily in Vienna’s café life. One time a young lover of his complained, through tears, that he only liked her because of the sexual satisfaction she provided. To which Altenberg replied, “Was ist so nur?” or “What’s so only?”
If something feels meaningful to you (knowing you are the only person who can judge what feels meaningful to you), what is “so only” about it? And this is how I deal with feeling like an alien — by asking a form of that question. If it is important to me, if it reflects my feelings and my reasoning, what is “so only” about it?
I might think this way because I’m young, or immoral, or damaged, or subconsciously closed to the idea of letting people in. Alternatively, I’m only deeply mired in my own reality and it may not fit with other’s, but that is irrelevant.
A religious pluralist, John Hick, used a story to talk about how stuck in our own perspectives we are: “a tale of three blind men attempting to describe an elephant, one touching the leg, the second touching the trunk, the third feeling the elephant’s side. Each man describes the elephant differently, and, although each is accurate, each is also convinced of their own correctness and the mistakenness of the other two.” This is how we develop all of our views, with an extremely tiny amount of perspective and at the mercy of whatever social/cultural/geographic/chronological location we happen to find ourselves — that is, it’s a lucky story we happen to hear, and use to explain our views. Marriage is a lucky story. Hook up culture is a lucky story. There’s no science we can look at to say “yes, this is how we can best interact with others.” We are blind people taking guesses at reality.
For this reason, I think you owe it to yourself to listen to your gut more than you passively accept social norms. By that I mean, this is what I ask of myself. Do what brings you satisfaction for as long as it brings you satisfaction and then move on. Like poet William Stafford talking about his life philosophy, “I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.”
I feel exhausted when I do things I’m not interested in, in the sense Stafford is describing.
I’m not talking about necessary, prosaic everyday activities that I need to do in order to continue to pursue what I want in the big picture — washing dishes, paying bills, cleaning — but pursuing big goals that I haven’t had an internal urge to pursue — a traditional marriage, having kids, owning a home, seeming impressive (or even the lower bar of not writing about embarrassing things online). Satisfaction, meaning, and happiness to me are all tied together and they only exist in my life when I’m following an internal narrative (my own “lucky story”, whatever I judge as a blind person stumbling around to be reality) rather than one that’s very well-defined by our culture — but equally arbitrary.
If you find meaning in “meaningless” sex I think that’s okay — no one else can tell you what you find to be meaningful. I think relationships with other people (romantic or not) are incredibly important, one of the most important things in life (if not the most), but like everything else, you can only make a best guess as to what will make you happy. My gut — and what I find satisfying versus frustrating — is saying it’s a weird balance between the two, for now.