There are few experiences that can disrupt our sense of well-being so much that we lose faith in humanity – and in that, I mean when we start thinking of human beings cynically; thinking that we live in a world of takers, or that all is dog-eat-dog and the best we can do is get some and get out. Death, war, trauma, abuse… and love (namely the loss of it) are all triggers for this kind of cynicism. If we’re lucky, we’ll heal past it. If not, some people spend their whole lives there.
A few months ago, I suffered a pretty big blow to my psyche. I had a very long-standing friend – my oldest in town – who I considered close to my heart and an integral part of my support network.
When I was married, he was one of the few people I could call and hang out with and be guaranteed a good time – loving, supportive, all of that – even as I escaped the hell I was going through at the time.
Over the summer, we got a little drunk and things got a little, err, intimate. And things as they were, we decided to go for it. This is where it got strange, because calling him meant something different. He wasn’t just my friend anymore, he was my lover and he acted accordingly – dodging calls and calling me out for being “emotional.” And as errant behavior goes – his was not only pretty errant, it was also totally predictable.
In typical parlance, Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl fuck. Boy and Girl don’t really want to be in a relationship, so they might meet again and fuck occasionally while “keeping their options open”. Rinse. Wash. Repeat with as many partners as one can handle.
Except I wasn’t in on the joke.
My girl friend told me: “Well, yeah, that’s just what people do.”
My guy friend was actually pissed at me, yelling at me one day, “Well of course that’s what he was doing!!! He was only calling you once every two weeks! What did you think was going on?!?!””
I felt like an idiot. Left out in the dark in a world where everybody could see the light but me. Even when I went to the gynecologist to get tested, the doctor was a little flummoxed.
“You mean, you didn’t have The Talk?” she asked.
“What’s The Talk?”
“Before you have sex, you’re supposed to get tested and talk about how exclusive you want to be. If you’re not gonna be exclusive you wear these.” She dumped several packets of condoms in my lap. They were all marked with the clinic logo.
We’ve come a long way baby – although you wouldn’t know it in Virginia where sodomy laws are still on the books, vaginal ultrasounds are required for abortion and marriage is defined as between a man and a woman – ONLY!
However, in the rest of the country we are experiencing a renaissance of sexual freedom. We don’t “Slut Shame” – that word for when we put down a woman for wanting emotionless sex. And in general, having sex without emotions and thinking of sex as a healthy activity (like any other, say, soccer or table tennis) to engage in with any number or combination of partners (even if only with oneself) is considered pretty “sex positive” and to be condoned. Even in terms of gender politics, we’ve become surprisingly sophisticated. When I was growing up in the ’90s, it was LGBT ( lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender). That quickly expanded to include “Friends and Allies of” and then added another letter every year until it became LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, and asexual). I’ve had to contend with understanding was cisgender is, calling pre-operative transgenders mistakenly by the wrong gendered pronoun and how an asexual person thinks about sex.
All in all, I think it’s a good development. We should always strive for a freer more accepting world – no matter the obvious Humanistic/Enlightenment tropes that statement entails.
But in all of these situations, one assumption is being made – everyone is in on the conceit. Respect in these circumstances is taken for granted and the traditional code of ethics does not apply. In fact, the hope of all of these groups is that we effectively separate traditional ethics from sexual behavior. So, does that mean that all of this cis/queer/bi/multi-partner sex we’re having is by default respectful?
I’ll go back to my visit at the gynecologist’s office.
The packets of condoms in my lap, tears in my eyes, I picked up one of the packets and eyed it suspiciously.
“But how many people have The Talk? Not many, I guess, or else you guys would be out of business.”
“Well…” she nodded in assent.
I have thus far made myself out to be the Polyanna of all Polyannas – and a prude to boot. But that really wasn’t the case. Sex throughout college and into my 20s was fun and exciting – even if I did occasionally sleep with people I was less than attracted to. These people I would politely make excuses to (“We’re better as friends”) and sometimes I would be on the receiving end of such excuses. It didn’t matter, there were plenty of people to move on to and sex was just a more intricate way of getting to know someone. I think, in my heart of hearts, sex might have been fun and enjoyable, but I also kind of hoped someone would “stick” – like the orgasms would be just good enough and our desire for each other just strong enough that we’d fall in love and it would last forever – Ahhh, youth!
There are names for this dating ritual. It’s called Casual Sex. It’s usually defined as emotionless sex – or our sex-positive extracurricular activity!
And inside of the general moniker of “casual sex” there are a whole load of other definitions to describe a wide-array of sexual relationships without love, romance and often without commitment.
There’s of course sexual relationships based on money (prostitutes) and those based on power (kink); there’s swinging or wife-swapping, and its sister, “open marriage”; one-night-stands if you don’t want to see the person again, or no-strings-attached (NSA), which can be recurring; Fuck buddies (who aren’t your friends) or Friends with benefits (who are); and lastly you have cheating.
Except I wasn’t having “emotionless sex.” I was having will-full, ignorant, vulnerable sex that I was using to love and be loved. There’s a reason why this situation ended up plunging me into the deep pit of despair of human cynicism.
In all of this talk about sex, we rarely talk about love. We tend to diminish love or the pain the loss of it causes. Love, if anything, is relegated to a quaint fantasy, suitable only for rom-coms, “girl stuff” or classic novels.
At the same time, we’ve lifted the orgasm to an unimaginable height, where we can peruse the world from it’s lofty euphoria as we bask in physical gratification in whatever form that may cum (heh, heh, get it?).
Is it really all that healthy and “sex-positive” to compartmentalize our psyches so much? I do get not falling in love with everyone you sleep with, and I get that even the most mind-blowing orgasms don’t mean you’ve fallen in love, but in all of this sexual freedom, where is our “love freedom”?
When I finally felt confronted by the spectre of emotionless sex, making it seem like it was my only option towards intimacy, I plunged head long into a string of affairs that left me feeling dead to the world.
And it’s a funny thing when you go out knowing you’re looking for sex. You tend not to think of people as individuals – with their own hopes and dreams and desires, or that you’re even going to share an experience together. You tend to discount them as autonomous individuals at all and just focus on what you can get out of (or get off on) the situation. It’s a very transactional, capitalist, and … yes… cynical way of looking at humanity.
Maybe I could cognize sex without love, but life without love was simply not worth living. The more I wanted to see loving relationships, the less I saw them. Long-term monogamous relationships were born out of a desire for kids or a fear of the unknown – and besides people in long-term relationships (in my mind) were not adventurous. One night stands offered a possibility, but only in the sense that the relationship was without any ambiguity. At the same time, I was finding there was a moment, when the clothes were off, that my and my prospective lover’s eyes would lock and then shift quickly away. It was an expression of a lack of trust, insecurity, and an acknowledgement that we couldn’t take each other compassionately if we were to get through this next sex act. Sex without love, I was coming to understand, was ultimately selfish.
It was also during this time that I ended up at somebody’s apartment, far from my home, drunk and kissing on a stranger’s bed. We’d had a ridiculous amount of fun wandering the streets, drinking and talking. He was light-hearted, intelligent and attractive. And I don’t know if he had been planning on sleeping with me all along, but it certainly seemed like I was the one dragging him to bed, going through all the motions of the love-less sex I’d been perfecting – a kind of seamless exterior that allowed me to engage without engaging, not unlike the condom that I was now pulling out of the wrapper (well, the gynecologist Did give them to me for a reason). And as we were having sex, something happened. I actually thought in my mind that I loved him. And just as I was thinking that, my mind and my body opened up to him and I orgasmed – something that hadn’t even happened with my friend, who I legitimately “loved”.
I think I was confused the next day. Did I “like” him? What did I really know of him anyway? We were strangers, so how could I possibly have “loved” him?
I tried texting him a few times, but his reception was lukewarm. He seemed suspicious of me, which is fair enough – we really didn’t know each other – so, I let it slide. It seemed weird to chase someone who didn’t seem to want to be associated with me.
Still, I thought about my experience with him. It seemed to me that it waslove, just we lacked a shared definition of what love is.
In fact, this might have been what was missing in all of my recent experiences. Casual, emotionless sex had been missing an essential component – emotions.
I’d been very upset with my friend. I kept telling him that I loved him and that I couldn’t believe that he’d made me into just someone he had sex with – a friend with benefits – a person you liked passably well, but not enough to be considered an actual partner. Mainly, I was offended because I cared for him. He was important to me and by having emotionless sex with me, he was in essence saying he didn’t have any emotions for me. I felt he had relegated me to a place where I became just another body he used to get himself off with.
The more I thought about it this experience, and how I felt like I was constantly asked to just accept emotionless sex (not just by him, but society at large), the more I realized that just as we are breaking down the boundaries of what a “relationship” can be, we haven’t done nearly enough for what “love” can be.
My main problem with my friend wasn’t actually the sex he was having with other people (well, okay, I think I am rightfully pissed that he wasn’t upfront about the fact… I had to ask him about it, to which he responded: “Well, I didn’t lie to you when you asked.” Gee, thanks). My main problem was that all the love and care and honesty we’d reserved for one another through the course of a 15+year friendship went out the window once we started having sex.
So, the question is: Can Casual Sex be Ethical Sex?
Yes, but it cannot be emotionless and it cannot be casual.
It must be predicated on openess, honesty and the courage to look within oneself and know how one really feels about the situation and the other person.
In essence, the only way to have ethical sex is to truly connect with someone and “love” them, no matter how brief the encounter or how you choose to do it. If whips and chains cause elation in yourself or your partner, that’s a form of love, isn’t it? And just as our faces soften as we look at a sunset, but we don’t try to “hold on to” a sunset, why can’t we legitimately love someone for just one night, even if we recognize the fact that we cannot see each other again (prior engagements, personality clashes, etc.) In fact, it is the ultimate form of love, because it’s based on compassion. I don’t try to hold another person, but I try to bring them pleasure. Life is fleeting, why not love as many as we can?
In my quest for “Casual Love,” I came across a group – Open Love NY – that advocates polyamory. Polyamory is a new term and is loosely defined ashaving more than one intimate relationship with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. I’d only vaguely been aware of “polyamory” to mean a group of people living together in committed relationships with one another, not unlike polygamous groups in Mormon Utah. The difference, I thought, was that while Mormons concentrated on marriage and one man and each of his individual partnerships, polyamory may or may not include marriage and the various partners could have relationships amongst themselves, if they so chose. It seemed open, loving and honest even as the polyamorous members strove to break down not only societal barriers, but private ones as they combatted preconceived notions such as jealousy and insecurity. It seemed the perfect antidote to the love-less and narcissistic dating scene.
I found a meeting and put it in my date book. As I got to the location, I took the elevator up with two young, fashionable couples. I admit, I was a little shy asking the receptionist where the meeting was, and even more shy as the couple beside me started in on a little chit chat. Would they expect me to be interested in joining them in a threesome? I hoped not.
I told them I was there as a “tourist.”
With the faint smell of patchouli in the air, and the chairs arranged in a circle – 12-step-style – the meeting began. A woman stood up and reminded us that all identities and conversation should be kept within the walls (also 12-step confessional style) and that polyamory was a place for gay, straight, bi, queer, transgender and kink – even monogamous couples might be present – and that if anything, polyamory was a way for people to express their love in whatever form they felt authentic doing so. There is no “right way” to love, she said, and we all needed to remember that when speaking to one another.
I learned that polyamory doesn’t necessarily mean you are in a group relationship. Some might have a ‘primary’ relationship (married or no) that they might occasionally bring others into, or meet outside, this relationship – all with the express knowledge of all involved. Still others might form long-standing commitments and fall in love with new “polys”. There were groups of two, three, four and five at the meeting. There were a few aging hippy-ish guys, but ages ranged from young to old. One woman mentioned her “primary” was a woman she was legally married to. Other members seemed more interested in heterosexuality. All seemed concerned with creating a loving environment. Phrases like “fall in love” were in the air and the word “communication” was repeated more times than even when I was an ESL instructor. Members often referred to their relationships as “ethical non-monogamy” and spoke about how to bring their message into the public arena without losing their integrity – because, it’s true, I would guess that many would think of ‘polyamory’ as a way to have as much group sex as one could handle, with an orgy every night and sex parties in place of potlucks.
That’s not what I witnessed. If anything, they seemed like people trying to make love – not just sex – open to everyone.
I think I was convinced of this when the main speaker of the evening – who had been talking about the political implications of polyamory’s recentdiscovery by the mainstream media – said: “If you think Sex Education in this country is bad, then we don’t even have Love Education.”
Lastly, the speaker lingered on the idea that the polyamorous community was a “build your own” community.
“There is no model for these kinds of relationships. There are no road maps, and there are no rules. There are only guidelines. And that goes for any kind of relationship.” he said. “If we’re truly courageous and honest with ourselves, we can go beyond what society, religions or are our families have told us is right. We can begin to think and find out for ourselves how to be in love as we really feel.”
Sometimes, what we feel is really love, sometimes it’s just sex. But if we’re working so hard to break down all these barriers on what constitutes the “right” sexual orientation, or the “right” way to have sex – when are we going to start breaking down the idea that there’s a “right” way to fall in love. There are so many ways to love and degrees of love.
I’m not saying that being so open with one’s emotions will render all relationships reciprocal – such would be a travesty for every unrequited love song the world over (seriously, would country music even exist?). But openess and honesty would certainly take care of the ethical and respectful aspects of a nebulous dating field. It would probably also lead to a lot of personal insight and understanding of others – making it easier in the future to love and be compassionate.
It takes a courageous person to admit their true feelings, a coward to turn them off entirely.