The Emotional Cost of Sex: Why Some People Don’t Bother

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In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the narrator describes how his changed attitude toward sex drove him to move from the city to the seclusion of the countryside:

My point is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but because I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience — or the toughness, or the shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic professionalism — to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory meanings.

The complaint is not unknown. Indeed, some men profess that they prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems that drive Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars and cents does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing that they find so bothersome.

We do a lot for sex; or, at least for the connectedness and commitment that we hope comes with it. Would the amount spent on cosmetics, hair supplies, skin creams, Viagra, sex toys, personal trainers, gym classes, face lifts, breast implants, hair plugs, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry amount to nearly so much without the hope of a sexual or romantic payoff?

How much time is spent choosing those items and activities? How much time in using them? How much time in wondering whether they have done the job intended? How much time watching to see if anyone notices the difference?

Thumbnail for version as of 11:13, 15 December 2006

Sex is in the air in perfume and pheromones and aftershave. It is on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. It sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious. In that event you would be considered crude. By comparison there is some honesty in the professional transaction of money for sex; one could argue, more than is inherent in the pursuit of a trophy spouse or the prospective mate’s willingness to become a sexual hood ornament.

But Roth’s point is more subtle than any of these things. He is referring to learning the steps of the mating dance and performing them to perfection, even when you don’t like the music. Part of it is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person when you are stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide that which is unbecoming.

Then there are the questions of strategies and tactics, the intracranial meeting of your own personal staff of generals to call the shots as if you were embarked on a military campaign: when to phone or text, when to touch, when to flatter or smile or laugh, when to be unpredictable and what you can predict about the target’s vulnerabilities and impregnabilities.

If one’s heart is aflutter, there will inevitably be some attempt to comprehend what is going on despite your flustered, pulsating state of body and mind. Your conception of the union’s status may not coincide with what the other thinks or hopes, but it consumes much time and psychic energy so long as the interaction matters to you, regardless of the accuracy of your assessment.

Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded way it can injure, the extraordinary vulnerability that can come with it — the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.

He seems more concerned with the way that it captures you, throws you about, wreaks havoc with your balance and equanimity; and pitches your brain into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses that hold sway, making your gray matter a vestigial organ. Sex presses you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, and experience half-crazed feelings of pre-relationship desire, early relationship passion, and end-of-relationship desperation as you hold on for fear it will slip away.

How is it that we keep up our grades or maintain a full-time job with all this going on?

Some don’t, you know. The burden of the sexual road show can’t bear it or spare the time to do those other things.

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If you are young enough, the excitement of it, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that will define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, it comes naturally. For most, it is a little like learning to skate before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. But still, our genetic programming pushes most of us into the fray.

Time strips away the appeal and ratchets up the cost that sex exacts, just as Roth suggests. The hormonal flush diminishes gradually, while the desperation mounts. Psychic scars make one hesitate, but the clock is running. Not just the ticking biological time bomb, but the worry that you are gradually becoming invisible to members of the opposite sex because your shining externals don’t have the glow of their best years. Your receding hairline, or growing waist line tell you that your “use by” date is approaching much too fast. Meanwhile there appears to be no end of competitors who want to budge into line; less weathered or younger or richer or just simply smarter and better looking.

It is more than enough to make one nauseous, anxious, or depressed.

Some do, temporarily or permanently, throw in the towel — give up on the sex project. You can have a rich life without it, but it certainly is a different life than the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.

You can find celibacy meet-up groups around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. But some are like Roth’s fictional character, choosing to be free of the trouble of sex. A portion of those who opt for continence may do it as a kind of discipline or as a way to concentrate on other things and grow personally; perhaps to sublimate their sexual energies, focusing on something beyond and above the narcotic of flesh and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.

Resisting temptation is always an interesting and difficult project, so there is doubtless something to be gained in it, much as there is in any kind of philosophical or religious abstinence, like a day of fasting.

For how long would you traverse this solitary highway?

Well, as the tire ads say, that is “where the rubber meets the road.” Assuming, of course, that you have a choice.

But, there are as many ways to live as there are people who are living. And one such way could include a span of time without sex. The world is beautiful and forever new if you only look hard enough. Intimacy does not require some sort of penetration of bodies.

As for myself, if I were to take a break, I’d do it in winter in a forbidding place where I wouldn’t see too many winsome strangers, some of whom might want to be won.

I’d have lots to do — things of importance to me.

When spring comes and the comely shed their overcoats?

That would be another matter.

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The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, Animated Icon of a Sexy Dancing Girl by Jochen Gros, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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