If you are young enough, the idea of sex as a chore is beyond imagining. You know you will change as you age, but the thought of sex as a job, obligation, or — worse yet — too much trouble, is inconceivable (pun intended). You’ve heard, perhaps, of those who lose interest, but don’t really think you ever will; and are too busy with the mating game to put your mind into an unattractive future (in both senses), whether due to the march of time or other factors.
Philip Roth tells us about a re-evaluation of the sexual project, as we read the viewpoint of his narrator in The Human Stain. Indeed, the character’s altered 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 prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems driving Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars for skin does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing they find so bothersome.
We do a lot for sex — at least for the connectedness and commitment we hope will come 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, mirrors, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry total 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 intended job? How much time observing whether anyone notices?
Sex is in the scent of perfume and pheromones and aftershave. Romance and seduction are on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. Sex sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious: 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.
Roth’s point, however, 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 his concern is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, the worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person while stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide what 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, an attempt to comprehend what is going on in the relationship is inevitable, 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 consumes much time and psychic energy. Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded risk of injury, the extraordinary vulnerability, the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.
He seems more concerned with the way one is captured, thrown about, unbalanced by an enticing companion. The brain is pitched into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses holding sway. 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.
How do we maintain a full-time job with all this happening?
Some don’t, you know. The burden of the sexual road show can’t bear the tumult or spare the time to do those other things.
Should you be young enough, the excitement of the chase, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that might define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, this comes naturally. For most, the meat market is a little like being placed on a skating rink before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. Still, our genetic programming pushes us into the fray.
Time strips away the appeal and ratchets up the cost sex exacts, just as Roth suggests. The hormonal flush diminishes gradually, while the desperation mounts. The psychic scars of failed relationships make one hesitate, but the clock is running. Not just the ticking biological time bomb, but the worry you are gradually becoming invisible to members of the opposite sex because your shining externals don’t have the glow of their best years. A receding hairline, or growing waist line tell you your “use by” date is approaching much too fast. Meanwhile there appears no end of competitors who want to take your spot; less weathered or younger or richer or just simply smarter and better looking.
All this 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 lust, but it certainly is different from the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.
Celibacy meet-up groups exist around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. 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 resist the lure of flesh as a kind of discipline or 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 skin and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.
Resisting temptation is always an interesting and difficult project, so there is doubtless knowledge to be gained in it, much as any kind of philosophical or religious abstinence provides, like a day of fasting.
How long would you travel this solitary highway?
There are as many ways to live as people who are living. 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.
For myself, if I were to take a break, I’d schedule a winter in a forbidding place where everyone is covered up.
I’d have lots to do — things of importance to me.
When spring comes and the comely shed their coats?
That would be another matter.
The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revised version of The Emotional Cost of Sex, published in 2012.
Love your post, Dr. Stein. We were wired for sex for survival of our species. But our numbers have so increased beyond our wildest dreams that taking a time out without sex would mean much more than freeing ourselves from the “burden of the sexual road show.” Mother Nature would rejoice.
Thank you, Rosaliene. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that lots of people take the directive, “be fruitful and multiply,” pretty seriously. And then there are those who are opposed to the idea of sex education. But, I’m inclined to agree about Mother Nature and those of us who fear our own self-destruction via climate change and water wars.
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Tell me, Dr Stein, is it a myth, this mysterious and magical connectedness that can happen through sex? It has always seemed to mysterious to me – a little bit Hollywood, the stuff of fairytales. Maybe I’m simply making a syntactical error – maybe people don’t mean by that connectedness, what I take them to mean. Or maybe I’m imagining a level of connectedness which is not just impossible through sex, but impossible full stop. Maybe the problem is that I simply cannot get rid of the distinction I have always had in my mind, however much I might try or want to eradicate it, between sex and love, and I cannot seem to bring them together. One of the fascinating and slightly disconcerting aspects of your post, for me, was precisely that absence of a concrete distinction between the two. Disconcerting only because I find their union such a difficult thing to get my head, and heart, around.
“Intimacy does not require some sort of penetration of bodies” – but for me, a penetration of bodies requires intimacy, and without it, it feels like a violation of bodies (to me – this is an entirely personal experience, I am not making a comment on others’ experience).
So what happens, then, when either sex is too much trouble or there is little emotional intimacy, but one cannot simply remove oneself completely from the arena because one is married or in a long-term relationship? I would be interested in knowing how your post would develop to explore that particular question, when one is no longer in the ‘marketplace’ as it were…
I’m sorry, I hope none of this is too ‘un-toward’ or seeming as though it is asking personal questions! Thank you for another great post….
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Thank you for the challenging question. One might want to write a book about it, but, not being that ambitious, I’ll try to doing something much shorter, but responsive to a bit of what you’ve asked. First, I think the sex act tends, especially with women, to make one naked in every sense. Women display not only their bodies, the places they usually hide, but their emotions. It is, from a species standpoint, a terrific vulnerability: no protection. Women, in particular, put themselves in the hands, literally, of someone bigger and stronger. All this contributes to the need to make the decision a serious one and do it only with those with whom it is safe and worth the risk. (I realize I am not talking about those who have persuaded themselves to be “sex-buddies”).
On top of all this, the woman is, at least biologically, vulnerable to the compromised position of becoming pregnant. Compromised in the sense of becoming even more vulnerable, as well as less able to obtain a mate different from the man who impregnated her. Thus, making careful choices was “selected for” in the evolutionary process with respect to the female’s mating decision: who should I choose?. She would want a man who would protect her, wanted to protect her in this vulnerable state, and provide for her and their baby.
Men needed to be less careful because they don’t become pregnant. Casual sex is easier for a man from this standpoint, meaning, of course, that he isn’t as programmed to attribute as much meaning and connectedness to the act.
Contraceptives make it possible to ignore some of the implications of our hard-wired tendencies, but the wiring is still there.
As to the last question you asked, it is a great dilemma. I cannot provide a single answer. Being in a marriage without emotional intimacy is complicated by the trouble of divorce, the presence of children, the economic consequences, feelings of guilt, fear of being alone, etc. Therapy is often a considerable help in dealing with such questions.
Thanks for your most provocative comment.
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