A woman I know nearly throws up when anyone calls sex “making love.” You wouldn’t guess it to see her or hear her talk. She’s classy and refined, and a true romantic, too. Still, she much prefers calling sex sex or any of its other rougher names.
I get it. As a way to make love, sex isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Really, you’re going to demonstrate your exclusive and intimate loving bond with someone by merging those parts of your bodies that are both most foreign and most generic? I know my hands much better than I know my organ. My organ, way down there, is something I rarely look at. There are regions of it as unfamiliar to me as the dark side of the moon.
To share my uniqueness, I’d reach for something else. What distinguishes me is my face, my voice, my work, my attentions, my ideas, my opinions, my preferences, not my tool.
A friend, virginal before marrying, once asked me, “How different are women down there?” His question took me by surprise. I could make the case that there’s a world of difference, but then I could also make a case that there isn’t, in the dark given my neuronal architecture, at least not a big enough difference to explain the raging exclusivity with which we cling to our mates or the lust with which we seek variety.
Sure, I have made love through sex. I’ve swooned in devotion during intercourse. But that’s not my primary experience of sex. Sex seems to work best when we treat each other like objects, or specifically playgrounds. There is some affirmation of our love in how we surrender our bodies to each other that way, but that affirmation is not our focus. Instead, we’re focused all over the jungle gym that we have become to each other. I know that’s not everyone’s experience of sex, but I also know I’m not alone.
I distinguish between Romantic Fundamentalists and Romantic Agnostics. Romantic Fundamentalists believe sex and love are highly correlated. The better the sex, the stronger the love; the stronger the love, the better the sex. We Romantic Agnostics think sex and love are poorly or at least complexly correlated. We’re confused by sex.
I try to be proud of my Romantic Agnosticism. I treat Romantic Fundamentalism as unrealistic, like any monotheistic fundamentalism. Sex is prayer and in bed they’re saying, “Because this is so good for me, you’re my one true God. I shall put no other God before thee.”
Romantic Agnostics offer other prayers, like, “Halleluiah, we’re a slice of life celebrating itself. La Chaim!”
I’m a Romantic Agnostic but that sure doesn’t mean I’m fine with non-monogamy. I’ve parboiled my brain more than once knowing that the woman I loved was off doing it with some other guy. I know that doesn’t make sense, not believing sex and love are highly correlated but still fried at the thought of infidelity. Honestly, very little about sex makes sense to me.
As I age, sex makes less sense, not more, the mystery dance becoming more mysterious, a stewpot full of complex and conflicting motives. In my youth hormones gave sex its focused obsessive clarity. They suspended me above the stew. As the hormonal certainty of youth relaxed its grip I’ve fallen into the stew and I’m no longer trying to climb out.
At the transition from intense focus to confusion, I launched my career as a researcher in evolutionary theory. I was trying desperately to explain the mystery dance to myself. Specifically I was trying to cool my parboiled lobes. Evolutionary psychology seemed to explain how sex could be both a peculiarly eccentric ritual detached from romance and the source of so much romantic anguish. It was my libido’s fault. It is hardwired to pursue biological reproductive success. Though my rational mind knows sex is a strangely impersonal dance, my limbic evolved brain, out to protect and augment my reproductive success couldn’t possibly tolerate my beloved doing that impersonal dance with someone else. For a while that simple explanation comforted me in my stew.
Since then, I’ve moved on to other research in evolution. And while I still recognize the biological foundations of libido, I no longer think biology explains the confusing intensity of the mystery dance. For example, evolutionary psychology’s account suggests that we seek social status so we can score sexually, thereby increasing our chances of reproductive success. In our culture (and my experience), the reverse is as likely to be true. We have sex for status too. Arm candy; trophy wives and trophy husbands, what I call “endorphment,” the endorphin rush of being endorsed. In humans, sex is not exclusively or even primarily about achieving biological reproductive success.
The woman I know who is fine with “Fuck” but thinks “making love” is creepy—she’s one of several female friends who has fallen into the stew pot with us men. Like us they were suspended above the pot in their youth by hormones, but also by gender roles and standards that happen to be relaxing their ancient grip just during the decades when these women were maturing. You could say they had farther to fall.
They still struggle out of the pot occasionally to ridicule us from the rim for being stuck in the stew. They proselytize Romantic Fundamentalism but half-heartedly, with stew still clinging to them.
More and more women find themselves treading stew, admitting to the kinds of conflicting emotions and drives that swill about in the stewpot.
I’m too old to figure sex out. I drain the limbic lizard. I ogle, aroused to do something about that shapely creature though there’s nothing to do that wouldn’t be stupid. I fret over the mystery dance and who’s doing it with whom. I look at the dance and laugh. Declining libido eases the transitions between one state and the next.
And yet for all of that, I make love passionately and romantically with my partner. Lots of positions, too. I cuddle, I run errands, I listen, I babysit, I cook, I clean, I commute—lovemaking positions too numerous and varied to mention here without blushing. Sex is one of them, yes, just not the purest, simplest, or loving position my lovemaking takes.