Love doctor: What's sex got to do with it?
Friday 26 September 2008
Are love and sex inextricably linked? My dad was a love-and-sex man. At least I think he was. He certainly wasn't the kind of guy to say "phwooar!" (if that's how it's spelt). And he was never unfaithful to his partners. My mother, on the other hand, was a sex-without-love person. When they divorced, my father, on talking to the head of the Royal College of Art, where she worked, was asked by the principal how he could have stood all her affairs. "Oh, it wasn't affairs, it was only flirting," said my father. "Flirting?" replied the principal, his eyes bulging. "My dear man, your wife went to bed with everyone in the college, myself included!"
It's not surprising I've been confused about the whole connection between love and sex. Add to that the fact that I was brought up in the Sixties, and another horrible factor enters into the mix. It was all so easy in the Fifties. You just said "no" because of the possibility of getting pregnant. Obviously pre-marital sex took place back then, but it wasn't so easy for a man to get his way because women were meant to keep their legs crossed, and there was a greater taboo about women who slept around. Abortion was illegal and although birth control was available, it was only easy to get a rubber cap fitted around your cervix if you also had a wedding ring.
But come the Sixties and the arrival of the contraceptive pill combined with the fact that the feminist movement of the later Sixties had yet to invent the slogan "no means no" and women were in a horribly vulnerable position. I found it almost impossible to ever say no to sex. One man, who'd paid for supper and inveigled me back to his flat, actually said: "Let's go to bed." When I said no, that I had to get back, he simply said: "Oh, come on, it'll only take a minute." So, I dutifully agreed.
In those days, everything was muddled. I think most women found the Sixties one of the most puzzling and miserable periods in recent history. Until then, love, for them, had been inextricably entwined with sex. Suddenly, sex was seen as something completely separate. We were being told both men and women could have sex without any strings. "One-night stands" a never-before-known phrase had hit us in the face or, rather, between the legs, and we didn't now where we stood. Or rather, we didn't stand; we lay on our backs. My experience of that time was unpleasant. I was looking for love and, bemusedly, I thought sex would give it to me. I must have slept with a hundred men, literally, hoping that I would somehow find a connection, some kind of sustaining force. At the time, I didn't know that I was looking for love, but I was.
Since those days, I became an agony aunt and tried to take a responsible attitude. Looking back on my early misguidedness, I peddled the line that love and sex were inextricably entwined. I went back to the days before my youth, and found comfort in an old, outdated morality. When I had to write an A to Z of sex and I wrote three of them I always started with A for arousal and ended with Z for ZZZ (why does he always go to sleep after sex?), but under L it was always love, and not lust.
But was I right? I always remember a letter I answered, from a woman who said she loved sex, but never had an orgasm. Writing at a time when orgasms were seen to be an essential part of sex and that without them you feared you might die of cancer, I wrote, hoping to relieve all the readers who didn't always reach the pinnacle of sexual satisfaction, that it was okay. "Don't worry about orgasms," I replied, confidently. "The feelings of closeness, or affection, of cosiness, the feeling of love, are all that matters during sex." I then got a letter from another reader who complained that, although she had an orgasm twice a night, she never experienced these feelings I'd described and what was wrong with her?
I got it so wrong. How can sex and love possibly be inextricably linked? You can have sex all on your own and it can be relaxing and satisfying. You can have sex with people you really can't stand talking to, but are still attracted to. You can have sex with people you hate and who may hate you the "hate fuck" and you can also have sex with people with whom it is an unpleasant and abusive experience.
How can sex have anything to do with love? Sex has nothing to do with love. There's a cultural connection, started off with the invention of chivalry in the Middle Ages, but that's it. I couldn't give a toss about the great religions of the world, but it's interesting that all them (except abusive cults) seem to agree, that in order to experience God's love, you should throw sex of out the window. If you want to experience love, celibacy is the thing. It's small wonder that when he was an old man, someone asked Sophocles about his sex life and he replied: "Hush, man; most gladly indeed am I rid of it all, as though I had escaped from a mad and savage master." Kingsley Amis said much the same thing, when he reached 70 years old he compared his enslavement to his youthful sex-drive to being "chained to a maniac" and the ability to understand that sex has nothing to do with love is one of the many perks of age.
Sex can be a positive antithesis to love. Just think of the number of people who have said "I love my partner, but because I'm in their sexual thrall, I just have to run off with this other man/woman." Haven't we all met partners by whom we were once captivated, because of the strong sexual pull between us, and who we now realise were dull, and perhaps even unpleasant people? And yet at the time we might well have described ourselves as being "in love".
Sex, desire, lust or whatever you want to call it, is like alcoholism in its power. Having tried both, I think it's like cocaine. When you have sex or coke everything is wonderful, heightened, brilliant, wonderful. But after you come down, so what? So bloody what?
I have heard from so many people that the experience of sex within a loving relationship is a different experience completely to casual sex, and sometimes I wonder if they think I haven't experienced such a feeling. Only an idiot would argue that sex with a person you love isn't nicer and more meaningful, than sex with someone you don't love. Doing anything with someone you love is nicer than doing it alone. Going for a walk. Sitting in a room saying nothing with the other person present. But the fact that sex is enhanced when you're in love, doesn't mean it is any more important or relevant to love than shopping in a supermarket together.
The late journalist Alan Brien once said of sex that he wondered why he put up with so many hours of vertical boredom for so few moments of horizontal pleasure, and I think he was right to wonder. The bee's knees, if you're lucky enough to find it, is love. The pleasure of comparing notes with sympathetic friend over supper. The glorious feeling that comes over you when you're with a child you adore. The loving loyalty inspired by anyone close to you, a loyalty that you know transcends whether they may neglect or betray you because you still love them and know, at some deep level, that they love you too.
Can love between men and women exist without sex? Well, yes, it can. Few people leave their partners if they suffer permanent impotence-inducing accidents, become paralysed from the waist down or have their prostates removed. And when people get old most of us don't all race off to find someone younger to screw.
Yes, of course, men and women see sex differently. Since women are the ones who get pregnant they're bound to look for something a bit more meaningful than size or stamina in a partner. Indeed, endless surveys show that most women rate a sense of humour and kindness far above sexual attraction. But there's still the idea that good sexual chemistry between two people is far more important than shared interests, shared humour and shared values, even though surveys in fact show the opposite and not just for women. Most men, if you ask what they value most in life, say it's having dinner with their partner and watching the telly together.
In other words, it's connection and togetherness love that is all. Rampant sex doesn't really come into it.
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