We no longer feel the social pressure to confine sex to committed relationships. In fact, we’re free to explore our sexuality with just about anyone we like. Sex is now an accepted recreational activity. What we often don’t realize, however, is that even casual, recreational sex still involves intimacy. We may have overcome our fear and shame about sex, but many of us still have issues regarding intimacy. If we experience more intimacy than we can handle, we will feel threatened; our safety checklist will be triggered. No matter how “safe” we make sex, sex may not be safe to us.
When we experience an orgasm, we reveal ourselves more completely and more honestly than at any other time. We let our egos die for a moment, and we have the chance to experience a true connection with another person. Then the ego comes back into the picture, and we’re hit with the fear of separation, and all of our old patterns. If we don’t have enough trust or enough safety, we will feel threatened, guilty, and generally unsafe. No matter how much society’s beliefs about sex have evolved in our lifetime, our core conditioning tells us that there’s no such thing as no-strings sex. We still equate sex with love, and love with commitment. And we equate love and commitment with vulnerability, responsibility, and the fear that our needs will not be met.
Sex is very easy to come by in today’s society. What most of us crave, however, is not sex, but intimacy. The challenge is that the only model most of us have for expressing or experiencing intimacy is sex. Intimacy requires trust, and trust takes time. It’s very difficult to experience true intimacy through casual sex.
The level of intimacy we experience through sex can be threatening to many of us, particularly if the sex occurs early in the relationship. Safety is essential in the early stages of a relationship–even the smallest safety violation can mark the end of a budding romance. As we get to know our partners over time, we create a foundation of trust and familiarity. We can keep minor safety violations in perspective. This is not the case when we have truly casual sex with someone.
When we become sexual with a person we’ve just met, even the smallest safety violation will be enough to stop our getting to know each other. One of the challenges is that it’s not usually appropriate or possible to have a Relationship Definition Talk with a person we’ve known less than six hours. There is no real relationship to discuss. While we both may have wanted to pursue a romantic relationship before we had sex, we often find we’re less interested the next morning, because we feel unsafe. We experienced too much intimacy too quickly, and we need to create some distance, some space, and to put up some walls so that we can recover. These walls, however, block the emotional and spiritual connections we experienced that made us want to get to know each other in the first place. Since we don’t really know our partner, we wonder if there was ever a genuine connection between us. We often end up with the awkward “morning after” where one of us promises to call the other, and neither of us believes the phone will actually ring.
Two popular television shows demonstrate our current approaches to sex without intimacy and intimacy without sex.
SEX WITHOUT INTIMACY: “SEX AND THE CITY”
HBO’s television series, “Sex and the City,” follows the loves and lives of four single women living in New York City. The show has become a cultural touchstone because it explores sexuality from the woman’s point of view in frank, funny, and honest ways. The four main characters are smart, independent, decent, professional, attractive women. They each have a different approach to sex, love and relationships, and between them they cover a broad spectrum of expectations and attitudes towards sex. The main characters have become so much a part of popular culture that many women use them as reference points to describe their own patterns and feelings about sex. So do many gay men.
For those of you not familiar with the series (and even for those of us who are), I’ll provide a brief description of each of the main characters to illustrate their attitudes towards sex.
Samantha Jones takes the most stereotypically male approach to sex. She truly enjoys sex, and for the most part, she’s content to have a healthy sex life with multiple partners. She has no guilt or shame associated with sex. Sex for Samantha does not require any kind of emotional commitment, nor does it imply any kind of relationship. She enjoys sex for the sake of sex. Samantha is largely self-sufficient, and is able to meet her validation needs through her close friendships. Although Samantha had three significant romantic relationships during the run of the show (including a lesbian relationship), she has never set out to find a relationship.
Carrie Bradshaw has a healthy appreciation for casual sex as well. Carrie, however, is looking for something more than just sex – she is looking for a relationship. While Carrie is less likely than Samantha to simply hook up with an attractive stranger, she doesn’t need to feel like she’s in a committed relationship before she will have sex. Sex is a part of casual dating for Carrie.
Miranda Hobbes is more interested in finding a romantic relationship than she admits. For Miranda, sex is more than just sex – it implies some kind of commitment, and requires some kind of emotional connection. The few times Miranda has indulged in strictly casual sex, she’s been disappointed. Miranda needs to feel that sex is a part of a relationship–and she has, in the past, used sex as a way to try to initiate a relationship. Once she has sex with someone, she immediately begins to see him as a potential long-term romantic partner.
If Samantha is the most stereotypically masculine in her approach to sex, Charlotte York is the most stereotypically feminine. Although she doesn’t like to admit it, Charlotte is uncomfortable with the idea of casual sex. For Charlotte, sex should only be part of a committed relationship. Charlotte sets the most boundaries with respect to her sex life–how far she’s willing to go sexually has a direct relation to how strong a commitment she receives from her partner. Of course this did backfire on her–she made her first husband wait until they were married before she would have sex with him, and then discovered that he couldn’t.
INTIMACY WITHOUT SEX: “WILL & GRACE”
“Sex and the City” mainly focuses on sex. If we want to find a model for an intimate relationship, we have to look to another popular television show: “Will & Grace.” Will Truman and Grace Adler share a tremendous amount of love, trust and intimacy in their relationship. They validate and support each other, and they share the kind of emotional connections that most of us truly crave in our lives. Ironically, the only reason that they manage to do this is that sex can never be a part of their relationship, since Will is gay. Women and gay men have always shared a special bond. In many ways, relationships between women and gay men are the only ones where we can experience true intimacy without involving sex.
But sex and intimacy are still connected. The more intimate we become with someone, the more important it will be that we are able to express that intimacy through sex. Our objective in our romantic relationships is to feel loved. Ultimately, love involves a balance of sex and intimacy. But for many of us, the choice seems to be either having intimacy without sex, or sex without intimacy. We’ve all but forgotten how to combine the two.