February 20, 2009

Let's Talk About Sex

Those of you who are Facebook savvy may have seen this chain posting “Twenty-five Random Facts” in which a person will post a list of things about themselves and then “tag” twenty-five other people. The tagged then have to make a similar post. This chain has been more successful than others and I have even enjoyed reading about my friends and acquaintances. When my turn came around, I posted my random facts, some of which were fairly ordinary and some of which were a bit out there, such as:

“8. If my significant other asked me to have a threesome, I would say yes as long as I personally liked the third party.”

I did not post this random fact to titillate, but I can’t say I didn’t want to shock anyone. I did. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself specifically, but I did want to shock people into reevaluating their own understanding of a subject which we discuss both far too often and far too little in this culture – sex. I don’t discuss it very often myself for two reasons: 1) I not out to titillate and 2) it doesn’t play a big role in my life. The second is not because I’m celibate by any means, but simply because I don’t place a high level of importance on it.

However, a close friend of mine who is on Facebook did read this fact and wanted to know more. This has made me reevaluate my own reasons for posting it and in so doing rethink and rearticulate my stance on the matter. These kinds of questions and challenges help me learn and understand the issues of life better. Reading this blog for a while, might give one a fairly good understanding of my ideas about romantic love and my own struggles with loneliness (one & two), and certain biological imperatives, but I’ve never actually articulated my stance on sex. I’ve been thinking about it a bit lately, partly in response to my fellow columnists at the Daily Nebraskan who have been writing frequently about the issue. I often disagree in whole in or in part, and the need to write a refutation sometimes burns within me, yet I’ve so far withheld. I didn’t want should it from the mountain top, but rather to let the fire simmer low and give it some thought. Well, here it is.

I believe that this culture/country has a fundamentally unhealthy view of sex (part and parcel of an unhealthy view of love) – a view that creates unhealthy relationships and inhibits honesty and trust. Naturally, I see it from a woman’s point of view, even if I don’t share the majority of women’s opinions on the matter. I see couples in which monogamy is placed on a golden thrown of idealism to the point that partners can’t even discuss the very thought of sexual intimacy outside of that relationship without it throwing a cloud of despair over both of them. I see women getting angry and hurt when their partner’s head turns when a hot chick in a tight skirt walks by. (And I don’t mean to generalize here, men get hurt for the same reasons and same sex couples suffer from the same problems, but let’s face it, where I live, this is the typical example.) It is as if they believe that a relationship suddenly alters lifelong habitual patterns, personalities, and biology overnight. This is a particularly destructive delusion.

It’s even played out in the media. How long did that Ross and Rachel argument (“We were on a break!”) on Friends last? Seven years? Rachel’s character reflects a flawed cultural belief that sex is the end all be all of a relationship and that one’s sexual activities are the sole basis for that relationship. She couldn’t forgive Ross for sleeping with the copy girl (admittedly a poor decision on his part) when she felt they were still in a relationship and Ross couldn’t forgive her for holding over his head something that he had done when he thought they were no longer in a relationship. Granted, I’m sure the writers dragged it out for comedic effect, but how many women completely agreed with Rachel and how many men secretly sympathized with Ross even though they would never admit it to their girlfriends? This repression is unhealthy.

I believe sex can and does serve three purposes: 1) procreation, 2) a powerful expression of intimacy, and 3) a recreational activity. With modern technology, we can forego number one, but two and three remain and exist simultaneously. Calling sex a recreational activity makes it sound casual, but I tend to believe it is anything but. I wouldn’t go skydiving with just anyone. It’s a somewhat risky behavior with inherent trust issues that must be addressed. I wouldn’t agree to take a cross-country road trip with just anyone. Such proximity leads to a high degree of intimacy, vulnerability, and honesty that I may not be comfortably sharing with certain individuals. On the other hand, I don’t think sex means anything (or implies anything about one’s relationship status) beyond the activity itself.

So if my significant other asked me to have a threesome, I wouldn’t do it simply because he/she wanted me to. To be honest, I might be the one suggesting the threesome, or it could be the other party. My decision would depend on the third party. Is this someone I genuinely like and would like to explore a deeper level of intimacy with? And is this someone with whom I believe sex would be fun? The other half of that equation is why someone may be suggesting the activity. Is it because they are interested in one person and see this as their only way to explore that with them? I think all three parties need to be interested in each other equally with no hidden agendas, before I would consider it. In the end, the most important factor is honesty. Being open to a frank discussion and complete understanding would be very important.

I think a lot of partners get talked into this kind of activity when they are not truly comfortable with it. They think that if they don’t agree, their partner may cheat. They see this as an alternative and after the fact end up regretting it.

A large segment of society has begun to believe that you don’t have to marry everyone you have sex with, but we still secretly hold the ideal that we should at least want to marry this person. People think there is no point in exploring a relationship that couldn’t “go all the way.” (For another Friends analogy, think of Pheobe’s relationship in Season 10. I always wanted to smack her for breaking up with him just because he didn’t want to get officially married.) I hold the opposite opinion. I believe having relationships, regardless of sex, with people we know or suspect we aren’t going to spend the rest of our lives with can be very beneficial. Humans are social creates and benefit enormously from intimate relationships. These relationships help us learn about others and about ourselves, as we all work together to mature into better human beings. Nor do these relationships necessarily have to be romantic in nature. Friendship is very important. I am also a strong believer in friends with benefits and I absolutely disprove the Harry Met Sally stereotype of male-female partnerships, as do many other people I know.

I also believe that people have to be open to a little heartbreak in all of their relationships. People aren’t perfect and in any relationship, be it romantic or friendship or even professional, feelings will get bruised and we’ll all be a little heartbroken. That’s an important learning opportunity and can help cultivate wisdom, compassion, and kindness. When we place our relationships on a pedestal – believing the perfect partner is someone who would never hurt us – we set ourselves up for a fall. Sex only complicates the matter when we add it to the list of unrealistic expectations.

I know that in my partners, I value honesty, kindness, and willingness above all things. I want them to want to be in a relationship with me. I want them to be a kind and genuine person, not only to me, but to others – someone who is willing to help, lend a strong arm or a sympathetic shoulder. And I want them to be honest. That includes honesty about sex and their own sexual desires. If they feel sexually attracted to someone other than me, I don’t want them to feel they have to hide that. (And I would never feel personally insulted if they thought Porche di Rossi was hot.) If they feel a strong urge to act on that attraction, I want to know so we can work with it as partners. I don’t want to be kept out of the loop or find myself stunned by an unexpected confession of unfaithfulness someday. All that being said, it’s not that I would not expect monogamy, but that’s a mutual decision, it can’t be enforced one-sidedly. I’m not willing to sacrifice honesty for it, or for the illusion of it.

For all my liberal ideas on sex (friends with benefits, comprehensive sex education in schools, free or subsidized birth control, legalized prostitution, ménage et trios, homosexuality, etc.) I’m very discriminating and quite choosy. I prefer partners I’ve known for a good period of time, months if not years, am already good friends with, have an understanding of their own views on relationships and sex, and know that I can have a frank discussion with regarding such things as well as safety measures and health issues. That tends to significantly narrow the pool, but leads to qualitatively better relationships.

In the end, I recognize the risks of sex, not just health wise, but also from a Buddhist perspective. David Loy wrote a wonder summary of it in his book Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. He writes:

“Obviously sexual desire is a good example – the ‘best’ example? – of tanha, ‘craving,’ which according to the four ennobling truths is the cause of dukkha [suffering]….If craving is the cause of dukkha, however, isn’t sexual desire incompatible with the deep serenity of nirvana?

“Sexual intimacy is a source of pleasure and gratification, and a very nice one it can be; it can also help create and sustain deeper, more meaningful relationships. Nevertheless, the sex drive is basically biological. Sex is an appetite. We do not use our sexual organs; they use us. That is why there is ultimately something delusive about the myths of romantic love and sexual fulfillment. Sex is nature’s way, and marriage is society’s way, to reproduce the species. Genuine happiness – that is, the end of dukkha – for any of the parties involved has little if anything to do with it.

“…We should recognize the uncomfortable truth that sex and romance cannot provide the long-term fulfillment – the end of dukkha – that we usually hope for from them. Sex is always nature’s trick, and romance an emotional gloss on it. We anticipate that our partner will somehow make us feel complete, but that never happens, because no one else can ever do that for us.”

Because our sexual desire is so very basic and so very strong, it can be dangerous in a sense, and lead to unskillful action which can bring suffering to ourselves and others. This makes and honest and frank understanding of sex and relationships even more important.

My stance on sex in a nutshell is like my stance on life in general: have fun, but don’t expect too much from it.

1 comment:

Davee said...

great post. i blame disney for my odd expectations about romantic relationships, so i can point the finger at someone. but really i wonder where such strong narratives came from. as a kid i had a detailed vision for how my life would go by thirty, what my marriage would look like, what my kids would look like, etc.

harder for me to shake though is the more subtle expectations that i am supposed to feel a certain way in relationship. for example, that i will 'just know' when i'm the right person, as if my emotional intelligence is all that much wiser than every other kind. ha! really it seems a kind of theism, that the things and people 'out there' have to be just right for 'me' to be happy. insidious!