Chapter 12 Learning Objectives
Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:
- Conclude that sexual desire is neither necessary nor sufficient to be the sort of attraction for love.
- Identify the nuances about sex.
- Discriminate between many emotional aspects of sex that are similar to other interests and activities.
Watch this video or scan the QR code to gain an understanding of the emotional, mental and social consequences of sex.
Having said that sexual attraction is neither necessary nor sufficient for a relationship to be one of love and having claimed that no kind of satisfaction as such is, in general — without reference to particular people at particular times — necessarily more important than any other, it is necessary to discuss sex in particular since many, perhaps most, Americans (mistakenly, I believe) think sex somehow stands apart from the other things in life. They endow it with a psychological significance far beyond the morally important considerations of pregnancy or venereal disease. Sex education in the schools is a live issue; math is not. Movies are marked or rated according to their sexual content (and more recently to some extent, to the content of their violence) but not according to their stupidity or the economic, political, historical, or other kinds of content. Anatomy and sex are either censored or exploited in ways and to the extent that few other aspects of life are. To some, sex and sexual feelings are animalistic and beneath the dignity of man; others find it perhaps one of the greatest aspects of life. The wedding night or first marital intercourse is said to consummate the marriage, whereas writing a book together, brushing your teeth together, going through a crisis together, teaming up for a grand slam in bridge together, etc. do not have such exalted status. And although marital intercourse is supposed to consummate a relationship, extramarital intercourse can be the curse that destroys one. Further, although some people become jealous if their (romantic) loved one has any sort of interaction with someone else, still most only become jealous when they suspect their loved one of harboring some sort of sexual desire for, or having some sort of sexual conduct with, another person. One might perfectly well allow one’s love to talk to, play golf, bridge, or tennis with, or even dance, attend a party or a movie with another without any jealousy; but not so with the idea of their having sexual interaction with, or even sexual interest in, someone else.
Not everyone shares such views about sex, of course, but even those with the most so-called liberal views, when answering a survey, for example, see nothing strange about questions asking whether marriage, love, or affection was a necessary condition for kissing or petting or whatever. I suspect a similar survey asking them whether marriage, love, or affection was necessary for choosing a tennis partner, chess opponent, barber, money-lender, or person to sell your house to, would seem strange or ludicrous indeed.
There are many books and articles available about sexual technique. Some are better than others in the advice they offer. There is nothing wrong with knowing about technique, for even the greatest attractions and the otherwise greatest love relationships can run into some difficulty where there is virtual ignorance about giving or getting physical pleasure or satisfying one’s partner’s or even one’s own sexual desires. But, of course, technique just for its own sake can also be of little value. Almost any X-rated movie will give unintentional witness to the emptiness of even “expert” technique where there is no passion or desire. Actors methodically going through various gyrations in various contortionistic or stereotypical positions with obviously no real interest or even feigned pleasure don’t make sex look desirable. And the scenes in which they obviously have to work painfully and laboriously to maintain or conclude their “passion” make it seem even undesirable. And certainly there are few times one wants to have sex with someone who you feel is turning pages in their head as they pursue technique, oblivious to its purpose of satisfying each other. (Heaven help the partner of the person who skips a page, or who has to reach for the book for help.) Perhaps trying something new for the first time may be awkward and technical rather than passionate and satisfying, but this at least may be excusable on the grounds that learning something may be difficult at first, but rewarding, if of value, when better learned and later more natural. Total lack of technique (that is, total lack of understanding of how to please or to begin to please or how to even go about finding out what might please the other person or one’s self) is not very physically satisfying; but total reliance on technique alone is not very emotionally gratifying even in those cases where it may give physical pleasure. And in some cases, passionless, mechanical technique will not even give physical pleasure.
At any rate, there is a place for technical sexual knowledge and skill to at least some extent, but since there are numerous books and articles on the subject (some good, some terrible), I will not dwell on that and will instead be more interested here first in the emotional aspects of sex, second in the false and misleading notion of sex as some form of communication, and finally in the ethical aspect of sex, giving some ideas about what people might meaningfully consider in deciding when and under what circumstances various degrees or types of sexual activity might be right or not.
I would like to say one thing, first, however, about different handbooks offered as guides to satisfying sexual technique, and that is to advise you to take what they say with a grain of salt and a certain guardedness, particularly if you are somewhat inexperienced about sex. From even just a physical pleasure point of view, I would not want to be touched by at least one author who advises what men like. I wouldn’t like those things. The main point of technique is to give and get pleasure. If any particular technique does not do that with any particular person, modify or abandon the technique for that person. Don’t keep at it because it is supposed “to work”. If it does not feel good to them, it does not feel good to them. They are a better judge of their own pleasure and what they like than the book is. A sex technique book can give you ideas to explore for trying to please your partner and yourself — it cannot give guarantees those ideas will always work. In many cases different people seem to like to be touched in different ways, often in different places. This is not only with regard to sex but even with regard to a backrub (or backscratch) or any kind of massage. I love to have my back scratched medium hard, particularly along the backbone about shoulder blade high, and along the ridges of the shoulder blades. Receiving a backrub is all right, but I can take it or leave it. By wife and children hate to have their backs rubbed or scratched.
One girl I know loves to have her husband massage her foot and her calf. A foot massage just feels kind of strange to me. Some people like a light massage of their muscles and skin; others, heavier; some, either way; and some, not at all. In backrubs and massage, it literally is different strokes for different folks. Similarly for sexual touching; so any manual that is dogmatic and narrowly prescriptive is not likely to serve everyone’s pleasure.
The Emotional Aspect of Sex
Love and sex can be unrelated in that one can have sex with someone one does not love — at least not in terms of a full, satisfying, good, romantic relationship. In the extreme case, certainly, rape is sex without love. But more normally, one might have perfunctory sex with a partner one no longer cares for but whom one may not want to turn away with hurt feelings. (One might also have sex with a loved one but at a time that one is not really in the mood, but is being kind — this is not so much sex without love as it is sex without desire immediately before or during.) One might have an intentional “one or few nights stand”; there may even be a certain amount of knowingly temporary or simply physical passion or emotional need connected with it. One may have sex with a friend or someone one dates and finds sexually enjoyable but has no great general attraction for. Or one might be aroused at some time and not be terribly discriminating about who helps physically satisfy that arousal. I am not saying sex without much love is good or satisfying necessarily; I will address that soon. I am only saying here that it is at least possible for at least some people.
Also, there may be cases of love without sex due to perhaps long distances separating the lovers or because of some sort of voluntary abstinence based on fear, personal, or ethical grounds (maybe the lovers are not married or are married to other persons they believe would be wrongfully hurt) or maybe the lovers are too young or too old (if that ever happens) or too ill or physically or psychologically impotent or uninterested in sex. Certainly, some conditions make sex unwanted or impossible temporarily: tiredness or illness for example; worry over health, finances, a friend or relative’s well-being, an exam, job, or some other assignment; preoccupation with a task that requires full concentration, etc. Before the advent of birth control pills families that had air conditioning in their homes tended to conceive more children in the summer than those without, presumably because hot summer nights were just often too uncomfortable without air conditioning for sex or the thought of sex.
Another sort of temporary condition “thwarting” sex or sexual feelings is for many people the time immediately following a very satisfying sexual time together. This is not to say necessarily after one orgasm or twenty or maybe even none — the numbers are not what I am referring to, but the satisfaction or fulfillment of the time together. And yet after such a time together, people may feel more love but less sexual desire for each other than before; they may feel closer to each other than before. It is simply at this point that sexual excitement and desire is both fulfilled and temporarily extinguished. Sometimes, when one just wants to cuddle and lie close to another, sexual arousal may appear when it really is not wanted. Orgasm(s) then may quiet that sexual arousal and allow the quiet cuddling that was desired in the first place.
Before actually starting to discuss the emotional aspect of sex, an obvious but perhaps often forgotten point must be mentioned: sex is not always physically good or satisfying, even when health, psychological state, and circumstances are otherwise favorable for good sex. An orgasm may happen sooner than wanted or expected; or later; or not at all. Or, time having nothing to do with it, the orgasm may just sort of appear without the sensual build-up —sometimes even after prolonged foreplay— that helps make sex physically pleasurable. Orgasm may not be an explosive, inspiring, satisfying event but just a whimper that makes you feel somehow robbed of the proper ending. Sex may be painful whether at entry, build-up, or orgasm due to friction or its lack, size, positioning, or whatever. Something such as a condom, though it may sometimes add to comfort during intercourse, may cause some discomfort during ejaculation. Some of these things may affect just one partner or they may affect both. Sex might be very physically satisfying for one partner and yet simultaneously quite the opposite for the other. Certainly, sex can be very satisfying physically, but one should keep in mind that even on a physical level there can be such a thing as uncomfortable, even painful, empty, or just plain bad sex. And this may be between partners who generally at other times have had good sex with each other as well as between partners who may not have yet learned very much about (how to please) each other. Many people’s first sexual experience involves some physical difficulties. And many men, present company included, also have tried to unroll a condom and then put it on — which is a backward sequence that is not devoid of some pain, much embarrassment, and not a little difficulty in maintaining an erection. Condoms by some manufacturers now come with instructions, but if someone has not read them before a sexual experience, they are not likely to have the desire, sufficient light, patience, or sufficiently patient partner to read them during one.
Impotence, whether temporary or chronic, is not particularly conducive to good sex unless manual or oral sex is satisfying to the impotent person’s partner.
Now for many people, good physical sex is often only one element of a good sexual experience, and in some ways the least important element. For them emotional involvement, even if temporary, may be more important than orgasmic fulfillment.
Not all sex is emotionally very satisfying, as countless wives of brutish, clumsy, or selfish men and countless husbands of selfish, inept, clumsy or passive, passionless women could testify. Sex with a stranger or new lover may be uncertain; sex with a long-time lover or mate can be too perfunctory. Other things may be on one’s mind, not enough to prevent physical satisfaction, but enough to prohibit emotional satisfaction. Something disappointing or hurtful might be said during or after sex that spoils it emotionally. Sometimes, even among the most romantic of people, physical dissatisfaction can block emotional satisfaction; the two are not always independent. Emotionally, feelings of guilt or fear of pregnancy may wreak havoc with an otherwise physically satisfying encounter. In pre-marital or extra-marital relationships these problems may be intensified with added fears of being discovered and embarrassed or punished.
Some people perhaps want as part of the sexual experience the other person to be emotionally committed to them in some long time loving way. Others perhaps seek only at least a temporary emotional concern by their partner for them. If it is more lasting, fine; but if not, that is all right as long as it is at least a genuine caring at the time. Sometimes even that is not necessary in at least two different kinds of cases. In one case, one may know that his or her partner is not feeling emotionally close at the particular time but knows that there is an overriding love or emotional bond, one which is usually evident or that has been evident in the past and will probably also be evident again in the future. So that on this particular occasion although the partner may only seek physical gratification, or even just may be obliging the one who seeks some sort of physical gratification, that may be okay. Second, there may be times when both partners are simply physically or sexually attracted to each other at the time and the physical release is all that is important to both. To some extent, this may involve an at least temporarily emotional gratification or experience as well, since in any activity, whether sex or otherwise, it is often difficult to have a really good time with someone else and not therefore also feel at least something for them.
In fact, in most ways, I think sex is like many other areas of life. It, like other things, simply is often more satisfying when enjoyed mutually with someone whom you like and who likes you and with whom you have a fuller relationship overlapping into other areas. A few tiny examples are simply such as preferring to share a good meal, especially one you cooked yourself, with someone you really care about. Or even in, say, a trivial area like playing tennis, suppose you have a special friend you play a great deal of tennis with. Then suppose one day when you are playing a total stranger, with your friend not around, you play the best tennis of your life or have one of the best, most fiercely contested matches you have ever had, with great shots and great efforts on both sides. Wouldn’t it have been more satisfying if your usual partner had been your opponent for such a match, or at least seen it to help share your joy? Special people often make especially good moments even more satisfying. In Silent Night, Lonely Night, Lloyd Bridges tells Shirley Jones that his mother always said the best part of a good meal was sharing it with friends.
On the other hand, some things are best not shared at all or are best shared with strangers. In the same movie, the character portrayed by Bridges had much sorrow in his life that his closest friends all knew about. If he were home at Christmas time, friends would invite him over, but he always felt it was only out of kindness or pity; and the sorrow over his past family tragedies, which was especially acute in Christmas season when others were sharing time with their families, would weigh heavily upon them all. No, for him it was better to be with a stranger at Christmas, one who did not know of his losses and with whom he could enjoy simply the present good, whether sexual or otherwise, without past tragedies impinging upon the relationship and the moments together.
And many, of course, feel that some bad times or bad experiences are better to go through alone. Some people would rather have good company or a special friend with them to help soften bad times or unsatisfactory times, whereas others, like me, would rather be alone, would rather not have to have others also experience the unpleasantness with them. In a somewhat trivial way, this was always a problem with going to a movie, concert, or play. If it were going to be good, I would like to have a special friend with me; if it were going to be terrible, I would just as soon not have a special friend have to endure it. And you could not know ahead of time whether it would be an enjoyable play, movie, concert or not, so I always had to make some sort of decision about inviting a friend or not. One of my better experiences was the time I went to a movie that had only two showings remaining, both that night. I went alone to the first showing. Before the feature, there was an absolutely stunning short film that was one of the most beautiful and well-done pieces I had ever seen. I tried to get in touch with a very special friend so she could come to see the last performance, but I could not reach her. Then just before the last performance began, she came to the theater on her own, just by chance. I was overjoyed. We sat through the short together, and as I watched it for the second time, I also watched her face show she enjoyed it as much as I did. It was a special moment for both of us. We both knew that. I left the theater then to let her watch the feature alone, a feature which was not too bad but which I enjoyed far less than the short and did not especially care to see again.
Problems can arise between people who have different outlooks or feelings about whether being together is more important than what you do together. For example, two people may go to a movie that neither likes, and one of them may feel depressed that they wasted time and money on the movie, or may be depressed by the theme of the movie or any of a number of things associated with the experience. The other person may not be depressed at all, feeling that though the movie itself was a waste, the time spent together made up for the worthlessness of the movie. This person may feel very loving and content whereas the depressed person may feel frustrated, upset, inattentive, and unloving at the time. People do behave this way; there are those who find sharing more important than what, or the quality of what, is shared, and there are those who find sharing only good if what is shared is good and satisfactory.
Before returning to sex with regard to all this, let me make one more related point. We speak of “sharing experiences” or “sharing emotions” with someone else, of “having the same emotions”, the “same feelings” as someone else. In one sense this is possible but in another sense it is not. Having the same emotions or sharing an experience is more like wearing the same dress to a party than it is like sharing the same candy bar. When two women wear “the same” dress to a party, that does not mean they have only one dress between them and that either they are both simultaneously in it or that they keep switching it back and forth between them while one hides out undressed in a bathroom or closet. It simply means that the two are wearing different dresses which are exactly similar (at least in style and color, though maybe not necessarily in size, cost, or manufacturer). There are two different dresses, not one dress. When two people share a candy bar, that means there is only one candy bar and they are both eating from it; they each have different parts of it.
Now emotions and, in a sense, experiences are private things. My emotions are the ones I have, and yours are the ones you have; and although we might have exactly similar ones (like two women wearing similar dresses to a party), we never have the same ones (in the candy bar sense). Emotions are not the kinds of things we can share in the candy bar sense. Whether our emotions are exactly similar or not, you experience yours and not mine; I experience mine, not yours.
With regard to sex:
1) There are times one may not feel very loving or interested in sex at all. Or one may not be in the mood for the kind of sex one’s mate likes. If one’s mood cannot be changed, sex is not likely to be a good experience at such a time.
2) If the sex is not physically good for one partner, but is for the other, the emotional state of the one partner may not match that of the other.
3) Even if the physical sensations are the same (that is, exactly similar) for both, the two may not react the same in terms of their appreciation (or distress) or emotions. One may find the sharing or time together most important; the other, how good or bad the experience was. This can easily color attitudes and emotions toward each other. For example, a temporarily impotent man may be far more upset than his partner. Or he may perfectly well understand the situation and not be upset by it whereas the partner may feel frustrated or unattractive and unalluring, though this may not be the case nor the cause. Books, movies, magazine articles, and real life are filled with misunderstandings and hurt feelings caused by different emotional responses or feelings about particular shared events. This can be even if the sex is physically very enjoyable for both. One may say “you were really beautiful,” and the other reply “yeah, that was really great”. The first is talking about the sharing with that particular person and how they acted and/or responded whereas the second seems to minimize or miss all that and think of only how good it felt, perhaps also unintentionally implying with whom it was shared was secondary.
Now sex is not totally unique in this way. There are other activities people can share or do together where they may come out at cross purposes or different feelings. I have already mentioned movies, but just about anything two people do together can end up this way. Viewing a sunset on a chilly evening, one may be warmed by the beauty, ignoring the cold; the other may be cold and miss the beauty. Or both may see the beauty, but one wanting to run to get his camera to record it, the other only wanting to stand arm in arm or in a loving embrace in its splendor. To the one, the tender moment is lost while the other’s mind is on getting the objective visual element of the experience on film.
But, you may say, movies, sunset and sports viewing are the kinds of things that are passive to the extent neither person, simply as viewer (rather than as commentator) adds to the experience, and that sex is different in that the people themselves help create the experience and its quality for themselves and for each other. When sex is good physically and emotionally, it is because the partners each contributed in such a way to make it that way. Furthermore, the actions and the response are almost simultaneous, and there is an immediacy of feeling and response that can induce further response, again almost immediately.
But this same could be said of playing ping pong or chess, of dancing, conversation, or of performing music together. In chess between masters of the game perhaps every move is filled with anticipation and the kind of mental stimulation that the crowning move caps off. In ping pong or tennis, perhaps certain shots or certain rallies or certain moves of the opponents show early that something special is taking place. In ballroom dancing, the beauty and satisfaction is directly and immediately created by the couple themselves; likewise in good conversation and good musical ensembles, particularly unrehearsed “jam” sessions.
Certainly, the physical feelings of sex are different from the physical feelings of playing tennis or of writing a good book in collaboration with each other, but the emotional responses may be fairly similar. One tennis player may put more emphasis on who won; another, on how well each played regardless of who won. Some people do not enjoy a match they win just because they slightly outplay a poorly playing opponent as much as they enjoy a match that stretches their ability and makes them play very well, even though they lose to an opponent that plays even better. Two people who feel this latter way can both feel good about the match and about each other though one won and one lost. Whereas the feelings might be quite different between opponents who place sole importance on whether they won or lost; or between such a person and the person interested primarily in the character of his play, not the outcome of the score.
Likewise in a discussion where much information is transferred between the parties. One may be excited about what was learned and the other more excited that it was learned or taught to (or by) that person. One may appreciate the experience more; the other, the information.
I used to think that one of the ways that sex was unique was that though other kinds of good experiences with a lover led you to want to make love, good love-making did not lead you to want to do other things. But that is not true. First, a good loving session might make you want to talk. And it might allow a more honest, open, comfortable, and meaningful discussion than there otherwise would be. It might make you hungry and want to go out for a pizza or Chinese food or to have wine and spaghetti by candlelight. It might make you want to go for a walk on the beach together or to write poetry. Or it might make you want to cuddle in each others’ arms or caress each other tenderly — which can be different from sex (so that though cuddling and caressing can lead to sex, sex can also lead to cuddling and caressing). Good sex might make you feel like doing a chore you otherwise did not feel like doing earlier. On the other hand, a great tennis match or terrific intellectual conversation might leave you too exhausted or too keyed up to care about sex.
Sex cannot necessarily be viewed as the goal of either a relationship or even a period of time together. It is true that often people have sex at night and then go to sleep, or have sex so that they can go to sleep; but often people, when they are too tired to have sex, go to sleep so that they can have sex once they are rested. Also, with me, physically and emotionally good sex often revives and invigorates me so much that I cannot sleep and do not want to anyway. Sex can cap off an evening, but it can also begin an evening. Actor Michael Caine, in a newspaper article I happened to see long ago, talked about the proper seductive sequence for an evening and then ended this perhaps tongue-in-cheek interview by saying that it might be better just to have your sex with each other before you go out so that the evening out does not have to be thought of by either as a seduction, but can instead be enjoyed for itself. Lots of things can lead to sex, but sex can also lead to lots of other things.
Sex, when it is good, both emotionally and physically is one of the good things in life; but it is hardly the only good thing; and though one of the best things, only one on a long list of “best things”. Experiencing or creating great beauty or great goodness or great truths together in whatever sphere can in their own ways be equally as exciting, fulfilling and rewarding. And perhaps contrary to public opinion, sex is not the only thing on people’s minds. Perhaps it is under deprivation conditions when they cannot have the kind of experience they want to have. But when sex is satisfied, other things often leap to the forefront (except for people who just turn over and go to sleep so they can have more sex when they wake up — generally though I would think there would be a limit to this and its satisfaction). When you are in the mood for sex, tennis or work will not interest you much. But when you are in the mood to play tennis, write poetry, read a book, or do almost anything, sex may not be particularly enticing at all. How many otherwise loving and sexually active partners have momentarily spurned their romantically inclined mates because they just had to finish watching some tv program in which they had become engrossed or because they were working on something (even unpleasant, such as a tax return) they wanted to finish before doing anything else.
So I suspect sex, apart from its particular kinds of unique physical feelings, the possibility of pregnancy, and the possibility of venereal disease in some cases, is not that much different from other potentially good areas of life which we can share with each other.
With regard to any experience, there are certain possible combinations:
(1) We might enjoy something while experiencing it alone.
(2) We might not enjoy something while being there alone.
(3) We might enjoy something and be with a person we like who also enjoys the experience.
(4) We might enjoy something and be with a person we like who does not enjoy the experience.
(5) In this latter case, the person (a) may or (b) may not be able to understand our enjoyment.
(6) We might enjoy something and be with a person we do not like who also enjoys the experience.
(7) We might enjoy something and be with a person we do not like who does not enjoy the experience.
(8) In this latter case, the person (a) may or (b) may not understand how we can enjoy the experience.
(9) We might not enjoy something and be with someone we like who does enjoy the experience.
(10) In this case we (a) may or (b) may not understand how they can enjoy the experience.
(11) We may not enjoy something and be with someone we like who also does not enjoy it.
(12) We may not enjoy something and be with someone we do not like who does enjoy the experience.
(13) In this case, we (a) may or (b) may not understand how they can enjoy the experience.
(14) We may not enjoy something and be with someone we do not like who also may not enjoy the experience.
Before I go on to talk about this, let me elaborate a bit. We like and dislike other people in various degrees (it is not an all or none thing) from extreme aversion to extreme attraction. Also we experience things in various degrees from extreme dissatisfaction to extreme enjoyment. To that extent, the above list is abbreviated. There is a further complication the list ignores, which I will deal with shortly.
However, first, with regard to many experiences or kinds of experiences, we can rank the categories above as to our preferences. For example, though there are certain experiences I would like to have privately or do by myself (such as reading — it is very difficult for some reason for me to concentrate on reading the way I like to if someone else is in the room with me; even reading of substance in a library is nearly impossible for me), with regard to many or most things I would like best to enjoy them with someone I like who also enjoys them. But I would rather sit alone through a play or movie or any experience which turns out to be terrible than to have taken someone I like to it and have them suffer through it too. There are times when misery does not love company — at least for me. Further, one of the things I hate the most is to really enjoy something with someone I like who does not enjoy it and who cannot really understand how I do. Now not everyone’s preferences will fall in the same order. For example, some people do not find it horribly important how good the movie or whatever is as long as they are with someone they like — whether either one of them enjoys the movie or the experience itself or not.
The complication I referred to earlier is that some of the variables can affect the others. For example, doing something with someone we dislike (whether by force, or by chance, as in a blind date) can keep us from enjoying what would otherwise be a pleasant experience; or doing something which would otherwise be unpleasant with someone we like might help us enjoy the experience. In any given case one might not be able to say whether an experience was pleasant or not apart from the company, but I will assume that for many cases we can do this and that for many cases it makes sense to talk about our enjoying a certain experience apart from how other things or the company affected it. We might have had a rotten time at a movie and not have enjoyed the movie at all because the kids kept pestering us or because our date was obnoxious, but we might still know perfectly well it was a movie we would enjoy if we could see it alone, or with someone we like. It is not always the company we have but sometimes other conditions too which can increase or decrease particular enjoyments. For example, otherwise good food might not taste very good if it looks bad or if we have to eat it in a place where there is a bad odor or bugs running around. Commercials can sometimes spoil a television program, or they can enhance it by giving one a chance to reflect on what has just occurred or on what has just been said. Someone else’s table manners or remarks can spoil an otherwise good dinner. My sister as a little girl seemed to enjoy the dog biscuit I convinced her would be delicious and considered a delicacy by most people.
Many people would like to share their good moments with others; when we see a good movie or beautiful scene or when we find a good restaurant, we tell others or wish they were there to share it with us to enjoy it too. Gordie Howe upon being asked whether he thought anyone else would score 800 career hockey goals replied: “If they get close I’d sure be rooting for them; it’s such a tremendous experience I hope others might have it too.” It is nice when others we like or think deserving can share our joys with us and appreciate them as we do. This is true of many things, not just sex.
So, working only with categories 1 and 3 from the list above, consider the following statement by David M. Wulff in an article in a publication (Perspectives) available to University of Michigan students one year (full citation not available). After asserting that masturbation could be a good thing he goes on to say “but the mutuality of interpersonal [sexual] expression promises fulfillment masturbation can never provide.” He does not argue this nor does he explain quite what he means here. I have also heard a physician assert that heterosexual activity is better than masturbation though masturbation might be extremely pleasant and have nothing wrong with it. I am puzzled at these statements, particularly perhaps in light of Masters and Johnson’s report that there is no physiological difference found between the two types of sexual build-up and release. One answer might be that sexual arousal and release through orgasm, although feeling good in itself, is only one of the pleasures one experiences in successful heterosexual intercourse; that is, one also feels good to know the other person has had such a good feeling too, and further that they were able to experience it because of something you did (and vice versa, and that you are a good “team” or sexual “partnership”). But if this is the only difference between masturbation and heterosexual activity, this does not set sex off from other endeavors. E.g., playing good bridge might thus be more rewarding than playing solitaire. Going for a beautiful walk with a friend is better than going alone. Playing good tennis with an opponent might be more rewarding than playing against the hitting wall or a ball machine. Playing music in a quartet, band, or orchestra might be more rewarding than playing alone.
And Wulff has some reservations against masturbation: “If one becomes accustomed to a particular type or rate of stimulation, to fantasies of one kind or another, or to specific circumstances for sexual arousal, he may not have the flexibility, responsiveness, or even interest necessary to achieve the free and total intimacy and unity that characterizes a sexually- expressed relationship at its best.”
First, if he means by “unity” having the same feelings at the same time, I pointed out earlier that we can only achieve that in terms of having identical feelings, not sharing the same (one) feeling and that even that depends on both the physical and emotional experience of the act. We never have a unity of consciousness — two people, one consciousness.
Second, his objection would seem also to hold against ever having just one partner — you might get so used to each other that if one of you (re-) married someone else, you might not be able to adapt. Further, one might vary one’s autosexual techniques; and there is some evidence that some people who masturbate perhaps are more responsive to nuance and/or are more aware of their own and their partner’s needs and how to meet them and so are better, not worse, lovers because of it. (The comedic expression of this appears in one of Woody Allen’s movies, where when a woman compliments him on his love-making ability, his explanation is that he practices a lot when he is alone.) And certainly solitaire is not a help to bridge playing, but neither is it a hindrance. It is unrelated, and it serves a different purpose. Likewise playing tennis against a wall is not like playing it against an opponent, but it is probably better than not being able to play at all when you want to. Further, this is an activity that can improve your tennis against an opponent — if you do not, also in this kind of solo activity, just get so used to one rhythm or one kind of shot that you cannot respond to the variety of rhythms and shots of different opponents. Solo wall tennis is great when you want to practice some particular shots or skills or when you want to wear yourself out faster than you probably would in a game, or when you want to hit the ball really hard to take out some frustration or other on the ball and the wall. Solo musical practice also gives you an opportunity to improve your playing.
Further, being able to play bridge with one partner or being able to defeat one tennis player does not mean you will be any good with a second bridge partner or against a second tennis player, but this is no reason not to play with or against some other person.
And, as I said earlier, sex between two people is not always satisfying. A good masturbating episode might be worth far more than a dismal heterosexual one — whether dismal for physical or emotional causes or both. In the same way tennis against the wall might be far more rewarding than tennis with a partner either too good or too poor a player or too uncompanionable for you. Solitaire might be more rewarding than a lousy bridge game. Enjoying a movie or fine cuisine alone might be far more enjoyable than sharing it with an insensitive boor. Or sometimes with tennis, music, reading, sex, thinking, or whatever, one might just prefer to be alone, for whatever reason.
Further, with regard to numbers 4, 7, 9, and 12, which would apply to a case like rape or simply to one partner’s not enjoying an act of intercourse for any of a host of reasons, masturbation or abstinence or something else might indeed be preferable. But then it is not much fun to go to a concert with someone who hates music or to teach someone who does not like learning or to play tennis with someone who keeps complaining about the heat, or who may not complain but who you know does not like doing what he is doing. My favorite movie is Dr. Zhivago, but I know people who only see it as a frozen wasteland movie or as a movie about two people extra- maritally “fooling around”. I wouldn’t even want to discuss it with them, let alone see it with them. Likewise, I personally would not really be interested in having sex with anyone who just considered it fun or “fooling around” or to whom it did not mean anything other than a way to kill some time enjoyably on a physical level.
Further, sex is certainly more enjoyable with someone we like and with whom we want to have sex than with someone we do not, other things being equal. A woman who enjoys consenting intercourse with someone she likes and wants to have sex with at the time might not appreciate rape, nor even sex with that same person when she is angry with him or not interested in sex at the time. But that does not set sex apart from other activities, many of which often are more enjoyable with someone we like at the time and with whom we want to share that activity than with someone or at some time we do not. For example, many men do not like playing golf with their wives, even though their wives may be good golfers and even though they may love their wives and enjoy doing lots of other things with them. And it is often not even much fun to talk with someone you dislike, let alone play golf or bridge with them or have intercourse with them.
Now some people seem to think that sexual intercourse somehow brings two people’s minds closer together, that it allows them more than any other experience to share each other’s feelings and thoughts. But it seems to me that two people can have sort of communion of spirit from many other activities also — walking together in a midnight snowfall, watching their child take its first steps, finishing an important joint project, dancing, playing chess, playing ping pong, analyzing or creating a work of art, etc., etc., etc. Further, a communion of spirit or sharing of feelings is simply having similar feelings by both at the same time, perhaps with both realizing they are having similar feelings. It is not the having of one feeling shared by two consciousness’s. People can have similar feelings at the same time, but that is hardly so mystical as some supposed sharing of minds or mixing of psychic entities in some way or other. I do not know whether anyone actually holds that sharing an experience is some psychic fusion, but I suspect from the aura or wonder that surrounds this sharing that many people somehow do hold it. Certainly there is no mystique in two people having the same (that is, identical or similar) feelings after each is hit in the left knee by a hammer; and in that case certainly there are two pains — one person’s and the other’s — not just one pain out there somewhere which both partake of. Is it so strange then that two people should have similar feelings after an experience of good and enjoyable love-making together! Of course this does not mean that their feelings in this latter case are not beautiful or wonderful or that it is not somehow miraculous and splendid that they are able to so interact as to get those feelings together; but this miracle or splendor is not the same as some sort of mental fusion or actual “meeting of the minds”.
One of the ways sex is different from some aspects of life, but again similar to other areas regarding emotions is that most of us are too shy or insecure or too embarrassed to “let ourselves go” in front of others unless we feel secure that the other person will not ridicule us or laugh at us or find us strange. In short, we need to trust the other to understand or appreciate what we are doing. This is true for many people with regard to anything from reciting poetry to going off a diving board for the first time or who knows what. We can take what we believe to be good-natured kidding about ourselves or the dumb things we do (and we are more likely to believe our friends are being good natured in their jibes), but if we believe the comments to be at all malicious or ridiculing, we tend to be offended, and often embarrassed. Most of us, I suspect, are not too sure our naked bodies are beautiful or in the control we might want them to be. And few of us probably are confident (probably justifiably) about looking glamorous during sex. And many people are not confident that they are very good at sex — at giving pleasure during it, or still desirable company after it. I would guess this goes a long way to explain our preferring to have sexual activity with those we trust (in this sphere) and also probably like.
But lack of embarrassment in sex may not signify lack of embarrassment to play tennis or talk about financial matters with the other person or any of a host of others, just as being free to talk about money or feelings may still not signify being free to talk about or participate in sex with another. And in some cases, in fact, it seems that sexual intimacy is easier to achieve for some people than other forms of intimacy, and that sexual satisfaction is easier to achieve than other sorts of satisfaction. There have been a number of movies depicting relationships that begin with a great deal of passionate attraction and satisfying sex. As the couple then tries to find other mutually enjoyable and beneficial areas to share, however, they find there are none. In some cases they then even grow to dislike each other, hurt each other, or think ill of each other. Satisfactory sex between two people certainly does not mean that other areas of life will also be satisfactory. And in this age of casual and readily available sex, this may be more often apparent than the converse — that satisfaction in other areas of life between any two people does not necessarily mean that sex between them is warranted or likely to be satisfactory.
So, to summarize, though I do not deny that sex is different from other aspects of life — certainly the particular physical feelings it evokes are different from other kinds of physical feelings, and the emotions those feelings evoke can feel different in some cases from other sorts of emotions — I do deny that it is significantly different; I do deny that it is somehow generally more important or radically unlike other aspects of relationships that involve physical feelings and/or emotions. Emotions caused by sex or by sexual arousal are no better feeling than other good emotions, and in some cases may not even be as good. Sexual emotions do not seem to be significantly different from other emotions.
Of course, sex offers a risk of pregnancy (if the sex includes intercourse and the participants are fertile) and a risk of contracting a venereal disease that other areas of life do not. But many aspects of life have their own particular risks; sex is not unique in having either risks or benefits. And sex with no risk of pregnancy (for example when it does not include actual intercourse or when at least one of the partners is not fertile) is hardly ever considered therefore to be in a different light from sex where there is that risk. (It would hardly be a good excuse or justification for a teenager to give her parents, for a post-menopausal woman to give her husband, or for a sterilized man to give his wife, that their premarital or extramarital partner didn’t or couldn’t get (them) pregnant, so it was, therefore, nothing to be concerned about.)
All in all, I see nothing about either the risks of sex nor about the physical or emotional feelings of sex that gives it the special — at once exalted and maligned — status it seems to have in our society. I will discuss the ethics of sex later, but even there no special or unique principles will have to be discovered or recognized that would not also apply to other areas of life.
Now I would like to discuss something that is rather whimsical but which I think has an important point lurking behind it, though I cannot quite see that point clearly.
Once, while I was watching a particular episode of Star Trek (the original tv series), it made
me think how odd in a way the emotional aspect of sex is. It was an episode in which part of the crew lands on a desolate planet to find only a laboratory housing some jars that glowed brightly. It turned out that these jars contained the intact, still functioning minds of the formerly populated planet’s leading scientist and his wife (one in each jar). They — their minds — had been in these jars for centuries, and although they could communicate with each other and with the crew of the Enterprise via telepathy, they were tired of being in the same old place unable to move about, etc. They asked, and were given, permission to take over Captain Kirk’s body and that of a beautiful female astrophysicist temporarily (putting, for the duration, these people mind’s in the jars — which then did not glow nearly as brightly) in order to build some robot bodies for themselves. However, the first thing they did upon taking over the two others’ bodies was to passionately embrace and kiss. That seemed very touching and romantic at first, but then it made me wonder why they did that, and who, after all, was being kissed, or doing the kissing. Why was it so important for the scientist to kiss this other body with his wife’s mind in it, and vice versa? Would he have done so had she been ugly, or in another man’s body, or in a dog’s?!! Why didn’t they just put the jars closer together on the shelf in the first place, touching each other? Why not both be in the same jar? Or if they (i.e., their minds) needed ‘space’ from each other, just go into another jar far away for a while; and then hop back in the same jar together when they wanted to be together. If either scientist had transferred into the human body first, would it have got the same thrill out of kissing the jar that the other was still in? Other ‘body- hopping’ spirit/body transferring movies, where people fall in love with the same lover regardless of whose body that lover now ‘inhabits’ raise this same issue. But the problem then also seems to be the same for just normal kissing (or other emotionally involved physical affection or touching) in general. What exactly does the joy of kissing consist of, apart from just the physical pleasure of it, which I will try to show is not the main point or motivation of it?
And although, I originally wrote this with romantic touching in mind, it also applies, though with different emotions and different sorts of touching, to any sort of affection, whether parent- child, sibling, friends, etc. One survivor of a commercial plane crash filled with passengers said that as they knew the plane was going down, he and the stranger in the seat next to him held hands. He survived, the other man did not. In fact, the man and the pilot were the only survivors. What was comforting or important about their holding hands as opposed to just sitting next to each other? I think that if it were me in that situation, I might hold the hand of a fellow passenger I felt some sort of bond with, even if just during the flight, but not with just anyone; and for me possibly even only with a woman I felt some sort of bond with, not a man.
But either way, what is it about holding hands in that particular situation that makes it seem understandable for people to do as they think they are about to die or suffer greatly, if they want to, or that makes anyone want to do it? Or why is it that we want to kiss a child or a friend on the cheek as a sign of affection, as opposed, say, to just telling them you care about them or appreciate them or love them?
Kissing, embracing, hugging, cuddling, hand-holding — any general “loving” or affectionate physical contact are generally held to be desirable not only for, and not even basically for, the physical feeling alone (though that is often important to some extent) but for some sort of emotional enjoyment or satisfaction or something else as well. If the physical feeling were the important thing, we would want to have physical contact with everybody who had good hugging, kissing, hand-holding, etc. techniques, and people with the right kind of grip, lip texture, hand size and whatever else would go into the physical comfort of such things. We would seek the best kissers or the best huggers, etc. Or we would just as soon cuddle up with the right feeling kind of plastic or the correctly shaped hot water bottle or pillow. But these are not necessarily the people or things we want to cuddle up with, kiss, etc. So the physical aspect of touch alone, or even in large part, must not be what we are after, at least not generally. Or take ‘the Hollywood hug’ where people hug each other basically only at the shoulders, with the rest of their bodies as far apart as possible in that position. I am uncomfortable with any kind of frontal hug, even a ‘Hollywood’ one with anyone I don’t feel romantically inclined toward. I can hug someone from the side or put my arm around their back, standing beside them, but I don’t feel inclined to be chest to chest with someone I don’t have romantic feelings for. A ‘frontal’ hug to me is a romantic sort of thing, not a friendship sort of thing. But the question here is why a (physical) hug or embrace of either sort gives, or serves as a form of, emotional affection.
Of course, not all sexual activity, particularly with regard to orgasm or attempts to achieve it require any sort of emotional element. Masturbation and some intercourse (for example, some cases of sex with a prostitute, sex by a prostitute, sex for the sake of conquest or just physical fun) may be just for the physical release of tension (or for money) and for the accompanying good feeling or whatever non-emotional, psychological feeling might follow. And there can be touching that feels good without any sort of emotional attachment. Some people, for example, like having their hair washed at the salon or I used to love having the warm lather put on the back of my neck at the barber’s (when they used to shave the back of your neck with a razor) and enjoyed having it cleaned off with the warm, slightly damp towel, even though I had no particular affection for the barber. Many people enjoy a good massage by a professional or perhaps even a friend whom they have no romantic interest in. But for me, like with a hug, I would be uncomfortable with a massage like that. I can give a massage like that, but do not want to receive one. I consider a massage, like a hug, to be an intimate kind of thing, though I don’t know what makes it seem or be that way to me.
But as already stated, most people (or at least most civilized people) find that mere physical pleasure is not what they generally seek in seeking affectionate physical contact with another. They seek some sort of emotional closeness also, or in particular. A person masturbating probably is mainly or solely interested in the physical aspect, and as one of my students mentioned in a class, the plastic doll (as well as numerous other articles and devices) on the market for that probably would be satisfactory if they felt good. But they would hardly do for making love. To find out the person you are enjoyably making out with is only plastic or totally “bionic” or is an android I think would stop most people’s making out with that “partner”.
So then (except in cases for the release of tension, the creation of babies, or the sheer physical pleasure of sexual play) it seems that an (or the) essential aspect of physical or sexual contact is some emotional or mental satisfaction. Further, except for masturbation, prostitution, just physical pleasure, etc., it is essential that the other person enjoy it too; otherwise it would be like kissing the wall or cardboard.
Now comes the problem:
Physical contact is important, and important for something which it gives you, but something which is not itself physical. Why is it great to kiss (or otherwise be physically affectionate or intimate with) someone you love or desire, but not someone you do not, even if they physically feel the same or if the person you do not love or desire feels even better. How can this be so; or why should it be so? (And it certainly does seem so.) What can you get out of physical contact that is itself not physical?
Further, suppose there was something that was not physical that could be received from physical contact of a certain sort. For example, suppose that when you hold and kiss a particular person, you get a very warm emotional feeling, a feeling that you do not get except when you are holding and kissing that person. Now, all there is in contact with you is their body — not their mind, unless you want to argue, as I do not, that there is some kind of mental contact or ESP when bodies are in certain juxtapositions — so the warm emotional feeling you get must depend entirely or in part on the physical feeling of their body against yours. But it seems to me that it cannot be entirely, for surely, we could pinpoint all the physical aspects of the way they feel against us — we could measure their body temperature, pressure, texture, etc. and we could then construct an inanimate object (or we could find someone else) that could feel, physically, to you exactly the same when you hold or kiss it (or him or her). If it were the physical contact alone with the person which gave you the emotional warmth, anything that feels exactly like that should give you the exact same emotional warmth. But it won’t. Why not? What is it that the physical contact gives that causes emotional warmth yet that is not given by the physical contact itself? Or how can some physical contact cause something that other exactly similar physical contact cannot cause? Is the physical contact really the transmitter or the important factor that it seems?
And it seems to be the important or essential element because no matter how good someone makes you feel in any other way (for example, through a good, intimate, open talk, or a walk together through the snow on a clear and starry night, or a rousing discussion where each of you, because of the other, reaches new mental heights you never realized yourselves capable of) the emotional feeling is not the same emotional feeling you get from kissing or cuddling.
But as argued above, it cannot be physical contact alone which gives the emotional feeling. So it seems then that there is something along with physical contact that is the important thing in causing the emotional factor. But what? ESP or some sort of mental joining seem to be rather speculative, ad hoc answers; and it would seem funny that they should only occur when you kiss somebody you like, not just anybody you might kiss, or that they should only happen when kissing, etc. instead of when whispering close together, standing together in a crowded elevator, having the dentist or hygienist examine your teeth, or when giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Scenario 3: Envision you are having intimate physical contact with another person. Physical contact is important, and in many cases important for something which it gives you, but something which is not itself physical. Why is it great to kiss (or otherwise be physically affectionate or intimate with) someone you love or desire, but not someone you do not, even if they physically feel the same or if the person you do not love or desire feels even better. How can this be so; or why should it be so? (And it certainly does seem so.) What can you get out of physical contact that is itself not physical?
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Further, it cannot be the other person’s enjoyment of the kiss that is so important (though it is generally important we believe they enjoy the kiss for us to continue enjoying the kiss) here, since the question is why does either of you enjoy it in the first place. And it cannot be that you enjoy it because he or she enjoys it and he or she enjoys it because you enjoy it; that would give no starting place; you could not enjoy it till he or she did and he or she could not till you did. Further, if what made kissing so great were that the other person enjoyed it, along with some sort of physical feeling, you should enjoy kissing anyone who enjoyed kissing you and who kissed with the proper technique, pressure, etc.; but you do not.
And it cannot be just the fact that the other person “accepts” you and is willing to or wanting to kiss you, for (1) the above circularity problem arises again — you want to kiss them because they want to kiss you; they want to kiss you because you want to kiss them; yet neither of you can want to till the other does, (2) there are probably many people you know who could or would accept you or want to kiss you, some of whom it might physically feel good to kiss and who perhaps even would enjoy kissing you; yet still you do not necessarily want to kiss them, and (3) actual kissing would not then be important — only knowing the other person wants to kiss you or is willing to kiss you. This, though, is not the case. Giving truth serum or a lie detector examination to find out someone wants to kiss you, or just seeing it in their manner and their eyes, or knowing that a prostitute or a lonely or horny person would kiss you isn’t exactly an emotionally thrilling thing. And I do not suspect a person married a short time has any doubt that their spouse will want physical affection from them (generally) — yet that knowledge does not feel anywhere near the same as does the actual physical embracing, kissing, etc. itself.
What it is about, or along with, physical contact that causes it to be so desirable and/or emotionally or mentally satisfying with (only) certain people at certain times, I do not know. Definitely something, though.
- Love and sexual desire (or love and lust) are not necessarily the same and do not necessarily coincide.
- Sexual attraction is not a prerequisite for love.
- Sex is not necessarily the most important element in love, though it may be important at a particular time to particular people.
- Emotional and physical aspects of sex do not necessarily coincide.
- Sex in the context of this book may refer not just to intercourse, but to any sort of physical contact usually associated with physical/emotional desire: passionate or romantic kissing, holding hands, hugging. In specific contexts it may be about intercourse or at least genital manipulation/contact of various kinds.
Chapter Review Questions
- Question: What element of relationships is considered by some people to be merely animalistic and beneath the dignity of human beings?
- Question: Why before the advent of birth control pills did families that had air conditioning in their homes tend to conceive more children in the summer than those without?