I self-identify as a hopeless romantic.
(Sometimes, I apologize for this; other times, I make mental notes of who dislikes romanticism and resolve to secretly loathe them.)
Romance defines my life: I’m endlessly questing for it, envisioning it, revisiting it in my past. Frankly, I live to be in love. I always have. I wear the loves I’ve accrued in every facet of my personality, letting the romances of my life sculpt who I am and what I want. And I’d argue that love creates all the ingredients required for exemplary sex.
Once upon a time, I felt love and sex were mutually independent; these days, regular readers will note that I typically conflate the two. I feel less sexual desire without an emotional connection, and in a feat of reverse-engineering, I also find myself falling for people I already physically desire. It’s as if my body and my mind refuse to be at odds.
Certainly, I’ve always felt love improved sex. The way emotional intimacy intensified physical intimacy seemed axiomatic. But lately, it’s gone to an extreme for me: I’m starting to think I can’t really want someone I don’t love.
Maybe it’s because I got used to luxury — sex with someone you desperately love is, after all, one of life’s finest delicacies. And maybe it’s a function of age — when the sugar rush of sudden lust gradually pales when compared with the mellow joy of companionship. But I also think it’s due to momentum — or a lack thereof: Love and lust feed off each other, and without the raw, kinetic energy of one, the other becomes marginally less likely.
Here’s an example: This semester, I’ve started falling out of love with a girl I liked. As my (unrequited) love for her dimmed, I found my lust consequently harder to sustain. I became more conscious of how her self-absorption bled into indifference toward me — a dynamic I’d ignored but now found demoralizing. Because the emotional bond grew flimsy, so became my sense of desire.
Generally, of course, sex doesn’t require love, but I’d argue that romance will inflect all the good sex you ever have. For one thing, love sets up the conditions for satisfying sex. Love involves a balance and an implicit exchange, with both partners conscious of each other’s desires. The worst sex of my life has always involved my own relative disinterest in someone else or their relative disinterest in me. Love preempts this problem.
Another obvious benefit of love to sex is the ease of vulnerability. I’ve met people who will throw themselves at someone they’ve just met — indeed, I’ve been such a person — but I’ve never known anyone, myself included, who can report an emotionally nuanced experience with a stranger. Personally, I’m too self-conscious.
I also believe sex should be to love as squares are to rectangles. Having sex with people I didn’t love has only ever gotten me shame, discomfort or the feeling of being psychologically lost. For instance, I once had sex with a boy without ever kissing him; the interaction was devoid of feeling, and it remains among the choices I most regret. I don’t mean to prescribe the details of anyone’s sex life, but imagine, for a moment, having sex with someone you’ve never kissed — the experience left me feeling empty and nauseous.
So in my experience, when sex occurs without love, it entails a much greater risk: Suddenly, there’s the chance of regret. Total disappointment becomes a distinct possibility. There are all sorts of ways to be physical that aren’t intercourse, of course, and to anyone looking for a feelings-free fling, I’d advise stopping short of sex. If they don’t love you, they probably haven’t earned it.
I’ll confess, however, that I reflexively admire people who are comfortably libertine. A friend of mine keeps a robust list of all the boys she’s slept with, and she has a certain devil-may-care freedom about her. Part of me wants that — enough ease in my own skin to separate love from sex and have trysts simply for pleasure. But I think it only works for some.
For me, escapades have lost their luster, at least for now. I’m hungry for more substantial relationships — ones that last and grow stronger and more satisfying. For now, I subsist on my memories of falling head over heels (I emphatically advise falling madly in love at least once) and let those sustain me.
Perhaps the great danger of love is its endurance. Whereas sex is fleeting, love lasts. And if a relationship breaks one on end, the person left loving must muddle through, grieving that someone they love no longer loves them. To its credit, sex lacks such complexity. As much as I recommend love, its side effects can be far more heinous than the clap.
At its best, love refines and elevates intercourse, making it equitable, fantastical, liberating, sublime. Life has a lot to offer, but I won’t be the first or the last to argue that nothing quite compares to becoming momentarily one with your other half — making love.
Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].