ColumnIntimacy is a word that we bandy about, but we rarely grapple with its more challenging implications. Intimacy is also the issue that lady mags tend to frame as the key to healthy relationships, and however true this is, not all of us are currently in a relationship. (And many of us who are may not actually be ready for real intimacy either.) Are single people doomed to live without it? Considering all the health benefits of intimacy, let’s hope not.
The Sharon Olds poem below has been one of my favorites since college, but only in the last few years, after the end of a long-term relationship, did I truly understand its deeper layers. Can we experience intimacy with casual lovers, or only with our long-term partners?
Sex Without Love
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health—just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
To me, the poem is not so much an indictment of conventional partnership (the false messiah) – it’s about finding intimacy and pleasure beyond traditional notions of romantic love.
We tend to think of intimacy as something you share only with your primary romantic partner – the relationship valued above all others. But what if that’s a crock that we’ve been spoon-fed to preserve the established cultural order? We put a high price on romantic love (figuratively and literally–it’s big business). It trumps all other forms of connection, and marriage is the thing that begets the most attention we’ll ever receive in our lives — plus a huge nest egg of gifts. This is a given in our movies, TV shows, and our consumer culture overall. Notice the uptick in those “A diamond is forever” ads during the holiday season? That’s not an accident. We always crave intimacy, as that’s the way humans are built; and retailers know exactly when to take advantage of our vulnerabilities.
And there’s the rub, because it is precisely these vulnerabilities that one must be unafraid of, if we’re to experience real intimacy. According to Brene Brown, she of the viral Ted Talk, intimacy requires vulnerability – and vulnerability requires killing off of shame. If you’re single during the holiday season, it can be even harder to reach out — to let yourself be vulnerable. Our culture can shame us into staying silent, and remaining alone. (Interestingly, dating sites get huge spikes in memberships during the holidays – at least some singles are taking the initiative.)
Intimacy is not just post-coital pillow talk preserved for your spouse — it’s something you can share with your best friend, your child, your parent, your cousin, anyone that you’re willing to be vulnerable with. To get there, though, you have to first go on the hero’s journey and realize that you are the “single body alone in the universe against its own best time.” Intimacy requires knowing the self, warts and all. If you secret away your shadow side because of shame, your “intimate” moments probably won’t come to much.
So what of sex without love? Can real intimacy be found there – in hookups, in friends with benefits arrangements, with more than one person at a time? I believe so, but this requires first unraveling oneself from the hetero-normative framework of compulsory marriage and transactional relationships. Tina Turner asked us what love has to do with it, but I’d reframe that: What’s capitalism got to do with it? Notice where your relationships are about who owes what to whom, and you’ll begin to move beyond this limiting perception of dating and relating.
If we can liberate sex from love completely as an expectation — in the world and in our own consciousness, we can find real love — and real intimacy — everywhere.
Got a question for Stefanie? Email stefanie at ecosalon dot com and she’ll answer it in the next Sexual Healing column.
Keep in touch with Stefanie on Twitter: @ecosexuality
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