Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Friday, August 21, 2009

No Sex for Singles

This week, Singlutionary has a brilliant post entitled "Sexless Singlutionary Experiment." Casual sex, including one-night stands, friends with benefits (FWBs), and f*** buddies (aka, "just benefits, hold the friendship please"), has been a hot topic in the singles blogosphere in recent months. Maybe it's the steamy weather with its requisite bikini beach days and titillating romcom movies, or maybe it's just the greater visibility of singles issues in general. Whatever it is, the Web is abuzz with opinions about how sex fits into the single life.

All long-term singles with a sex drive must confront this dilemma. Often, it remains the only stumbling block in an otherwise satisfied single's life. Go to any web site, blog, or message board for singles, and you'll see the ubiquitous complaint: "I love being single--the freedom, the flexibility, the self-determination--but I hate not getting any!" Sooner or later, every single has to make a decision about how he or she will channel sexual energy and whether that outlet will involve another person.

Without spoiling the details of the Singlutionary's gem of a post, which you should have a look at before you read any further, she decided to give intentional celibacy a try. Other than discussing the potential fallout of FWB relationships and hook ups in "Friends With Benefits and the Lowdown on Hook Ups, Part I" and "Part II," Singletude has been silent on this issue. That's because it's so personal and wrapped up in centuries of moral, psychological, and religious layers that can be hard to separate from it. However, I'm highlighting the Singlutionary's blog because she perfectly articulated my thoughts about the conundrum that is sex for the single person and chose an undeniably smart, safe, and sensitive solution for this time in her life.

Please keep in mind that I'm not saying any other choice is dumb, dangerous, and insensitive. But, as a single, whenever you add another person to the mix in your sex life, you have an unknown element that could become explosive at any time, so you have to be vigilant. When sex is an activity just between you and yourself, it's totally risk-free. STDs, jealousy, ruined friendship? Out of the question.

Again, I don't want to make a blanket statement implying that all casual sexual relationships go downhill or do damage, physical or emotional. But many of them do. That may not be politically correct, and it may not be popular, but sometimes the truth is neither. I have to call it as I see it, and time and again, I see these relationships beginning with two happy people and ending with at least one of them sad, regretful, or disillusioned. Casual affection turns into unrequited love, "friends" with benefits fail to deliver on the friendship, opportunities to pursue more meaningful relationships are missed. If even one person gets hurt, how can the relationship be considered "successful"? How can a few minutes of pleasure be worth this risk?

As singles, we're so used to living for ourselves that sometimes we forget sex involves someone else. It's an interpersonal experience, whether or not we want it to be. You can ignore the other person's feelings, pretend they're nothing more than a body. Hell, you can even ignore your own feelings and pretend you're nothing more than your body. But our minds and our hearts are an inseparable part of who we are, and we carry them into every interpersonal exchange. Of course that doesn't mean the feelings we bring to a sexual encounter will be love or other warm-fuzzy emotions. There will be feelings, though, of one sort or another, quite possibly intense feelings because sex is a physically intense experience, associated with a powerful physiobiological response as well as with powerful episodes in our personal histories and sometimes powerful beliefs and values. So when we imagine that this kind of interpersonal experience can be casual or only about the body or only about ourselves (as opposed to our partners) just because we're single, we don't prepare ourselves for how emotionally messy it can be.

No one wants to hear that these days, and I'm sure I'll get flak about voicing it. Everyone wants to believe that we singles can have our single serving and eat it, too. But I think this emanates from the flawed belief that life can be perfect, that we can search for and find a lifestyle that is all pros and no cons. That's the same trap that matrimaniacal people tumble into when they fantasize about living "happily ever after." They dream that marriage will give their lives an instant makeover, a quick fix after which there will be no conflict, no hardship, no sacrifice, just smooth sailing into the sunset. Sometimes, singles seem to believe that singlehood can have a similar transformative effect, that if we don't couple, we won't have any conflict, hardship, or sacrifice. That's not true. There is no perfect way to live. Both states, single and coupled, have advantages and disadvantages unique to each. Maybe living without partnered sex is just one of those disadvantages of singleness.

And is it really that much of a disadvantage anyway? Why is it that so many of us think we can't live without partnered sex? Is that really because it's so indispensable or because the dictum that we can't live without it has become as unquestioned as the tradition of marriage? One element of the Singlutionary's post that fascinated me was how she acknowledged her envy of all those nameless, faceless people out there getting it on. As she said, "I'm going to quit thinking that everyone out there doing-the-nasty is happier and healthier and having more fun than me."

For a long time, I felt the same way as Singlutionary. When I had to endure a dry spell without sex, I felt like I was suffering and envied couples who, I presumed, were getting laid on the regular. If I was abstinent for long enough, I started feeling insecure about myself, like I was a "loser" because I wasn't having The Sex. Then, as I was in the process of choosing singleness for myself, I also started reexamining my attitude toward sex.

What I realized was shocking. All my life, American culture had been sending me the message that sex was amazing, stupendous, the best experience that humans could aspire to. When I finally started having sex, I expected it to live up to the hype. I was so sure it would that I kept telling myself and other people how much I liked sex. But the fact wasn't all that. Sex was a hit-or-miss experience. Sometimes, with a partner who knew me well, understood what I liked, and was willing to do what I liked...and at certain times of the month...and when I was into it and not tired, uncomfortable, tense, irritated, was very pleasurable. Other times, it was just blah or downright painful. If I was honest with myself, I had to admit that, more often than not, the sex that really blew my mind was battery operated.

The fact that I have to "admit" that, that it's embarrassing, tells me a lot about how our society pushes intercourse. Why? I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet it's tied to the push for coupling and, ultimately, marriage. After all, isn't that one of the supposed benefits of marriage that matrimaniacs advertize all the time? If we get married, we can have better, more consistent sex, or so we're told. We need to reproduce to keep society functioning, so society tells us to reproduce. Even though we can experience as much physical pleasure on our own as with a partner, partnered sex is portrayed as the ultimate experience, like an ice cream sundae compared to a scoop of vanilla. If we're not constantly having sex, thinking about it, or trying to get it, we're pitied, derided, even diagnosed! To be fair, at least part of this is probably a backlash against the repression of previous generations, and it's totally normal to like sex, think about it, and want it. The problem arises when it's considered abnormal to not be that interested in sex.

Once I had separated out the physical aspect of sex, I was able to identify what it was that I really craved--acceptance. Social programming had done it's job, and I'd learned that as a normal, healthy woman, I should want sex and lots of it. So, naturally, I wanted sex just like I'd wanted a Champion sweatshirt and Z. Cavaricci jeans in junior high--so I could have what everyone else had and fit in. There was something competitive about it, too. From women's magazines to talk shows, I started noticing how sex had been commodified. It was like a resource you could accumulate for bragging rights: "I've had more sex than you and for longer and in more positions, too! Neener neener neener!" It seemed like no matter how good your sex life was (with yourself or otherwise), there was always someone out there taunting you with how much better it could be. Under the circumstances, no wonder I'd felt left out! I'd internalized the notion that "winners" have heaps of wild, crazy, earth-shaking sex.

Now that I understood the cultural messages I'd absorbed, I could focus on what really did distinguish partnered sex from single sex. First, there was the beautiful human body, which I had always admired and loved to touch. But was that in itself worth tolerating the trappings of a relationship or undertaking the risks of casual sex? I knew that, for me, the answer was no. Second, there was the personal connection, the closeness, and that's something I do miss about relationships. But it's not something I can get from a casual relationship, and it's not enough to justify a serious, committed relationship.

Perhaps you'll think about it and decide that sex does justify either pursuing a monogamous relationship or accepting the risks inherent in something casual. Just like the decision to get married, though, it should only be made when you can separate what you really want from what mainstream America has taught you to want. You may be surprised to discover how little your happiness really depends on getting off with someone else.

Okay, bring it on! What do you think about the cultural messages we receive about sex? Can you identify some beliefs about sex that you've internalized from society? Why do you think U.S. culture pushes partnered sex so much? Have you had a casual relationship primarily or just for sex? If so, what were the pros and cons as you experienced them? Were the pros worth the cons?

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Single Girl said...

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You for this post!!!!! And it could not have come at a better time, as I just yesterday tried to resurrect the "friends with benefits" thing with my Ex, only to find out that he's newly seeing someone. (Not to be mentioned on my blog for fear my friends/family will think me crazy!) But - it's a BAD idea.

It totally hit home for me when you said that - '"friends" with benefits fail to deliver on the friendship" - story of my life. And also that: "...our minds and our hearts are an inseparable part of who we are, and we carry them into every interpersonal exchange." You are absolutely right. No matter how much I tell myself that I can separate it, can I - really?

Always great to hear that others out there know exactly what I'm feeling too - the 'comfort in numbers' thing :) Appreciate you knocking some sense into me! Excellent post - thank you.

Clever Elsie said...

Single Girl: Thanks so much for this feedback! I'm really thrilled that my post was so helpful to you. I was worried that it would be offensive to some people, and maybe it was, but if it helped even one person, then it was worth it.

I wish there was a perfect solution to the single and sexless dilemma, I really do. It would be so easy if we could get our physical needs met with someone else but somehow not involve them! But the more I've tried and heard about other people trying FWB relationships, the more I realize what a complete paradox that is. Sex is one of those things that's tough for singles, but when I think of all those things that are tough for marrieds, I realize I don't have it that bad!

So, yes, there are definitely other people who feel similarly! It helps me to know I'm not the only one, too.

Anonymous said...

This is a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Elsie. I ultimately think that a lot of times, it doesn't hurt to try to have things in life that are satisfying for the moment, even if they aren't satisfying in the long run. The important thing is to be able to recognize when the latter occurs, and that's difficult.

As you know, I dated (and had sex with) a guy very casually this summer -- it was a pleasant surprise, and occurred at an opportune time for me and for him. But as the beginning of the fall semester approached, thus increasing my stress level, and as his job began demanding more of his time, I realized very quickly that the burgeoning non-relationship was causing me more stress than it was worth. So I ended it.

And now we're friends again.

I would not call the experience perfect or even entirely satisfactory, but I have to say that I'm glad I tried it, because it was worth it for the summer. I learned about myself and about how to be (more) open about what I want, which is different than what most women seem to want (and different than what he expected me to want). I wasn't as open as I could have been, but it was an important step for me, because in the future I think I would like to try something like it again.

I'm definitely not disagreeing with you that cultural forces are strong, but I think a lot of what is possible depends upon individuals, their level of comfort with themselves and knowledge of what they want, and their ability to communicate clearly with others. I'm not saying I handled this perfectly (in fact, I know I didn't), but I am saying that I think we shouldn't discount these kinds of possibilities simply because they might become too messy.

-- Lisa

Alan said...

Can't say it's ever really been an issue for me. But I'm not really into sex, which is probably pretty rare.

Anonymous said...

this is really an amazing post, all exactly my thoughts. I am aware of it as well- I know that I can be more physically satisfied by relying on myself, but I want to have sex because it makes me feel like I'm doing something right with my life. The day after I finally get some, I'm not thinking about how great it felt- I feel proud, like I passed a test or proved my adulthood or womanhood or sexuality or was otherwise somehow validated (or like I'm getting back at my exboyfriend, keeping up the score). I don't think there's anything wrong with that per se, and I don't think it's something to regret, but the reasons why I think like this are, I think, quite "wrong."

I think the issue of sex being "hit-or-miss" is something many women do not want to admit. If you don't like sex in our culture, you are doing something wrong, or your partner is doing something wrong, meaning you haven't been able to achieve a good enough partner. It's never that women's hormones change over the course of the month, that some body parts don't fit well with other body parts, etc.

I've gotten this from friends when I've admitted sometimes sex isn't great or even hurts- they say I haven't found "the right guy." The level of smugness and condescention in this response I find utterly sickening. I can't even really describe in words my visceral adverse reaction to this kind of response.

It's really amazing how much we play up sex in our culture. I don't get it. Yeah, sometimes it's fun, but there are a lot of things I'd rather do. And people will defend sex to the bitter end: I once complained to friends that often when I have sex, I have a horrible sensation that I have to pee, so much so that I have to stop and run to the bathroom. I really think it has something to do with the positioning of my organs or something! But my friends INSISTED that this is how sex is "supposed" to feel, that that's actually a type of orgasm and I'm supposed "get past it." Well I'm sorry, I don't care if it is some type of orgasm, it doesn't feel good. I've been having orgasms for a long time, and if there's another type out there that involves so much discomfort, then I don't want to have it! Why would I force myself to do something that doesn't feel good?

Clever Elsie said...

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your own personal story. Although I can't say I agree with the conclusion that a few moments of pleasure are worth the risk of negative long-term consequences for either oneself or the other person involved, I appreciate the different perspective that you're contributing.

Alan: I wonder if it's as rare as you think. Previously, I blogged about asexuality, the lack of desire for partnered sex. There are a lot of people who aren't interested in sex, and I'll bet there are many others who have some interest but not anywhere near the all-consuming desire that we're told we're supposed to have. I wonder how many people are ambivalent, indifferent, or even turned off to sex but are too embarrassed to admit it.

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine, someone significantly older and more experienced who had always portrayed herself as being very sexual. One day she confessed that she didn't like having sex with her husband much of the time. What followed was a frank discussion about the downside of sex from a woman's perspective and all the things we were "supposed" to like about it but didn't. We both ended up expressing how thankful we were to know that we weren't just weird or abnormal, that someone else felt the same way.

Our society seems to think everyone should like and want sex just because we're capable of experiencing pleasure and obtaining some health benefits from it. But one doesn't necessarily follow from the other. Case in point: Apples taste good to a lot of people and have health benefits, too, but that doesn't mean everyone likes them and should eat them all the time or that we have to eat them at all to be healthy.

And now it looks like my responses are about to exceed the length limit, so, to be continued...

Clever Elsie said...

Anonymous: Welcome if this is your first time at Singletude! I usually ask commenters to identify themselves somehow, but this is a very personal subject, so I'm not going to require it for this discussion.

The first paragraph of your comment describes exactly what I was trying to get at! I feel relieved to know that someone else feels the same way! At the same time, your comment underscores the unsettling truth that we as a nation have internalized this concept of the bedroom as a proving ground so that if someone puts his penis in your vagina (or if you put your penis in someone's vagina), then you've verified your value as a human being and should get applause and accolades. How many of us, I wonder, have embraced being single but still cling to the notion that we need someone else's sex organs? "I can live without a man, no problem, but not without his penis! Heavens, no!" It sounds laughable to think of it that way, doesn't it? I agree that having sex to win a seal of approval from society, friends, your partner, or even yourself isn't healthy or helpful to your own growth or anyone else's. I really do wonder just how many of us feel compelled to have sex we otherwise wouldn't have mostly for that reason.

Everywhere I look, I see evidence of what you said about the world's intolerance toward people who don't love partnered sex and love it all the time. It saddens me to hear that your friends, the very people who should support you most, haven't been able to listen to and accept the truth of your experience. I wonder if they really can't relate and therefore don't believe your experience or if something about it is too threatening to them to believe and, if so, what. In any case, it seems very clear that wanting and enjoying partnered sex--and pleasing the opposite sex in general--has become bound up with our sense of masculinity or femininity, so much so that we have trouble feeling manly or womanly otherwise.

You also addressed some of the causes of dissatisfying sex, and I just want to say that I also believe not enough attention is paid to those causes. A lot of blame is assigned to the woman who isn't enjoying sex or to her partner for not being skilled enough when a lot of the time other factors are to blame. It's great that we now understand so much about the human body and how to achieve pleasure during sex, but somewhere along the way, it became a social crime, a reason for ridicule, if one or both partners didn't find it pleasurable, and that's just not right.

At the end of the day, sex is something that developed for reproduction. If we can get pleasure out of it and want to do so, then fine. If you want sex to feel good and it doesn't, you should have every opportunity to learn about how to make it better. But if it doesn't feel good to you, that doesn't mean you're automatically unhealthy or less of a person!

Thank you so much for this very honest and thoughtful response!

SavvyD said...

The only difference is that I take this one step further and include the Christian practice of sex being for marriage. I don't want to take many risks with the incidence of 1st dates not turning into second dates being the current trend. Why would you risk it when you don't even know their real name, where they live or if they are even married and hiding it.

Clever Elsie said...

SavvyD: Hi! Nice to see a new name at Singletude!

I'll admit that I'm intimidated by the idea of waiting for marriage to have sex. I'd worry too much about compatibility issues! But good for you for upholding your own principles!

As for why people risk sex on the first date, I think there are various reasons. Some people are truly just after sex, and others are snowed into thinking it will turn into a relationship or believe they can convince an otherwise uninterested sex partner to want something deeper. To be fair, some relationships really do start with sex on the first date, but that's not the norm.

The Singlutionary said...

Thank you so much for commenting on my post. I missed this post at the time and am only now reading it! But I agree. I think we are suffering from some sort of whiplash from the repression which came before.

The idea that sex is natural and healthy and that it is normal to desire it has turned into some kind of competiton where the louder you are and the more you do it, the more valid you are as a human being.

This is true for women and for men.

I really enjoy sex and have a pretty high sex drive which is what made this decision so strange for me and challenged my sense of identity. At this point I haven't had sex in over a year. It used to really bother me but one thing I learned from my Abstinent Admirer is that its OK to not have sex: you're still YOU.

So I am still me. Sexless. I hope it isn't forever until I have sex again but I'm looking forward to a new sexual experience: one with someone who loves and values me.

That might seem old fashioned and traditonal but that is just where I'm at (and who I am). I love people. I sleep with them. And then things get weird. I just love people left and right and when I have sex with them a lot of energy goes out.

I hate to quote a TV show, but on the show BONES one of the characters is talking to her adopted daughter about sex. And she says something like: each time you have sex you give a little bit of yourself to that person.

I feel that way.

I know that not everyone does, but I do. And I need to honor that.

Clever Elsie said...

Singlutionary: The idea that sex is natural and healthy and that it is normal to desire it has turned into some kind of competiton where the louder you are and the more you do it, the more valid you are as a human being.

Yes! That is exactly what I was trying to get at! You hit the nail on the head.

I also completely understand your "traditional" view that sex involves sharing a part of yourself with someone and empathize with your desire to reserve that for someone who loves and values you. If I may say so, one thing I've learned about "old-fashioned" perspectives is that they're not always wrong just because they've been around for a long time. We need to evaluate them and decide what parts of them to keep and what to discard. And that's all I'll say about that. ;)

Thanks for your comment and for the terrific post that inspired this one!