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Issue in Focus: Knowing Sex

painting of a landscape showing a green meadow and blue sky

The framing title of “Intimacy and Sexuality” for this issue of In Plainspeak is incomplete. Or rather, it is too prescriptively complete. I will unpack both these propositions, but for now suffice it to say that intimacy and sexuality are not the happy couple that many of us would like them to be.

Feminists are often insistent that sexual intercourse be marked by intimacy. Such intimacy can take the form of an emotional investment in the long-term significance of the sexual encounter. This possibility suggests that sexuality should be an indicator of an emotional investment in oneself and another. Having sex without intimacy has led to the virulent shaming of women for being “sluts” and “nymphomaniacs,” and the routine praising of men as being able to have sex without getting “emotionally invested. As such, the coupling of intimacy and sexuality for women has created a great deal of pressure to have all sex be meaningful. Sex without the meaning and possibility of intimacy leads to self-hatred; the further we stray from the sentimental equation of intimacy and sex, the more we judge ourselves negatively. This often leads to women not having sex until we are “certain” that it is built on a bedrock of emotional intimacy. Such a lack of experimentation leads often to disappointment, or even worse, to “settling” in a bad relationship just because we once thought it would be good and are too ashamed to admit that it has turned out to be otherwise.

The second coupling of intimacy and sexuality depends on knowledge being at the heart of the sexual encounter. Indeed, this is where our investment in “consent” derives from: All sex must be fully consented to by all partners involved. Intimate sex is non-violent and non-coercive and expansive. It widens what both sexual partners know about one another. And it deepens our knowledge of our own desires. So when we talk about intimacy and sexuality, this is what we mean: sexuality must always emerge from and lead to knowledge of our own desires and of the desires of the other. We should be fully be aware of what we want and what we would like the sexual encounter to be. In the absence of such knowledge, there can be no intimacy because changeable consent is considered incomplete and non-binding. If we do not know what we want, then we should not have sex. And even more, if it seems like the other person does not know what they want, then we must not have sex with them.

Let us stay with this idea for a little longer. How and when do we know that we want to have sex? Should we have sex when we don’t know what our desires are? What if we hate our desires? And do our desires stay the same from start to finish in a sexual encounter?

Increasingly, the social and even legal consensus states that we must know our desires before we embark on sexual intercourse. Such knowledge is understood to precede sex rather than being an aftermath of it. But how do we know anything about sex before we have it? If we are to know even before we know, then that is a fairly impossible proposition. But we tie sexuality so fully to the project of knowing ourselves that it is impossible to say that we might not know what our desires are. Equally, we expect sex to be the basis of an intimacy that depends on knowledge – on our partner’s knowledge of us and on our knowledge of ourselves and them.

Intimacy is defined as a feeling of “closeness,” “comfort” and “reliability” (all words used in actual definitions of the term). In sexual situations, intimacy is described as a comfortable and understanding relationship between two people. We assume that this knowledge will be a good and happy one, hence the undilutedly joyous associations we have with the notion of “intimacy.” Intimacy is good, especially when it is coupled with sex, because it allows us a greater degree of knowledge of ourselves and of our partners. Without such knowledge, sexuality can become “mechanical,” “barren” and “meaningless” – all these are adjectives that have been used to describe sex without intimacy (and it is worth remembering that these adjectives have also been used to describe homosexuality as sex that does not lead to reproduction, which is another indicator, apparently, of intimacy).

So what is this knowledge for which we crave when we couple intimacy with sexuality? What happens when sex does not lead to knowledge? And worse, when sex leads to bad and disgusting knowledge? What happens when intimacy in the sense of knowing oneself and knowing one’s partner, leads to repulsion rather than appreciation?  Is such sex still worth having? Can we consent to it? Does it count as intimate?

If intimacy depends on the idea of knowledge as comforting and reassuring and all-knowing, then sex is perhaps its very opposite on all these fronts because the knowledge we derive from sex can often be shocking or displeasing or at the very least, surprising. For instance, we might realise that we do not like the person we are having sex with. Or that we want to be conservative in bed when we had always thought of ourselves as being radical (even locating sex in the bed rather than, say, in the bath, might be regarded as being conservative). Or that the sounds of enjoyment that we make are repulsive to our partners. Or that our partners are dissatisfied with our sexual abilities. Or that we are men who might prefer men to women. Or that we are women who like both women and men. In all these instances, sex performs the role of shattering what we thought we knew about our desires. Does this process of shaping and reshaping the self, of shattering and moulding, of disassembling and tinkering, continue to count as intimacy?

Intimacy presumes that sex is comfortable, while sexuality fills us with discomfort. Indeed, it is a horror of discomfort that fuels the more virulent anti-sex campaigns being run in the world today. If sex is uncomfortable, or so the wisdom goes, then it cannot be intimate or consensual, which makes such sex bad. This new puritanism would have us sentimentalise sex as being aspirationally the thing that perfectly reflects our desires and enhances them (this sentimentalism also makes us beat ourselves up when sex isn’t all that). Instead, sex is a messy morass of divided investments and compulsions – we do not know what our desires might be from one day to the next. And more damningly, our desires might be the very opposite of our professed politics. Surely we know that feminists can have the most mundane sex lives – forever occupying the bottom portion of the heterosexual missionary position – and that radical sexual encounters can be embodied by the most conservative individuals? Does this make us any less feminists or conservatives? Sexuality does not, cannot, define who we are except in the sense of pointing to the incoherencies that make us human. And these incoherencies militate against making us feel comfortable.

We might need, therefore, to uncouple sexuality from intimacy because they do not necessarily belong together. Intimacy points to the comfort of knowledge while sexuality often shatters what knowledge we think we have. Intimacy suggests happiness and ease while sex often makes us feel uncomfortable. Intimacy wants to be grounded in steadiness while sex can make us restless.

But it is also true that many people experience themselves as being in relationships of sexual intimacy with one another. In such a scenario, we need to recognise that intimacy and sexuality are not the only couple in bed together. To this coupling must be added many many other affective states of being, psychological investments, and social realities. We need to expand intimacy and sexuality to include danger and adventure and disappointment and excitement and fun and fear and longing and loathing, because sex leads to a plethora of experiences and adjectives, not just to one.

This might suggest, then, that “consent” cannot be understood in any straightforward manner, because consenting to sex is consenting to what also makes us uncomfortable and even distressed. Sex cannot confirm who we are, it cannot conform to our sense of ourselves. Instead, it often shatters and twists what knowledge we think we have. Intimacy, on the other hand, wants to be contented and contained; it wants to be safe rather than sorry (hence the cliché: “love means never having to say you’re sorry”). Where intimacy craves conviction, sexuality gives us compulsion. And where intimacy wants happiness, sexuality produces shock. Intimacy and sexuality might thus be profoundly at odds with one another. Where the one craves the comfort of knowledge, the other highlights the discomfort that knowledge can produce. At the very least, this discomfort should allow us to appreciate that we are marked by complexity rather than clarity.

Cover Image: Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh

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