Important note: This post discusses my personal sexuality, in a certain amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, you may not want to read this piece. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
What does intimacy mean?
And how can it be reached?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sexual intimacy. I wrote about it in my recent exegesis on masochism; I wrote about it in my review of the Japanese movie about the blow-up sex doll. I’ve been thinking about what sexual intimacy is, and how it’s different from sex. And I’ve been thinking about why it’s often so elusive… and what we can do to create it.
I think there’s a paradox in creating sexual intimacy. Or maybe just a balance. On the one hand, intimacy can’t be forced. You can’t make someone open up to you; I’m not sure you can even make yourself open up. Moments of connection — moments of feeling present with someone else, and feeling them present with you; moments of feeling the world fall away leaving only the two of you (or the three of you, or six, or whatever); moments where the chattering in your brain quiets down and your anxieties about the future and regrets about the past fade into the mist and all you’re aware of is the time and place you’re experiencing together right now; moments of looking up from whatever pleasures you’re engaged in and making eye contact and feeling yourself shining out through your eyes, and feeling your partner shining out through theirs; moments of knowing with an almost telepathic certainty exactly where and how your partner wants to be stroked/ licked/ hit/ whatever — these don’t happen because you will them to. In fact, in an important (albeit irritating) paradox, trying to force these moments usually has the exact opposite effect. Trying to force them will chase them away. One of the whole points of intimacy is that it means letting things be what they are: letting your partner be who they are, letting yourself be who you are, being present with each other as you are. Trying to force intimacy is the exact opposite of that.
But at the same time, intimacy doesn’t happen without work. It takes work to listen carefully to what your partner wants… whether they’re saying it in words, or without words. It takes work to let go of expectations, and to let experiences and people be what they are. It takes work to let go of anxieties and regrets, and let the present moment be what it is. It takes work to let go of self-consciousness and overthinking; to put a gag and a blindfold on the detached observer in your head who’s constantly sitting back offering running commentary on your life, and to just let yourself fucking well experience your life already. (She said bitterly, knowing way the hell too much about this one.)
And while a huge part of intimacy is letting things be, that isn’t the same as being passive. Part of letting things be is letting yourself be — and part of letting yourself be is being willing to put yourself out into the world. Asking for what you want; being honest about what your partner wants and how you feel about that; letting yourself not only feel what you feel but express those feelings… all of that’s a huge part of intimacy. It isn’t just about being open to your partner. It’s about being someone your partner can be open to. If you don’t put your sexual self into the world, there won’t be anyone there for your partner to connect with. Like I wrote in my review of “Air Doll”: With nothing to give but a constant flow of “After you, my dear Alphonse,” there’s no possibility for intimacy. There’s nobody to be inside; nobody to go inside the other. Intimacy requires both selfishness and selflessness. It requires the willingness to be one’s self… and the willingness to let the other person’s self be.
So where is that balance between control and laziness? Where is the balance between trying to force sexual intimacy, and passively lying back waiting for it to happen?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. (I’m still thinking about it, by the way, so if you have ideas about this, please speak up in the comments!) And the concept that keeps coming to mind is readiness.
I don’t think we can make intimate sexual moments happen. As my Facebook friend Elin said when we were talking about last week’s masochism piece: “That’s one of the really exciting (and maddening) things about sex, isn’t it… getting completely in the moment and then one second later realizing you’re completely in the moment… at which point, of course, you’re not anymore. ” That’s what I was getting at a few paragraphs ago when I said that intimacy can’t be forced, or captured and preserved. Trying to force it chases it away; trying to capture it makes it slip through our fingers.
I don’t think we can make intimate moments happen. But I think we can make ourselves ready for them to happen. And I think we can work to make ourselves open to them when they do happen. I think we can work to be better at both speaking and listening, laying the foundation of knowledge that makes those “seems like telepathy” experiences possible. I think we can work at talking about our fantasies… and we can work at letting the reality of acted-out fantasies be different from the fantasies themselves. I think we can work to accept the rhythm of consciousness and un-self-consciousness; the rhythm of being in the moment, and being aware of being in the moment which takes us out of the moment… and then being in the moment again. I think we can work to educate ourselves about basic sexual anatomy, and male/ female/ human sexual response. I think we can work to educate ourselves about the varieties of human sexual desires and experiences: not just so we can be ready when our partner proposes one, but so we can be more relaxed and at-ease with sex generally. I think we can work on being willing to take risks, and being willing to accept the hurt and disappointment that sometimes come with taking risks. I think we can work to take care of our health, to eat well and exercise and get enough sleep and so on, so our bodies are ready to do the sexual things we want them to. I think we can work to take care of our mental health, to reduce stress and make sure we get enough time to ourselves and so on, so our minds and hearts are excited at the prospect of intimate sexual connection, and not just exhausted or overwhelmed by it. I think we can work to keep our promises about sex, laying a foundation of trust. I think we can do work on ourselves that helps get us out of our fucking heads for five minutes already. Etc.
And I think we can work to make ourselves ready for intimacy — even when we don’t expect it. Sexual intimacy can happen in all sorts of circumstances. It can happen in hours-long sessions of lovemaking; it can happen in ten-minute quickies. It can happen when your body is thrust deep inside your partner’s, or vice versa: it can happen over the phone, or in letters or emails, when you’re miles apart. It doesn’t even have to happen in long-term relationships. It is certainly the case — at least in my experience — that sexual intimacy is often a lot easier in long-term relationships. Good ones, anyway, ones with a solid foundation of closeness and trust, ones where the sex isn’t just about the sex but is about the life you share together. But I’ve had sex in long-term relationships that was essentially an exchange of sexual favors, a “You do me and I’ll do you” tit for tat of physical sensation. And I’ve been bent over the lap of someone I barely knew, and felt them stop spanking me and put their hand on my back, and felt the sudden, slap-me-awake shock of real human connection. A connection that, for whatever reason, we were both ready for.
And finally — well, finally for today anyway, these ideas are definitely a work in progress and none of this is my final conclusion — I think we can work to accept and embrace yet another paradox of sexual intimacy… and be okay when it doesn’t happen.
Sometimes sex is just sex: pleasurable, delightful, orgasmic, and just plain old good clean dirty fun. And that’s wonderful. That, just by itself, is entirely worthwhile and valuable. Being disappointed in yourself and in each other when sex isn’t an intense intimate connection… that’s an almost ironclad guarantee that the intense intimate connection isn’t going to happen. Being willing to enjoy the pure, animal pleasures of sex — and being willing to share that pleasure and experience it together — is one of the ways we can make ourselves ready for those moments of intense connection to sneak up on us without warning.