Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What makes for good sex? Is it more than just friction?

In Laura Sessions Stepp’s recently published, controversial book, “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both”, she calls the bluff of those who have been dubbed, the “hook-up generation”, taking them to task over their very sixties assertion that sex can be easily divorced from love and commitment without significant consequences. Apparently, among young females anyway, there is little fulfillment in the life of no-strings-attached sex and one night stands, even while these same girls tout the independence, control and self-direction this lifestyle affords.

The New York Times article, “A Disconnect on Hooking Up” describes the reaction of Ms. Sessions Stepp’s critics, who characterize her book as “an odd throwback — not only retro in its point of view, but also out of sync with the current climate of high-achieving girls who are usually applauded for focusing on their careers and their female friends, rather than on finding Mr. Right.”

What Sessions Stepp purports regarding the sexual choices of today’s high school and college students, Jillian Straus says of the dating choices of “Generation X” (in this case, everyone between the ages of 25 and 39), in her 2006 book “Unhooked Generation: The Truth About Why We’re Still Single”. Ms. Straus points to several social factors driving twenty and thirty- somethings to postpone marriage, even sacrificing love for the sake of career and personal discovery, with the expectation that there will be “time for all that, later”. Rather than clarity and success in love, what time proffered to most everyone interviewed by Straus was a growing commitment phobia and cynicism regarding love. Serial monogamy—which is unavoidable where there is a simultaneous desire for companionship and resistance to commitment—seemed to encourage a belief that relationships don’t last. What’s more, it fostered among participants the impression of having unlimited partner options, which in turn led to frequent relationship dissatisfaction.

Ms. Sessions Stepp writes that “hooking up” (sex among young people who have only just met or are not in a romantic relationship), is the new dating. But, according to Ms. Straus, the last generation of daters didn’t fare too well, either. Even though Ms. Straus does not point directly to Gen Xers’ sexual practice as an inhibitor of love, stability and well-being, she does allow that each new dating alliance includes sex, even if the relationship lasts only a very short time.

Neither author stresses lack of physical enjoyment as a result of serial sexual partnering; rather they tackle the emotional and psychological effects. So the question naturally arises, is there more to good sex than its physicality? Is there more to it than the mechanics of “friction”? Is there more even than the compatibility of partners, “chemistry”, or mutual romantic feelings? Can sex be separated from commitment or does unfettered sex leave us impoverished in spirit, even while we express satisfaction with our free lifestyle? What are the components of good sex?


Rachael King said...

Well, I guess nobody's very interested in sex.

Two quick thoughts:

1)For anyone who's interested or who wonders what the Christian view of sex and chastity is all about, Lauren Winner's book "Real Sex: the Naked Truth About Chastity" presents it in a comprehensive but fresh way. I've never read or heard sex, marriage, family and community discussed quite like this, as Ms. Winner ties all of these together and asserts that they are inseparable.

2)The humorous use of the word "friction" in the title question of this post made me think right away about the common notion of "makeup sex" being the best kind, the idea being that interpersonal friction generates excitement and deeper intimacy. Sex becomes the means of bridging the gap between two people at odds, the healing of a rift. As I thought about this in the context of the "hook up" trend, I wondered if the trend is a symptom of increasing alienation from the world and from each other. In a world in which we are disconnected from our work, the natural world and from each other, perhaps the trend of meaningless sex is actually a search for meaning--an attempt to unite oneself with another human being, to close that rift of alienation, to procure intimacy, if only for a night.

Edward said...

Your post really made me want to read that book. I've been trying to understand the psychology behind this "hooking up" mentality from a female perspective simply because I've encountered it time and time again with the women I've dated (generally women 23 - 33 years old). The first thing I've noticed is a genuine fear of true intimacy.

One girl whom I had been dating for about 3 months told me, "I don't want to move to the committed boyfriend/girlfriend stage because I don't handle breakups well. I don't want to be hurt."

The very next girl I dated wanted to have sex very early in the relationship and I didn't. She told me that for her the physical act of sex was how she showed affection in a relationship but couldn't handle the emotional aspect of it.

Another girl (just a friend) told me once while we were discussing this subject, "You've got to date like a guy or you'll get played like a bitch."

The common thread that I've noticed is that women are afraid of being hurt and who isn't? So the way that many young women are dealing with this is by trying to act like the stereotypical male "player." Having casual sex with multiple partners gives them a sense of control back.

The sad thing is I've seen first hand how it is damaging these women. When you get a little close and get underneath those layers of emotional protection they put up, there is some deep pain and fear that many of them aren't dealing with.

Rachael King said...

Thanks, Edward. I think the dating/marriage world is very confusing for women today. Society gives off the vibe that we can and should have it all: education, career, husband, children, home--and at the same time every woman is expected to be knockout sexy, strong, intelligent, and carefree enough for a one night stand, with no strings attached.

When I was a teenager I knew girls who had sex in order to procure a guy's affection; now a lot of girls have sex to avoid affection. Sex is in fact a powerful intimacy, but it can seem merely physical. I think girls are finding it easier to view sex as a recreational activity that yields a good though temporary closeness to another person than to understand it as just one part of a whole life of vulnerability and trust.

peter downton said...

The thing that really grabs my attention about this question is that it interrogates so effectively what, at least in our behaviour as a culture, has come to be so widely assumed about sex: we act as if it really is just about 'friction', but there is something about the way this question is expressed that makes that just so patently absurd. I think this leaves us feeling awkward and uncomfortable, in a way that is quite unexpected: we don't know how to begin to make an answer. We want to deny that it's just friction, but we fear it's depths. There is nothing that more unequivocably speaks to us of the holiness, the spiritual otherness, of the human soul than this wonderful expression of our humanity. But it takes courage to open ourselves and our emotions to real intercourse, which is surely, potentially, the deepest communicative act of which we are capable: that opening of ourselves is simultaneously the admission of transcendence into human life. For the philosophical materialist, this is a thing of terror.

de Silentio said...

Rachael, as I have said before, I do really love to read your take on each of these questions. However, this time I chose to think about the question before I read your post. The fact that it is a month later is both good and bad, it’s bad because you thought nobody cared about sex, when in fact I care a lot about sex, it’s good because it has given time to muddle through various thoughts I have had on this question.

Since my literary repertoire is limited, I cannot quote from various books like you and other people who post on this site do. So, I am going to take a philosophical/psychological take on the question.

I will begin by answering the question out right, “Is good sex more than just friction?” The answer I propose to defend is yes. Here goes:
The way we experience the world outside of us is through our basic five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. Each of these senses then gets processed through our different mental faculties until we come to have knowledge of what we sense (apparently this occurs virtually instantaneously). And there is the kicker, during the process of interpreting our senses, our mind can do whatever it wants to the sense data it receives. It can take the world outside of me and turn it into something that is different than actual reality (and frankly, we would never know the difference). For example, one time I was eating a chicken sandwich at a restaurant, this chicken sandwich came with deep fried onion peels, however, I thought the sandwich had came with bacon, not onion peels. I ate half of the sandwich actually tasting bacon, until I made a comment to my wife, and she told me it was onion peels. My mind took the taste of onion peels, and transformed it into the taste of bacon, solely because I was convinced that the sandwich had bacon. Another good example are psychoactive drugs. The drugs interfere with the way one’s mind interprets sense data, and transforms the external world into various hallucinations.

So, now we can apply what I said above to sex and friction. I hope you will agree that we come to have knowledge of the friction we encounter during sex through our sense of touch. This friction is translated into different sensations. Now, since the sensations are interpreted by the mind, the mind can do whatever it wants to the different sensations, altering them depending on the situation.

I have found in my experiences that making love, and having sex are different. I think the difference lies in the way my mind incorporates the whole experience of sex, not just the friction. Thus, the fact that I love my wife, makes the sex better.
I have another thought too, but it is unrelated, maybe I will post it later. :)

Rachael King said...

de silentio: I'm sorry for the delayed response. Our family was vacationing. I'm glad you added your thoughts to the conversation; I've often wished conversations surrounding older posts would continue even after I've posted a new one.

I do agree with what you say. Our senses are stimulated and interpreted by our brains, so that the same experience (sex) can be pleasurable or traumatizing or flat, depending on the situation and our mood.

You draw a difference between having sex and making love. I agree, but wonder if the difference is only our mind's interpretation of sensation or if it actually goes much deeper than that. If a man and wife who love each other have sex when they aren't feeling particularly 'in love', is that mere 'having sex' or is it still 'making love'? And what of two people who are dramatically in love with each other but separately committed to other partners? Are they 'making love' or does the violation of their commitment change the nature of their sex? You point out that our minds can 'take the world outside... and turn it into something that is different than actual reality'. So then, it seems that our minds can't be a reliable indicator of what is truly happening or what a genuine experience of 'good sex' is. If the criterion is simply that it feels good, then good sex is easy to have and find and there isn't much point in binding sex to love or marriage or even to fidelity, because married sex and life-long fidelity don't guarantee good sex by this criterion.

Peter Downton pointed out the transcendent nature of sex; the 'spiritual otherness' of our partner that is made clear in sexual intimacy. I think many of us are expert ignorers of this 'transcendence' because, as Mr. Downton said, 'it is a thing of terror' to recognize it. But treating sex as mere friction and ignoring our partner's soul or 'spiritual otherness' doesn't make it go away; instead it debases us, dehumanizes us and reduces sex to a cheap and fleeting pleasure, not unlike getting drunk or eating an entire cheesecake. And it comes with the same after-effects, even if they are sometimes delayed. We feel empty, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, which is exactly what Ms. Sessions Stepp found in the young women she interviewed.

Any thoughts? And, what was your additional unrelated thought?

Edd said...

Hi. Lots of interesting posts you have here.

You said: "Peter Downton pointed out the transcendent nature of sex; the 'spiritual otherness' of our partner that is made clear in sexual intimacy. I think many of us are expert ignorers of this 'transcendence'..."

Personally I agree with this, however I have friends who don't; who believe that there is no harm in casual sex, and how can I argue with that? If they don't feel any sort of transcendence who am I to say "ah yes, but what about the spiritual aspect of sex" thinking that they are ignoring it or blocking it out, when for all I know it may not exist for them. You mentioned in one of your posts that you have had a Christian upbringing, and so have I; I wonder whether this emphasis on the spiritual aspect of sex might come from the way that we have been taught about sex through the bible? As Christianity sees it as such a spiritual thing.

I've not really spoken personally with anybody outside the christian (or ex-christian) sphere who sees sex on such a deep level, so I'd be interested to here where people outside religion get this idea of a spirtual act from, if they do at all that is.

Rachael King said...

Edd: Thanks for the comment. It's a good question. I don't think it would always have been called "spiritual otherness", but certainly sex has always been strongly linked with spirituality. In ancient China, it was believed that men and women possessed the qualities of yang and yin, respectively. Sexual practice and ethics revolved around the transference of yin and yang essence supposed to occur during intercourse. Scattered throughout the ancient world are cultures which used sex in religious practices; temple prostitutes were said to unite a man with the goddess of that temple. Greek and Roman mythology has gods and goddesses having sex with each other and with humans,implying an understood sacredness or spirituality in sex.

The continued existence of moral codes surrounding sex also speaks to humanity having always understood sex to have a transcendent aspect. In ancient Sumer, Hammurabi's laws specify sexual ethics; while prostitution was legal, adultery and incest was punishable by death.

I was recently reading Bertrand Russell on sexual ethics and he asserted that all these moral codes and religious practices surrounding sex, and even our current sexual ethic, is derived from the male need to be assured of his progeny and the female need for male provision for her children. Russell even went so far as to say that, should the government declare all children wards of the state, that eventually romantic/sexual jealousy would disappear.

In truth, the sexual act has always been held as sacred for its obvious tie to reproduction, the creation of new life, the bringing about of a new soul. Since birth control was popularized, our culture has lost its memory of this connection. Of course, we still know what sex can lead to, but we're mostly terrified of that consequence and continually look for new and better ways to keep sex divorced from pregnancy, parenthood, marriage. While this has undoubtedly led to greater freedom, we might want to question whether it's entirely good. I'm not making any arguments regarding birth control, just suggesting that perhaps we've lost some of the sense of transcendence or "otherness" of the involved partner, because sex has become an entertainment, a recreation; we've become consumers of it. We no longer hold festivals to celebrate fertility or measure the wealth of a man or woman by their children. Again, it can be argued that abandonment of these ancient practices is good, is progress. But there is a difference between abandoning parenthood as the standard measurement of a person and abandoning belief that parenthood is good and that sex is inherently connected to it.

You raise the question of your friends who find no transcendent aspect to sex. I would propose that it is there, whether or not they see or feel it. History would side with me and I'm convinced that even our modern liberated behaviour cannot escape the "otherness" of our partner entirely. Women (and to a lesser degree, perhaps, men) are often hurt by a sexual relationship , even when her understanding of it was that it was casual. Sex makes the partners vulnerable, exposed and at the mercy of the other. The physical nakedness is symbolic of the nakedness of the soul, and the melding of body parts is the melding of souls. If we didn't intuitively believe this we wouldn't cry out at the treachery of incest and adultery and pedophilia; it wouldn't matter who had sex with whom.