Please note: This piece doesn’t discuss my personal sex life in lurid detail, but it does discuss it. Family members and others who don’t want to read that, please don’t. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
What does it mean to “want” sex?
There was a letter to the Perv Panel advice columnists at Carnal Nation that’s shoved this question into my mind. In the Lesbian Bed Death letter, the author says that, after four years in a committed relationship, neither she nor her partner has any real interest in sex anymore. In one sentence, she says they’re content; in the next sentence, she says she feels like they should do something about it.
The advice from the Perv Panel was fine, as far as it went. But I think there’s a very important core concept here that none of the advisors really got into.
There is more than one way to “want” sex.
But there are other ways of “wanting” sex. You can want the effect sex has on your life, and on your relationship. You can want the closeness and intimacy it gives you with your partner. You can want the affirmation it gives, the feeling of being desired and valued. You can want the confidence and poise that being an actively sexual person can give. You can want the transcendence that sex can create, the experience of epiphany and transformative joy.
And for that matter, you can want the pure animal pleasure of sex… without having the immediate physical desire for it. You can know in your head how great sex can feel, and want to re-create that feeling — without your dick or clit being hard right that second. (Sick people often don’t feel much appetite for food — but if they’re smart, they know that food will make them feel better, and they know that once they start eating, their appetite is likely to return.)
This is a bit of a tricky distinction. So let me draw a couple of analogies before I move on.
I very rarely “want” to go to the gym. When I have a rare free moment, and I stop and think, “What do I most want to do right now?”, the answer is very rarely, “What I most want is to lift weights and walk on a treadmill.” And yet, once I’m at the gym, I enjoy it. I actually do have fun working out once I’m doing it. Of course it gives me medium- and long-term payoffs in stamina and mental health and such… but I’m not even talking about that. Walking on a treadmill and lifting weights is a positive sensual pleasure. Sometimes even an erotic pleasure. I just have a hard time remembering that until I’m actually doing it.
That may not be the best example. I realize I’m a bit of a freak, and not everyone is tickled to be at the gym once they’re there. So I’ll give another example before I get back to the point: Dancing. If I’m tired at the end of a long day, I often don’t “want” to get in the car and drive across town to go dancing. What I “want” is to sleep. Or watch SpankingTube and jerk off. Or collapse on the sofa, order takeout, and watch The Simpsons.
And yet, I love to dance. At its best, dancing makes me feel transcendently connected with humanity and the universe. At its worst, it’s a heckuva good time. It is one of the great pleasures of my life: a creative pleasure, an intellectual pleasure, a source of expansive shared joy with a community, a source of intimate shared joy with my wife. And on a purely physical, sensual level, it just feels good. Once I’m dancing, I am never, ever sorry that I went.
And in the same way, I am never, ever sorry that I had sex… even if I wasn’t in the mood when we started.
It can be hard to overcome inertia and find the energy to do the things that we love. It’s easy to focus on the necessities of survival and getting through the day, and then just blob out once those necessities are handled… at the expense of the things that give our lives meaning and joy. Especially if we’re overscheduled and overworked. And for many of us, this gets harder as we get older. The automatically exuberant energy of youth often gives way as we age, and it takes more work and conscious effort to fan the flames into life. Especially when it comes to sex. And double especially when it comes to sex in long- term relationships.
And yet, one of the main things that defines being a mentally healthy grownup is that you can distinguish between the things you want right this second, and the things you want in the long run. Or even in the medium run. One of the things that defines being a mentally healthy grownup — and this isn’t a buzz-kill, this is one of adulthood’s greatest joys — is that you have the knowledge and self-discipline to defer the gratification of immediate desires, in order to fulfill larger, more deeply satisfying desires. This can mean passing on sex that you know is a bad idea even though you have a strong, urgent desire for it… but it can also mean pursuing sex that you know is a good idea, even though you have a strong, urgent desire to just order a pizza and then go to sleep.
And one of the things about getting older — and about being in a long-term relationship — is that sex tends to shift away from being a relentless, urgently demanding physical desire, and toward something familiar that’s easy to put on the back burner… but that’s richly and complexly satisfying when you set aside time and energy for it. It shifts away from, “I am totally starving right now, if I don’t get a burger in the next ten minutes I am going to pass out and die,” and moves toward, “We have some free time this Saturday — why don’t we cook something special? Let’s make that roast chicken you like so much, or try that recipe for polenta with red pepper sauce we keep looking at.”
These are two very different ways of “wanting” food. And don’t get me wrong, both have their charms, I am a big fan of the starving hamburger lust. But it would be a huge mistake to say that only starving hamburger lust counts as “wanting” to eat. Setting aside time to plan and cook a meal also counts as “wanting” to eat, “wanting” the sensual pleasure and rich satisfaction that food can give you… even if you aren’t hungry right that second.
I’ve written something like this before: how, in order for sex to be satisfying, you don’t have to be in the mood when it starts. You just have to be willing to get in the mood. But I hadn’t thought of it quite this way before now. Being willing to get in the mood — being willing to seduce and be seduced, to be drawn in by the pleasures of sex even though you’re not feeling it when you start — is really just a different way of wanting it. It’s an acknowledgement that, even though you may not “want” sex in the more immediate and narrow sense of the word, you still “want” it in the larger and broader sense… and that therefore, you’re willing to prioritize it and make room for it in your life.
If you really, truly don’t want or care about sex on any level… okay. I personally have a hard time getting my mind around that — heck, I have a hard time understanding people who say they don’t like to dance — but I trust that, for a handful of people, it’s probably true.
But I did not get that from this letter at all. Maybe I’m misreading it: but I did not get the sense that the author of this letter was genuinely happy with the status quo. (For one thing, if she were, she wouldn’t be writing to sex advice columnists.) The author of this letter seemed dissatisfied and sad. It seemed like sex was important to her, or used to be important to her, and that even though the overpowering physical urge for it had dissipated, she still missed it.
So if what you mean by “I don’t seem to want sex anymore” is “I no longer feel the immediate physical urge for sex that I used to, but it’s still important to me and I want it in my life”… then I think it might behoove you to rethink what you mean by “wanting sex.” I think it might behoove you to stop thinking of “an immediate and overpowering physical lust” as the only meaningful definition of “wanting sex”… and to give the “it’s important to me and I want it in my life” meaning every bit as much weight.