PQ 19.6 — How do I feel about sex outside a romantic relationship?
There are times that I’m not sure what “romance” means. At least what it means to other people. Sure, I know the dictionary definition: “a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.”
Okay, but what kind of love? The Greeks had a bunch of different words for specific kinds of love, but in English, we unfortunately only have one.
People often disagree about what exactly romance is. As I wrote in an earlier piece:
“Romance is stupid,” Seth said. “Everyone knows it’s just something Hallmark made up to sell more cards.”
“Really?” I said. It explained a lot but didn’t feel good to hear him say. Especially since I was a self-described hopeless romantic, and he knew it. “I don’t know about that. Romance doesn’t have to be like Hallmark. I think romance, or something like it, has to exist. I’ve felt it. Other people I’ve dated have felt it.”
Seth scoffed. “Anyone who told you that was lying to you.”
“All of them?” I asked.
“All of them,” he replied.
And yet, for all of his disdain for romance, Seth said he loved me. Often.
It was curious to me, that he didn’t believe in romance but said he loved me. So I asked for clarification.
“What do I mean when I say I love you?” he said. “I mean that I like just being in the same room with you. Hanging out. Because you’re so funny. And really fucking hot.”
It sounded good. It felt good to hear. But I knew that there were things I desperately wanted that weren’t part of what he said. Part of my personal definition of romance.
I wasn’t about the lavish displays. The consumerism. The giant pink ribboned heart full of candy. That stuff was cute and sweet, sure. And partnered with other things, it could be a fun way to display love.
But for me? Romance was about shared secrets. Confiding in one another. Having weird private jokes.
My ideal relationship had us lying next to each other in bed. Kicking up our legs to make a blanket tent. Giggling like kids about random stuff. Being nerdy, silly, profound. All of it. Up way past our bedtime.
And sex, those moments where we could both come apart. Casting aside the layers that we donned for acceptability, the world. And become whatever animal selves we were underneath. Surf the intensity. Drink of each other. Couple in that place where we were naked of artifice, of embarrassment.
The friendship, the carnality, the intimate connection. It was a braid. I wanted that braid.
Not a fluffy red teddy bear holding a white satin pillow that read “KISS ME.” Although I’d gladly accept one.
But Seth didn’t think those things were romance. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a way for us to agree on that. To reach a place of mutual understanding where we could say “yes, this is love, we mean basically the same thing, we want mostly the same things.” To connect somehow on what it all even meant. Even if it meant both things, his and mine. Not just his. Not just mine. Something in between. Or both.
And the fact remained: Even if I could get Seth to see how intimacy could be considered romance, he was unwilling to do things that felt intimate to me. He thought the talks in the dark sounded boring and annoying. And the bedroom a terrible place to talk.
Still, I was with Seth for ten years, eight of those years monogamous. We dated, lived together, married, divorced.
By most standard definitions, we were in a romantic relationship — I had his last name. We told each other we loved one another. But according to Seth, while all of this was nice, none of this was romance. He wasn’t interested in romance.
People Want to Tell You When It Is and Isn’t Okay Have Sex
My whole life I’ve encountered people who want to tell you when it is and isn’t okay to have sex.
When I was little and going to church twice a week, the line was that you didn’t have sex before marriage. To do so was fornication, a mortal sin. Many an adult let me know in no uncertain terms that this way lie the path of eternal damnation with a stern look and a wagging finger. Except as the years wound on, I’d come to realize that many of the adults who lectured me had committed the sin themselves, by doing simple math of weddings and births.
And my devout peers would come up with their own compromises. One friend told me she was already having sex with her boyfriend, but it was okay because she intended to marry him, even though they weren’t yet officially engaged. “The idea,” she said, “is that you shouldn’t have sex with people you have no commitment with. So long as you love someone and you’re committed to marrying them eventually, sex is okay. What’s wrong is toying with people.”
“But what if you break up?” I asked her.
“It happens,” she said. “God understands that, too.”
As I continued to grow older, the line kept moving. People could have sex whenever they wanted to, so long as they were the only person you were having sex with on an ongoing basis. You didn’t even have to commit per se to a long-term situation so long as you were monogamous while you were seeing people. First date sex and serial monogamy were fine. Just don’t be non-monogamous.
I met someone, settled down for a while. And while I was living my life, romantically retired, having basically ridden off into the sunset, friends of mine came out to me as polyamorous. She presented me with an even more radical proposition: You could have sex non-monogamously now, and it was okay… so long as it was part of a relationship. So long as you loved one another. “You know,” my polyamorous friend said, “We’re not swingers or anything.” She spat the word out like a curse. Like there was something wrong with it. Like it was out of bounds, on the other side of the line.
Sex Is Actually Okay. It Doesn’t Need Love to Make It Clean.
There’s a kind of sex negativity that plagues even folks in sex-positive communities, where we feel we need love to accompany sex in order to make it okay, to in essence make it “clean.” As I wrote before:
When sex starts out as dirty or unseemly (e.g.,”bumping uglies”), it has one path to purity: A loving, committed relationship.
And even then, that love and commitment must take a certain form. After all, shacking up as an unmarried couple means you’re “living in sin.”
It’s only through a a socially sanctioned formal commitment (i.e., marriage) that you cast off the stain of your sin and become clean.
I see a similar logic at work with many folks who enter polyamory.
“Yes, I may have multiple relationships, but they’re all loving and committed. I’m not some swinger.”
Part of this is natural defensiveness that stems from being part of a larger culture that views polyamorous relationships with suspicion and disgust. And in this spirit, it’s important to establish polyamory’s respectability to a largely monogamous culture. Commitment is a powerful signal to advocate for polyamory and polyamorous relationships.
But there’s also a case to be made that commitment isn’t what makes non-monogamy ethical (or unethical). Instead, it’s respect and honesty.
And you can absolutely exercise respect and honesty in a friends with benefits, tertiary relationship. No monogrammed towels required.
That said, it’s been ages since I’ve regularly had sex with people I don’t love. But not because I don’t think it’s okay to have sex outside of a romantic relationship — I actually think it’s fine for people to do so (again, provided everyone’s treating each other with respect and honesty and being reasonably safe).
I just like being physically intimate with people I’m emotionally close to. And so if we’re having sex, you’re somebody that’s close enough to me that I’m going to have some type of love for you. That’s just how I work (it doesn’t help that I fall in love so easily). These days I don’t have sex with people I don’t care about — and a lot.
But do I need us to have a label of capital-R-relationship to officially sanction it and make it “okay?”
No. No, I don’t. Sex is okay at default (provided everyone consents). It isn’t dirty. I don’t need a relationship or love to make it clean.
Suggested Further Readings:
- What Is Romance? What Makes Hooking Up and Hanging Out Different Than a Relationship?
- Labels, Continued: The Questions We’re Really Asking
- If It Isn’t an Official Relationship, Is It Automatically Friends With Benefits?
This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.