Humans have always been willing to go the distance for true love. Leander swam the Hellespont to get to his beloved Hero. Isolde left her noble husband to rescue Tristan, the man of her heart. Lancelot sacrificed his vaunted place at the Round Table for the sake of the beautiful Guinevere.
Nowadays beautiful love stories are in short supply. That’s not surprising, because a great love story requires obstacles, and we’ve done away with those. Everything is permitted now (except for excessive fecundity), and if there is the occasional holdout (like, say, the wife who isn’t willing to accept that her husband is gay and just needs to follow his heart), we pooh-pooh them into obscurity. Rejoice, young lovers! Your time of trial has ended! Frolic and bask in the joy of unfettered, unencumbered, uncensored romantic love!
There’s Always a Morning After
The reality of this erotic paradise? Porn addictions, libido pills and more people alone than ever. It would seem that, by laying the sex buffet with every imaginable lascivious delight, we’ve caused people to lose their appetites. With cheap, processed sex accessible from every flickering screen, we find ourselves embarking on a new kind of romantic quest: one in which sexual desire is itself the quarry. Type “rekindle love” into Amazon, and check out the more-than-2,000 results. Remember the story about the poor schmuck who got so fed up with his wife’s lack of desire that he made up a spreadsheet to prove how wronged he was? That guy is in good company, at least if this New York Times feature is any indication. Yet, for all the struggles of the married, we also have more people than ever who wish they were married and aren’t.
Some people just stop trying and settle for synthetic sex. Japan, a longtime global leader in cinematic sleaze, represents the most striking example. Its adult population is simply losing interest in actual, live corpus-a-corpus lovemaking. Even a fifth of young men (between 25 and 30) report that they have “little to no interest” in sex. (Their own government, desperate to boost birthrates, refers to this group as “herbivores”.) I can sort of understand. If you’re raised on a steady diet of cheap, processed sexual substitutes, the live stuff may just seem scary and not really worth it. Physically and emotionally, it’s definitely messier.
Three cheers for capitalism, eh? First the market offers us sex in whatever form we desire, from unlimited sterile copulation to convenient, pre-packaged substitutes that don’t even require us to undress. If appetite wanes, it offers pills and porn and an array of other remedies to re-stoke it.
Taking the Glove Off
People do get tired of the safe-sex game. It seems like there should be something more. Once again, the market obligingly offers solutions. Whips! Chains! Check out these handcuffs, now available at Target! But when fake danger loses its appeal, some try more desperate measures. The saddest example known to me is “bug-chasing,” a practice of (mainly) homosexual men, who deliberately seek out HIV-infected sexual partners, craving the erotic thrill they get from possibly-deadly intercourse.
Bug chasing is horrifying and deeply sad. Even so, I can almost glimpse the appeal, when I consider the torrent of cheap, tawdry sexual “fixes” available in our current era. At some point don’t we all get tired of pretty packages, if the contents aren’t interesting? When sex just boils down to a few minutes of mashing bodies together, we may reach a point where it just seems stupid and not worth the time (even though it hardly takes any time). Ooey gooey feelings might get us started, but at some point (amazing as it might seem to the infatuated 16-year-old) mutual groping ceases to send the emotions (and glands) into overdrive. Sterile, empty sex starts to feel as pointless as it actually is.
Is there a remedy? Sure. For sex to stay sexy, it has to mean something. There needs to be some objective significance that extends beyond the horny-adolescent feelings. Bug chasers understand this, which is why they go fishing for death. It’s grimly poetic in its way, as a near-perfect perversion of the true nature of the thing at issue. Because of course, sex is really about life. It is the conduit by which human love overflows into new generations, perpetuating the human race.
We aren’t the first humans in history to recognize that, actually, sex can be rather fun. Nor are we the first to think this particular meal might be yummier if we could somehow ensure that it was zero-cal. We are, however, noteworthy for our particular success in insulating sex from its natural consequences. Inundated with contraceptives and awash in filthy imagery, we’ve turned lust into a kind of entitlement. For most societies, consequence-free lewdness was a rare privilege. In ours, even the very poor can bathe themselves in sleaze if they like (and many do). It’s been quite the great leap forward when it comes to sexual overindulgence.
Nothing But the Real Thing for Me, Baby
Some people prefer to wear natural fibers. Some have a thing about “real food”. (This generally means that they want it unprocessed, and recognizably derived from something that was once alive). I have a thing about natural sex. I don’t settle for the fake stuff.
Real sex is, well, naturally satisfying in a way that most modern people can barely grasp. If you’ve been “sexually active” (such a romantic term) for years without even trying it, your sensibilities might be pretty distorted at this point. Like the person raised on Cheetos who finally tries some fine French cuisine, you may actually think you prefer the empty calories to substance. But consider, just for a moment. What might it be like for a man and woman come together, just themselves, without throwing a million barriers (prophylactics, doses of hormones, goofy role-playing games, booze) in between? Is it possible that you’ve been having sex for years without really knowing what it’s supposed to be like?
For women, sex presents a confusing juxtaposition of needs. We like a little whiff of mystery and danger. At the same time, we crave security and tenderness. And when it comes to sex, we want both together. It can all be very confusing, even to us.
I imagine this is why some women turn to role-playing. They act out rape scenes or S&M fantasies with men they actually trust, looking for that strange combination of security and intrigue. Or they try to squeeze some tenderness out of bad boys. Or vampires. Sociobiologists sometimes speculate that this funny interplay is a vestige of the prehistoric feminine choice between tricksy, unreliable alpha males (who had great genes but preferred to spread their wild oats) and option-lite beta males (who compensated for their inferior genes by promising to help with the parenting). I have no need for this just-so theorizing. My explanation is much simpler.
Natural sex involves plenty of intrigue, which sometimes even borders on terror. You think it’s exciting to play with blindfolds and cute little commercial handcuffs? Please. Try volunteering for a real adventure: the maternity ward, and everything that comes after. How can such momentous changes unfold from something as deceptively simple as sex? That, my friends, is mystery and intrigue.
The safety part? Well, that’s obvious, too. There’s nothing quite like getting cozy with a man, fully believing that 1) through this encounter, a completely new person might come to be, and 2) if that happens, he’s in all the way. He’s man enough to time the contractions and appear in public with a diaper bag over his shoulder. He can be “Dad,” not just “Honey.” For a woman, it’s pretty amazing to have that kind of trust in a man, and it brings a deep, and very satisfying sense of security. There’s your magical juxtaposition between “dangerous” and “safe.”
I’ve never been a man, so I’ll tread more lightly on that side of the equation. All I’ll say is this: devout, married Catholic men are especially likely to go in for real sex, and they seem to have it pretty good. Something to consider.
Finding the Road to Incredible, Mind-Blowing Sex
I don’t like to go on bragging about the awesomeness of real sex, because I know it’s not something everyone can experience. It’s kind of a luxury good, I suppose. Quite a few pieces need to fall into place to make it possible.
Still, I think it’s worth mentioning, precisely because it’s the kind of tip that the sex committee at Cosmo will never give you. Why would they? “Want great sex? Never read our magazine again!” I won’t hold my breath waiting for that story.
But if you’ve never tried it, well, you’re missing something. Real sex is a little harder to arrange than a dinner reservation for February 14; it’s literally a life-changing experience. But I don’t think it’s one that most people live to regret.