Girls who want boys / Who like boys to be girls / Who do boys like they’re girls / Who do girls like they’re boys / Always should be someone you really love
– Blur, “Girls and Boys”
Fuck me like you hate me.
– Slogan seen on a t-shirt during Pride weekend
You know, much as I enjoy that song and much as I laughed at the t-shirt slogan when I saw it, I really must disagree with both of them.
This weekend, I was wandering through the Village after Pride celebrations, and I ran into a bunch of friends. One of the people with them, someone I’ve only met a couple of times, was singing the Blur tune, and it occurred to me to ask, “What if it’s not about love?”
The person proceeded to give me a miniature lecture on polyamory. “You can love more than one person!” and so forth. I replied that yes, of course it’s possible to love more than one person at once, but that’s not really the point. What if it really isn’t about love?
It was Pride, people were overheated and drinking beer out of paper bags, it was loud and there were happy crowds everywhere. Not the best time for a philosophical discussion with a relative stranger, so as you can imagine the thread got dropped pretty quickly in favour of less weighty pursuits. But the question remained in my mind.
Sometimes I think we elevate love to such heights in our culture that other things get dropped in the process. Does a student need to love a teacher to learn from them, or a teacher the student in order to teach with grace and skill? Does a doctor need to love a patient or client in order to provide care? Does a minister need to love every person in a congregation to provide them with spiritual direction? Does a bootblack need to love every person who sits at their stand in order to buff the perfect shine into their toe caps?
Do we need to love the people who write books, make art, create delicious food and gorgeous music to enjoy the fruits of their work? Do they need to love us? Do we need to love someone in order to save their lives, massage the knots out of their back, buy them a thoughtful gift, drive them home after they’ve had one too many, help them down a steep flight of stairs? Do we need to love someone in order to be kind, respectful, generous?
And more to the point for this particular discussion: do we need to love someone to look at them from across the room and feel a buzz somewhere deep in our guts because of the way the light catches the side of their jaw or the way their hair falls in their eyes? Do we need to love someone in order to enjoy their company, savour their kisses, go to places of vulnerability and pleasure together? Do we need to love someone in order to take them on a journey of erotic pain or power? Do we need to love someone in order to taste them and bite them and breathe them and hold them and stroke them, and to find deep connection and joy in those experiences together?
Perhaps for some people the answer to all these questions is yes. Perhaps for others the anser is yes to some, but not to others. For me, the answer is no across the board.
In no way am I saying that love is a bad thing, or an unworthy thing. I’m not the least bit bitter or angry or lonely or jaded. I just think we need to see more nuance in the question of love than we currently seem to have much room for. Love is a many-splendoured thing; love is a battlefield; love is heaven for the lonely; it makes us move mountains, it makes the world go ‘round. I get it! I really do. I just think that if we think anything outside of earth-shattering soul-wrenching mind-blowing love is all that’s worth enjoying, we’re setting ourselves up for some serious disappointment.
Some people really do believe that sex should only happen between people who love each other. I think sex is about pleasure, and that pleasure can be experienced in a myriad of ways with people in many types of relationship and degrees of connection.
Do I think it’s a good idea to have sex with someone you don’t feel connected to? No, not really. I suppose maybe on occasion it could work, but I generally find it distasteful, and it’s not the kind of experience I want to pursue. The idea of having sex with someone out of sheer loneliness, or revenge, or boredom, or total lack of self-worth, or whatever other creepy dysfunctional reason you can come up with – no, no, no. Not good, at least not in my books.
But from there to saying you need to want to buy china together before you can get them in the sack – good lord, what a bore. Talk about finding a great way to kill spontaneity, and dismiss the sheer joy that can be taken in a magical moment with a person you’ve just met… or the deep satisfaction of having warm and caring sex with a friend you aren’t in love with but with whom you share an enduring attraction… or the intensity of making out with someone you haven’t seen in years and may not see again… or the deliciousness of sharing a sensual experience with a kinky person who’s outside your usual orientation pattern but who’s just damned good at a particular sort of play you like… or the enjoyment of the exquisite energy that rises when the stars line up right and three, four or more people tumble into bed together in a tangle of limbs and mouths and more.
I know, I know, love exists in all kinds of permutations too—not just the china-buying kind. If you want to get really woo-woo about it, you could even say that every form of intimate connection is a form of love. Perhaps, in that sense, the bootblack really does love every boot-wearer who comes their way and the minister does love every member of the congregation; perhaps in listening to Beethoven’s sonatas we really are feeling love across the boundaries of death, or in eating the perfect chocolate brownie we truly are ingesting a baker’s love at its most nutritious. Perhaps every time I kiss someone it’s actually a form of love, even if we don’t know anything beyond one another’s names and the pull we’re feeling towards each other.
But most of the time when someone says “save sex for someone you love,” they’re implying a package deal that includes a fairly strict form of love in a fairly strict form of relationship. It’s about commitment, and sticking it out for the long term, and using words like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “partner” or “spouse.” Among non-poly people, it implies monogamy. Among poly people, it implies that the pleasure of an excruciatingly hot fling is somehow lower on the legitimacy scale than the pleasure of making love to your LTR honey.
I guess what I’m driving at is the following: underlying the discourse of “sex goes hand in hand with love,” I often catch the rotten scent of sex-negativity. It’s the stink of Christian repression and white Western antisepticism, the stench of colonial pleasure-quashing and the patriarchal marriage imperative, the misguided push towards monogamy as a solution for the AIDS crisis, the loaded use of the term “promiscuity” in sociological and medical literature, the very fairy-tale romantic but unfortunately inaccurate idea that love gives every story a happy ending. It smells the same coming from a radical queer as it does coming from an evangelical wingnut. It pisses me the fuck off.
Sex does not need love to be legitimate. Sex and other forms of pleasure are just fine on their own, thank you very much, and have been for millennia despite every effort to enforce the contrary. Sex is beautiful and deep and meaningful and shallow and fleeting and fun and mind-bending and disappointing and sad and exciting and painful and spiritual and educational and pleasurable and yes, sometimes loving. But only sometimes. I could keep adding words to that menu all day long, and they’d probably each be true for someone somewhere—to varying degrees and seasoned to taste.
I fully support some people’s choice to restrict their sexual pleasure as something to be shared exclusively in the context of a loving relationship, but only if it comes in the context of a choice… not as an approach that’s imposed on everyone else and used as a tool for making value judgments about them. Some of us have tastes that are more varied; not everyone has to indulge in a cornucopia of sexual relations, but I can’t help but think we’re all going to be hungrier in the end if we don’t have the full menu to choose from in the first place.