You clicked on this article fast. You looked at that question and responded with something to do with gender, feminism, sexuality, biological essentialism and you were about to write a brutal comment, weren’t you?
This is not a question, however, posed by me. It is in fact the first ever question asked by Ms. Caroline Bradshaw on the pilot episode of the somewhat dated, widely berated, and yet somehow still the bible of all popular TV shows, books, and articles about relationships: Sex and The City. And I have been appointed by Vogue—very Carrie—to re-answer this sacred set of questions for today because, there I was on a call with my editor, twenty-four years since the show first aired, after a particularly strange date and I couldn’t help but wonder: Has anything changed? It doesn’t feel so different. We’re all still obsessed with love and sex and relationships. We still have completely unhinged boundaries (well, my date did). We’re still spending way over our means.
So. Let’s start at the beginning. Should women have sex like men? The question was, in 1998, a synonym for a sort of late third-wave mentality where sex meant “power,” and where “men” meant “devoid of feeling, emotion, and care.” In a 2022 world, gender, and sex look a lot different. Conversations around sex and gender, have become more about pleasure and equality—about how women deserve pleasure, and how men have emotions. The fundamental categories of gender have shifted too, and with a growing knowledge and presence of queerness in mainstream culture, plus all of us they/thems knocking about, it seems an answer is impossible, because the question simply doesn’t apply.
And so the question — with gender removed and cultural context applied — becomes “should we have emotionless sex for power?”
The question is a hard one to ask, and to answer. There is nothing wrong with having emotionless sex as a power trade, provided everyone involved is consenting as actively as is possible, and both parties are aware of what it is they are trading. Money for sex, absolutely! Decriminalize it. Power for sex: if it works, and everyone is in the know, why not? But, for the most part, after Me Too, we have tried to untangle sex from a certain kind of professional power by rightly taking power away from those who exploited it.
Even domestically—at home, within marriages and long-term relationships—outdated ideas that we fuck on birthdays and anniversaries have diminished. And, in best case scenarios, we talk about pleasure when it comes to sex; we talk about respect when it comes to sex, for ourself and for others. We listen to Esther Perel now. The idea of sex as synonymous with power, or even as something to trade, seems to miss the point. In 2022, it’s more about pleasure than power. For friends of mine who enjoy sexual power play, it’s because they derive pleasure from it.
So what about the other part of the question, the emotionless bit? Is it possible to have sex without emotion, like the truly legendary Samantha Jones does in the middle of broker and renowned hot bachelor Capote Duncan’s loft apartment? I don’t know if it is. I’ve tried, and I thought for a really long time that I was succeeding in fucking for fucking’s sake. I had sex with an endless array of men—at hookups, in bathhouses, in club backrooms, even with exes for whom I felt very little. But, after lots of reading and some good therapy, I started to understand that annexing your own wants and needs, that numbing out your emotion, in order to tell the story of the sex you’re having, or chase an external validation, might feel like nothing in the moment. But over time it leaves you feeling detached, and somewhat disconnected from your own sense of what makes you desirable, and what brings you pleasure. I had said yes too many times, unable to sense when my body felt like saying no. I had said yes too many times, confusing good sex with good stories that would impress my peers.
We aren’t often talking about how to have good sex with another person.
So I would argue, after fifteen years of field research, that Good Sex without emotion is not possible. This isn’t to say the emotions all have to be good themselves. Yes, love, care, soothing touch, intimacy, connection, can feel good, and can feel healthy, when associated with sex. But even complicated emotions are important to access during sex, whether it’s delving the depths of your own shame, whether it’s about making you feel really really hot, whether it’s about gaining pleasure in a completely selfish way mutually agreed upon, even silently, with the person whom you’re fucking that day. Good sex should have some sort of feeling. Good sex should not not be numb.
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And what strikes me when we talk about sex today, in a world with such an emphasis on self-pleasure and self-care, is that we are often talking about whether we are having sex, who we are having sex with, how many times a week our coupled up friends are doing it. But we aren’t often talking about how to have good sex with another person. At best we’ll say: Was it hot? But we won’t talk about how really good sex takes work: emotional work, intellectual work, physical work.
Since Sex and The City, two generations have grown up with freer access to porn; the internet has caused a complete shift in the ways we meet for sex and for dating; and how we understand sex, desire, intimacy, potential, and love has shifted irrevocably as a result of various socio-political movements. Today Gen Z is having less sex than ever; Me Too has changed what sex means; millennials are opting for marriage more than the generation above them—and yet, Good Sex is still elusive.
And so if Carrie’s column was about finding love and having sex in Manhattan, let this column be about finding good love and having good sex anywhere in the world. Welcome to Good Sex in Any City.