A few days ago a friend sent me a picture of a page she’d just read from Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women where a woman, given the pseudonym Lina, is describing the beginnings of an affair. Lina lives in the suburbs with three kids and a husband. Now, she’s in a hotel room with another man, one she’s been dreaming of since she was at school.
“He looked at her then, in a way that made her nearly cry,” Taddeo writes. “In fact, she’d caught him looking at her a lot that night and it made her feel so good that she figured he’d never really looked at her before. She laid her head down on his lap because she couldn’t handle having his eyes on her. His gaze made her heart thrum violently against her ribs.”
My friend sent the page with the message: “Oh no, Lisa Taddeo has reminded me what sex is like.” I laughed, because it was a good way of describing it—that feeling where what you let your body forget comes back and punches you in the gut.
A day later, I was watching the new season of The White Lotus, the scene where cheeky Essex boy Jack falls into bed with Portia. He gulps the last of his champagne and then he moves over her, and with his right knee nudges her legs wider apart. I thought to myself: “Oh no, I just remembered what sex is like.”
After that, the realization kept happening again and again: When a guy holds the door open for me at the gym and I smell his fresh sweat mixed with his deodorant, when I stare at a photo of Jack Grealish with his shirt all twisted up. “Oh no, I just remembered what sex is like.”
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I don’t have more sex. My body is so good. There’s the cute rose I got tattooed on my hip bone that no one sees. My back has this slightly insane curve in it, which is because of lumbar lordosis, but it does also look sexy. Changing onto the contraceptive pill Yasmin has made my boobs grow, so that I basically have constant period tits. But all that great stuff is just sitting there.
A friend points out that people in relationships probably feel the same way as I do. Your body can feel so wasted on that person, just one set of eyes tracing those same lines again and again, your form no longer its own thing but an extension of your partner, because they’ve been around it too long. Like when you say a word over and over again and it loses its meaning.
“Just ring James!” another friend says, about this guy who is definitely not called James, whom I could just go and have sex with, rather than sitting around complaining. He texts most weekends asking me to come over and I don’t know why I don’t when the sex we’ve had in the past has been really good. We have these dumb flirty conversations, like when he sent me a video of a T-shirt I left at his a while ago and he put it on and it was so small for him that it emphasized his bigness, and I must like him because I didn’t think about how the T-shirt was probably so stretched now it won’t fit me.
I know I fancy him, and yet I never find myself going back to his after the pub. I’m, instead, always going home, taking my make-up off, and watching videos of how to get rid of hormonal acne until I fall asleep.
In her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel mentions Rosemary Basson, director of the Centre for Sexual Medicine at the University of British Columbia, and her distinction between spontaneous desire, which tends to be associated with men, and relational desire, more closely allied with women. The first refers to a “yearning for and looking forward to sexual experiences,” where a guy proceeds in a linear fashion from desire to arousal to orgasm. And the second, relational desire, refers to an impulse where conditions are much more important, namely, “the relationship, the power dynamics, the safety and trust, the reasons sex is occurring, the eroticism available, her own relationship to her body and pleasure, the presence or absence of stimuli that she finds arousing.” Under this model, it’s arousal that comes first, then desire and sex.
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The distinction makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve never really got it when people are all like, “How long’s it been?” and then gasp if you say anything beyond a month, when men groan about not having sex as though they’re actually in pain, as though desire were a drive, akin to needing to eat or sleep. I have wondered if there’s something wrong with me because I rarely experience desire in that way, except when I’m severely hungover. Sex is easily avoidable, not because I don’t want it, but because, as I realize now, the right context rarely emerges for me. I can ignore the guy who is definitely not called James’s texts because I’m not seeing the way he looks at me, I’m not squished together with him on the sofa, my legs resting over his while he colors shapes into my skin with his fingertips. In that situation, the need would become inescapable; it would make my skin tingle, make me say things I never normally say.
Angel goes on to be critical of Basson’s distinction, emphasizing that most desire is in some way relational. Spontaneous desire only seems spontaneous because the context has been hidden. Angel uses the example of seeing a partner after a long time apart: “Desire, on reunion, can feel utterly spontaneous, as if it comes out of nowhere,” when really you are simply “responding to a context of excitement and anticipation.” It’s the same with men’s desires: They are not inevitable, they are not drives, they are only presented this way because their desire tends to be much more entitled than women’s.
I realize it’s quite normal for people in relationships to have to work on creating the context for sex. They go out on date night every Friday, they spend more quality time together, put it in their schedule—but when you’re single it can be easy to forget that you need to work on creating these conditions too. My desire needs cultivating, it needs me walking towards men I think I might like, getting in taxis I can’t afford, in make-up I know I won’t take off, sleeping in bedrooms I won’t be able to locate a glass of water in.
“What are you doing now?” I ask the guy definitely not called James, and I get up from where I’m sat in the pub and I don’t say bye because I know all it will take is one friend saying, “but I cued Paramore” for me to be persuaded to stay a bit longer, and I put my shoes on even though I came in heels and they hurt by now, and I walk out into the night.