We’ve all been lied to about sex.
This is pretty obvious: anyone who has been sexually active even once knows that the general, socially-approved narrative of what sex is and what sex should be like is, if not a flat-out lie, at least a glossy, gorgeous fiction. As we grow up and get thrown into a world of trying to figure out who we like, and what we like, and all the messy details inherent in two (or more, I don’t know your life) people getting together and doing the naked tango, it’s easy to fall prey to the narrative. It’s easy to start thinking about what you should do, instead of what you want to do. It’s easy to forget that sometimes what’s healthy and happy for you is not what the world thinks you should do.
I spent the vast majority of my adolescence and early adulthood certain I was a demisexual: that I needed the spark of emotional intimacy to really get that flame going. But – and I want to stress here that this is only my experience, not that I think this is true of any other individual who identifies as demisexual – that really wasn’t the case at all. In actuality, I stapled emotions onto sexual desire, like saddling up a wild horse, to legitimize it to myself. I’d grown up Catholic, and though my family was and remains awesome in many ways, we just didn’t talk about sex. All I knew was that I wasn’t supposed to have it, but that if I did, I ought to stick with the narrative: it should be an act of love only, and not just desire.
We see this narrative everywhere: or, just as telling, we see its opposite. In media, characters are rarely allowed to enjoy purely physical flings without suddenly falling in love. I can think of no more egregious example than Barney Stinson, who on How I Met Your Mother turned philandering into such an art form that his antics of cutting a swath through the young women of New York City, are as fascinating as they are repulsive, until:
It’s like a disease. I slept with Robin one time and I caught feelings. I caught feelings bad!”
— Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother
Robin and Barney, two characters who up until that point had largely scoffed at the idea of magical, Disney-promised, once-in-a-lifetime love, were suddenly trapped by it. They fell in love reluctantly, unwillingly, because the narrative demanded it, because main characters aren’t allowed to just have flings, they have to have feelings.
It’s such a narrative necessity that there’s a whole trope based around it. It’s hard to think of a single casual sexual relationship between main characters in a TV show or movie that didn’t end up declaring itself “true love” somewhere down the line. Laurel Lance’s last words to Oliver on Arrow were about his “true love.” Many of the plotlines on Once Upon A Time hinge upon the efficacy of the True Love’s Kiss. Pick a show, or a comic, or a movie, or a book, and you’ll probably find this trope lurking in the shadows, or out in plain sight under the guise of perfectly normal relationship dynamics.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of pressure to connect sex with love, established relationships, and a future. It’s insidious, and it’s ubiquitous, and the really dangerous thing is: it creates a whole world of unfulfillable expectations for those who want more than anything to make it true.
I’m not suggesting there’s no such thing as true love: I’ve seen it in action, I’ve felt it. Love is beautiful, messy, and it can make you the very best version of yourself, absolutely.
I’m not talking about that kind of love. I’m talking about the kind that leaves you trapped, and breaks you down, and asks more of you than you can give. The kind that isn’t love at all, but masquerades as it, because, it turns out, even in long-term, trusting, monogamous relationships, that narrative can be a destructive force that leaves damage strewn everywhere for years.
The most toxic relationship I ever had lasted six years, three of which were spent living together. In retrospect, sex was always going to destroy that relationship, but, hey: we were in love! How damaging could the expectation of sex in a loving, committed relationship really be?
Turns out, the answer is very. His continual coaxing exhausted me, his freeze-outs guilted me into capitulating. Arguments about what a normal sex life looked like happened almost weekly. We were a couple, and sex was his to demand, or so I thought. That’s what the narrative had always taught me. I could no longer understand the new disconnect between my feelings and my wants. Instead of feeling desired, I felt hounded. Instead of feeling empowered, I felt powerless. My sex drive went from healthy to non-existent. My relationship with sex went from “complicated” to “apocalyptic.” My relationship with my boyfriend imploded.
After that, I didn’t precisely trust the narrative anymore. Instead of assuming I needed to be in love to want or enjoy sex, I eschewed the emotional aspect entirely. For the first time, I tried the mythical one-night stand … and nothing broke the next day. I didn’t feel like less of myself. I didn’t feel guilty. And then I stumbled into the complete opposite of what I had always been told was a healthy, normal relationship, and I’ve never felt happier, healthier, or more powerful.
There are no strings attached and no expectations. I see this person once a year, and we text every few weeks or so. There are zero repercussions for saying nah, not today. I don’t love him. I like him okay. When it all first started, I entertained romantic flights of fancy about finding a way to be together, to make it real, but then I realized it is real. It’s no less real for being non-monogamous and casual, all the things I had always been told were the wrong things to want. Sometimes he just gives me a deep-tissue massage that I dream of for the next twelve months as all the knots pile back up. We keep each other on track with cosplay creation and workout plans. But in the end, he knows next to nothing about me, and I know next to nothing about him, and we will probably keep casually sleeping together for as long as it stays fun, and then we’ll go our separate ways.
It’s almost impossible for me to express the relief I feel due to this unconventional arrangement. For the first time in years, I feel wanted, not just taken for granted. I get to choose my poison. Free of the expectation of sex, I have actually started to enjoy it again.
Break the narrative. Don’t do it for your partner, or because you’re expected to, or because the world thinks you should. Do it – or don’t do it – for you. It’s your decision. Don’t sell it for anything.