Without at least some level of fondness between consenting adults, sex is just biology, and it is boring and detached and empty, says Emily Heist Moss. But is that true for everyone?
On my list of sexual partners, I have exactly one regret. I was in college and I picked a willing classmate, someone I didn’t know well, to break a dry spell and help me get over a rocky break-up. It “worked” only in the sense that I successfully reassured myself that I would have sex again. By every other measure one might use to judge a sexual encounter, it was an abject failure.
What was missing? It wasn’t consent; we were dead sober and had clearly spelled out our agreement before any clothes came off. It wasn’t attraction; on my end, anyway, I found him cute and smart enough that sleeping with him looked like fun. It wasn’t the lack of orgasm; I’ve since had enough orgasm-less sex to know that I can still walk away feeling pleased.
Some people would say, “Duh, you dummy, love is what you’re missing.” For them, that might be true, and no sex is good sex unless it’s accompanied by love and commitment. That recipe hasn’t proven consistent in my personal experience, but it does re-open the old can of worms: Is sex always better with feelings? And what do we mean by “feelings,” anyway?
I polled the internet, as I am wont to do, looking for a sample size greater than one. With the Facebook floodgates open, the emails and messages started pouring in. The range and ferocity of the responses confirmed what I suspected all along: When you ask, “Is feelings-laden sex always better?” you only get one answer, “It depends!” In the age of the hook-up, where we are constantly monitoring the nature and frequency of young adult sexual interaction, my peers have clearly spent a fair amount of time on self-scrutiny. Why am I having sex? Am I happy with how I’m having sex and with whom? Should I be having more? Or less? Or different?
What is good sex, they ask? Does it mean having an orgasm? That seems too simple (and, ahem, too easy to replicate sans partner). Is it sex without regret? One friend wrote about sex that, in the moment, felt good, but left a residue of icky guilt after the fact. Did that really belong in the “good sex” bucket?
After I read through dozens of responses, two themes emerged. First, no matter what else followed, informed consent was the bedrock upon which any good sex could be expected to unfold. My friend put it like this, “The one essential ‘feeling’ is absolute, physical surety that you want to have sex, right now, with this person.” Without that, all hope is lost.
After consent, the second theme was easy to see but harder to label. Everyone agreed “feelings,” were required, but what those feelings were varied from person to person. Some spoke of friendship, “I am learning that sex is so much better when it’s with a friend, especially someone I’ve known for a long time.” Others tossed around words like respect, affection, appreciation, camaraderie, and connectedness. All good words, but my favorite suggestion, the one that feels most true to my experience is “fondness.”
Fondness implies that you like each other, that there is caring between you, however impermanent, of whatever romantic or platonic level. Fondness gives you permission to care what the other person thinks and wants, a reason to put someone else’s desires, temporarily, in front of your own. It implies a desired reciprocity, not in counted orgasms, but in the shared pursuit of pleasure. In the words of my friend J., “You have to care enough to expose something of yourself, or you won’t get anything satisfying in return. You have to care, or you won’t give a shit about making the other person feel good. Some people have this after hours of conversation, it takes years for others.”
I lied at the beginning of this essay. There is one other sexual encounter I regret, but it was not a one-night stand. It was with someone I loved at the tail end of our relationship, when the good vibes had all but evaporated and the primary feeling we had toward each other was resentment. We had sex because we thought we were supposed to, because it was the thing we knew how to do with each other, because it was the end. It did not make either of us feel good, emotionally or physically, and I regret deeply that we ended on such a hollow and mechanical note.
The fondness was what was missing from my one-afternoon stand with my college classmate. It was missing from the last time I slept with my ex-boyfriend. Without it, for me, there is no such thing as good sex. There is only biology, and it is boring and detached and empty. Another respondee to my Facebook prompt wrote, “Maybe sex isn’t made better by feelings, but it sure as heck seems to be made worse by the lack of them. Some of the worst sex I’ve had has been effectively sterilized. A clinical encounter is a weird pantomime of the actual event.”
I have had good sex with people I loved and people I liked. I have had sex padded by emotional intensity and grounded in deep wells of trust. I have also had good sex with partners with whom the camaraderie went only as far as a glass of wine and a good conversation. All the good sex had two things in common; it started with consent and was carried through by fondness. Momentary fondness, sometimes, but fondness nonetheless.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.