Real Intimacy Isn’t About Sex

True intimacy requires time, it requires our mask to slip, our shadow to show.

A few days ago on The Toast, Randa Jarrar stated that she was, “never living with a partner again.”  I’m a person who has lived alone for maybe a grand total of four months in my 46 years, so I eagerly read about her experiences.

What struck me about the essay was how the narrator equated passion with the unknown and boring conversations with the known. She says in the essay, “I’m aware that there’s an intimacy in that level of openness, which comes when you live with someone. But I’m willing to forgo that intimacy for the hotness of having sex with someone at their house, spending the night or not, and then coming home to my own messy or clean bed—no matter, so long as it’s mine.”

The definition of sexual intimacy seems to trump all other forms of intimacy. This definition says, I cannot have hot sex and be known. I cannot have hot sex and navigate who scoops the litter box, so I will settle for the hot sex and keep the rest of me, to me.

This definition of intimacy as purely sexual is prevalent and damaging. I have had three people close to me commit suicide. Each of these people lived alone. According to suicide studies and statistics, “Living alone and being single both increase the risk of suicide. Marriage is associated with lower overall suicide rates; and divorced, separated and widowed people are more likely to commit suicide….Being a parent, particularly for mothers, appears to decrease the risk of suicide.”

Now, I am not in any way saying that someone who chooses to live alone (or because of circumstances lives alone) is depressed or suicidal, but I am saying that we as human beings, are meant to be intimate with other people, and intimacy, the intimacy that lasts, is not necessarily sexual.

Throughout any given day, I compare the mess that is in my own mind to everyone else’s activities, status updates, etc. Rarely do any of us talk about our shadow. Without intimacy, I could start denying parts of myself because the dark things I think might never be mirrored in my interactions. I recently read Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle in which everyone starts wearing a camera because one is one’s best self when someone is watching! This is one of the most haunting parts of the novel—no more shared moments of specialness or uniqueness with a special friend or lover, no inside jokes, no privacy to organize and work through thoughts. At the same time, talking to those we love about our darkness, sadness, our less than acceptable thoughts, this pries us open and allows us to be known. One of the very best ways of being known, to be intimate, is to navigate the domestic.

When we live alone and have time to pluck and tweeze, to put on Victoria’s Secret and smooth ourselves into an image, it can be hot. Then we leave and that’s not risking much, is it? Risking is figuring out who will make dinner, when will you visit your aging parents, who will walk the dog, who is getting home from work late and then how to have sex amidst that schedule.

Romanticism and mystery are firmly attached to intimacy in our culture. I wish I could beat romanticism with my shoe. Not only does romanticism set up false expectations about intimacy, it also plays into the patriarchy that neither man nor woman can be on the road to honest and known from the start.

Jarrar states her choice in her essay—she is choosing to hold a part of herself back. She is choosing safety and romanticism and mystery over intimacy. This is her choice to make and she has every right to make it. But what do men and women lose when they make that choice?

My daughter broke her collarbone as I was giving birth to her vaginally, and so my doctor recommended a scheduled C-section for my next child. My husband was there for the C-section, he listened to our son scream and then cut the cord. He watched me throw up from the epidural and later, when they sent me home, the hospital left the drainage catheter in to remove fluid from the site of my incision. For two days before my follow-up appointment, my husband had to care for the area of my incision and re-bandage it. There was no Victoria’s Secret there. No bondage fur handcuffs. No candlelight. Here was the true test of intimacy—can you clean someone’s drainage catheter and still want to fuck them once they are healed?

I know what being in love feels like and I know what boots-on-the-ground love looks like. Real love is wiping someone you love’s ass when they are sick. Real love is one partner saying they will do the grocery shopping this week even though they don’t want to because they know their spouse has to work late. Being in love is wonderful—everything in the world opens before you. You feel so alive. But can that state last under any circumstances except getting a new partner every two or three years?

Consenting adults are certainly free to do that. But I also think very little intimacy would ever develop in these drive-by relationships—true intimacy requires time, it requires our mask to slip, our shadow to show. The intimacy we have with our oldest friends, the friends who we would call if we had to move a body, almost always rest on a foundation of domesticity and/or investment of time—our college roommates, our sisters, our brothers, our neighbor friend who treated our house as his own.

One of the documented benefits of therapy is being able to tell another person everything, to be known, to be intimate, to be heard and still be accepted, to not be cast from the room and labeled a bad person. Therapy does this in a specific structure that cannot be replicated in real life, except by the year-after-year trappings of domesticity.

The blockbuster movie Avatar had a lot of problems, but I still loved the line, “I see you.” To me, the pleasure of living with others is the pleasure of being seen—not just my goodness and my lightness, but the times when I pick my nose or open the fridge and a tower of leftovers falls out and I say, “you mother*cking mother*cker.”

If you live with the same people long enough, you become a family. And yes, with the wrong person or people, domesticity does not work. Keeping your mask on for years would be painful and I would argue almost impossible. But if you are with the right people, you will let your shadow loose and they will embrace it and you will hopefully return the favor to them.

This is the definition of intimacy to me—which may or may not involve sex—the unflinching acceptance of our anger, our pettiness, our grief, our bad habits. To be loved not for our good qualities, but to be accepted in the dark.

Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and an assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She runs a film review blog Catch Up Films with fellow Role Reboot contributor Chelsea Cristene. Eriksen lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, her teenage son, her teenage daughter (who comes home occasionally to get groceries and do laundry), a Sheltie, a pit bull, and a cynical former barn cat.

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