In defence of our early romantic histories

Taken in an NYC bookshop, obviously

I believe that, sooner or later, in one way or another, sex fucks us all up. This has slowly developed over years of stewing in my own ever-building internal pandemonium, and eventually getting drunk enough to glory in the subject with my closest friends and immediate family members.

A widely shared opinion is that negative relationships with sex develop early on, and sometimes get better from there; that our young brushes with intimacy were, at best, unfulfilling, and at worst, destructive. They were certainly riddled with uncertainty and confusion, and rife with alien emotions, and it’s commonplace to think back on them with disdain. They also, however, occurred in a time before we had truly experienced love and the loss of it, or developed deep hangups, or kinks, or become realistic about the limitations of what intimate relationships can do for our lives.

We knew nothing about sex, then — about how glorious, or releasing, or ruinous it could be — but we were curious beyond reason. What we wanted to know couldn’t be taught (to the extent that no teacher ever really bothered trying), but it could be experienced, and that was how we learned; blind, audacious, and electrified.

Debauched teenage gatherings are strong memories; dark hallways and sweat and noxious booze, and the thrill of knowing that we were young, but at the same time engaging in activities that were older than we’d yet thought possible. Beyond all that, though, is the almost sensory memory of the festering sexual tension that connected us, and nauseating excitement of those moments in which another person showed you that they considered your foundling self worthy of them and their fascinating body.

In those scenarios of young, desperate intimacy, personal risk was not so much unimportant as it was utterly nonexistent; all that mattered was the immediate experience. At no point did we consider the possible consequences; emotional havoc, attachment, shame or humiliation, or finding ourselves a few nights later bawling into our pillows over the fact that, for some reason we couldn’t put a finger on, we just didn’t feel okay. It didn’t stop the pursuit of sexual gratification — consideration was so impossible a thing for minds so unfettered with wariness of potential distress that all one felt at the time was pure, addictive exhilaration.

As adults, even young ones, we’re crushingly aware. As we age we know more and more of what will go wrong; certainly enough, by one’s mid-20s, to prevent most of us being able to fully let go and engage without caution, as we did merely a few years earlier. The same incapacitating feeling of ecstasy I felt as a reckless teenager is a high that I’ve found impossible to recreate. It doesn’t necessarily stop most of us seeking out sexual or even romantic relationships — some people are magnificent at shutting out the voice that tells them it’s not worth the turmoil for the duration of a comforting hookup, or even the mild rush of kiss at the end of an only-okay date, while some absolutely cannot manage it alongside maintaining their lives.

And yet, we all continue looking, because we remember perfectly what that hit of blind excitement in the beginning felt like, and we’re addicted to recreating it — even though it’s been years since most of us experienced anything like the ecstatic free-fall we felt when we were stupid kids making out with someone we fancied at a house party. That’s the hunger that keeps us on Tinder, catching glances at one another on buses, dating, failing, sighing, and carrying on; hunger for a high we’re too full of knowledge to experience again.

There’s something a silver lining to this grim realisation, though: that it’s a relief, after however many years it’s been, to have a reason to look back fondly for a change on our young, catastrophic romantic histories. It’s a reason to separate whatever amatory shit we’re dealing with as adults — as it seems a staggering number of us are — from a time which, for all its confusing, consuming uncertainty, at the very least was one of fearless, truly unadulterated curiosity and, sometimes, pleasure. I don’t know about you, but I needed to be able to do that.

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