Remind Me Why We’re Having Sex

No friends, no benefits.

Edward Robson, PhD
Jan 4 · 5 min read
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Billy Crystal once observed, “Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place.”

If he were on this platform now, he’d issue a retraction for that quip. It seems we are approaching equity, with many modern women feeling just as randy, just as free as men to scratch their itches.

Part of me says, good for them. It’s high time we laid to rest the double standards that shame women and applaud men for the very same behavior.

As long as it’s consensual, sex is good for every body. We are social animals — we need touching, we need pleasuring. Any moral or religious system that attaches guilt to sex, probably is sick in lots of other ways as well.

But is more always better? Why the urgency to couple with so many different partners, rather than establishing a few connections that might last beyond the evening?

Part of it I understand: variety. The excitement of the first undressing for new eyes. Unfamiliar partners who can add new steps and shimmies to our favorite dance. Different bodies, hands and mouths and genitalia, different skills and styles and energies. That thrill needs no explanation.

There’s also an appeal to simply sharing pleasure with an amiable stranger or a new acquaintance, one you don’t expect to see again. To leave your civilized identity behind, drop your past and future in the corner with your clothes, and become the universal man or woman for an hour or two.

Yes, we’ve come a long way since the days when sex was theoretically reserved for marriage, or at least for love. We’re free now, free of the concern that anyone will think, just because we’re having sex with them, it means we are in a relationship. Or that, beyond a courteous concern that they experience some pleasure and some satisfaction, we actually care about them. No, it doesn’t mean that anymore.

Now it means . . . well, what? When sex is “casual,” does it mean anything?

I believe it does, just because our human nature looks for meaning in our actions. But what it means, in these confusing times, is getting lost. It must be more than just, “I’m horny; you’re convenient.”

Sex Is Better with a Story

Scroll through the offerings on any porn site and notice how few have the title “people having sex.” That’s what they are, of course, but for some reason, the makers and the marketers of videos go to a lot of trouble to provide a story line.

This is a multibillion-dollar industry. They’re selling images of sex, the product that sells everything from cars to clothing, alcohol, cosmetics, books, and music. Porn purveyors don’t waste time with anything that doesn’t help their bottom line.

So why the stories, most of which are silly, mundane, or despicable? What does it say about us, the consumers, if the sex acts by themselves are not sufficiently appealing?

We know what we’re really watching, but we want a fantasy, even if it’s fictional, even if it’s utterly implausible. We want to imagine these attractive bodies belong to stepsiblings forced to share a hotel room, or a lonely divorcee and the boy next door, or a clueless virgin begging for an older uncle’s tutelage in bed.

Other channels take a more “reality TV” approach: She’s auditioning because she dreams of making lots of money as a porn star. They’re a couple who enjoy inviting the whole internet into their bedroom. “Hi, we’re Joe and Julia.”

But why? Why not just post some pictures of the actors and the moves they’re going to going to show us? Isn’t that the part we’re looking for?

Because, to our brain — the most important organ of our sexuality — the context makes a difference. It affects our enjoyment of taped sex acts on the screen, and it affects how we experience sex in real life with a partner.

What makes a moment stand out in our memory will not be what we do — that’s mostly going to be the things we always do — but where we do it (if it’s someplace different or unusual), when and why (if the occasion is the reason), what leads up to it (the flirtation, the seduction), or the person we were with. In other words, the story that surrounds the sex.

Billy Crystal’s wrong. Nearly everybody needs a reason. The reason doesn’t have to be profound — an urge, a willing partner, and a bit of free time is enough — but the fact that I have chosen you instead of someone else implies a reason in the form of a relationship, however tenuous.

In other words, we all believe our sexual decisions have some meaning. At the very least, the choice to go to bed together ought to mean, “I like you.”

Sometimes there’s a more specific reason, such as procreation, celebration, or infatuation. Sometimes it’s a message: “Welcome home.” “I’m sorry.” “Happy Birthday.” “Thank you.” “I adore you.” Sometimes, in the context of commitment, we might think of it as maintenance, the way we tell our partner, “You are still the one I choose.”

I know I’m a relic. I’m a boomer, the product of a slower, simpler time. But for me the thrill of casual encounters long since disappeared. I don’t have to be in love, but I do need to be in like.

I need to know you as a friend before we take a horizontal attitude. I need to know we’re here because we’ve reached the point of trust where clothing is the only covering we haven’t dropped, the only way we aren’t already naked with each other. I need to know that what we share is personal, that even if it isn’t love, at least it’s you and me.

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Edward Robson, PhD

Written by

Retired psychologist, wordsmith, teacher, MFA candidate. Buy me coffee: ko-fi.com/edrobson. ecrobson@gmail.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Edward Robson, PhD

Written by

Retired psychologist, wordsmith, teacher, MFA candidate. Buy me coffee: ko-fi.com/edrobson. ecrobson@gmail.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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