Two questions that come up a lot for me in conversation:
n “Is sex REALLY just like seeing a movie at the cinema? Why then are we so hung up on it?”
n “Do conscientious choices in our language help us to transform our collective understanding and therefore our personal reactions to a given situation?”
For the record, I am not of the opinion that sex is “just like” going to watch a movie. There are just so many differences in these two activities that I cannot even begin to list them. The more important fact is, sex is not THE fundamental experience people can have together. Neither is it “just like” something as potentially banal as a trip to the cinema (though the obvious fault in logic here is that a movie could be extremely transformative while sex could leave us awash in boredom).
In truth, we needn’t choose between binaries, especially binaries that already face an obvious problematic like the one previously mentioned. No experience IS or IS NOT any one thing. Sex is not IS. We cannot summarize sex as being one thing or another. It is not always pleasurable, not always spiritual, not always casual, not always emotional, not always loving, not always sexy. The same can be said of a movie, though the two activities are not the same at all. When we are specific about our language, and not afraid of being verbose, we can speak of the multiple nuances of any given experience. In our language we are free to sometimes “let” sex be as friendly as watching a movie together is/was. We can “let” sex be as emotional and transformative as that one movie was—and then, perhaps, more.
Why speak at all of Sex in monolithic terms? Rather, why not let ourselves speak of people and relationships and specific instances of sex? After all, not only is sex inconsistent across various partners, is it also inconsistent across one partner, one relationship. Freeing ourselves from the need to generalize or summarize, we can leave room for sex not having to fall into any one category or description.
There are other possibilities in our sociological imaginations that can help us to delink from the ”Is it” or “Is it not” question. Instead of the binary “people I have sex with or have had sex with” versus “people I don’t have sex with,” we can associate the people in our lives with nuanced experiences of sexuality and love, tenderness and affection. Instead of thinking of the last time we had sex with a particular person or at the last time we had sex at all, or the binary border between having and not having, we can think of each person as individual and our spectrum of sexual experiences with them as a long process that lasts a lifetime.
Jenny and I like to hold hands. One time we kissed and many other times we almost kissed. There may be one day that we can sleep next to each other every night for years.
For many years Jessica and I had penetrative sex almost every single day. After some time we began to find ourselves just kissing and holding each other. Now we sleep together every night and we hold each other and enjoy taking baths together. We sometimes have penetrative or oral sex.
There is possibility for exultation in the affection that does exist, rather than a feeling of lack and frustration about the expressions of sexuality that do not exist.
Sex, though it can be profound, can also be more fun than spiritual, more playful than emotional. We can “liken” it to other experiences—but we needn’t. When discussing or defending our sexual practices, sometimes we feel the need to make easy comparisons, but we needn’t. We can simply speak in specifics and in such language find our experiences’ uniqueness—and thus, our partners’ unique characteristics. In this way we can let vocabulary help us in making free associations. Our knowledge of another person can be built on a collection of experiences that we have had together (as opposed to not had). We can easily described these experiences as events (such as the list above that includes kissing, penetrative sex, holding hands) but also as a collection of abstractions, such as smells—colors—shades of arousal—shared goals, dreams.
Daniel reminds me of the color yellow, of order and cleanliness; he reminds me of the things that keep me tethered and logical. In my most chaotic times, he stuck to me. We explored together in our sexuality and we often laughed and talked about what we were doing as we explored each other’s bodies. I called him boyfriend for seven years but I could also call him Daniel. I could also call him [ ].
We can easily speak of how a brother or boyfriend or husband does not fit the mode of MAN or the mode of HUSBAND. We can easily speak of how a girlfriend or wife or sister does not fit the mode of WOMAN or MOTHER. But we could better speak of what he or she IS. If we expect that a husband be someone we can take a shower with, or buy us anniversary gifts, or bring us flowers on Valentine’s Day, or have technical knowledge, or handle financial matters, or initiate sex, or give us oral sex, there will always be at least one expectation unfulfilled. People already do not fall neatly into these categories and intellectually we know this, yet still we experience pain around lack and missing. Especially when we free ourselves through language to take on the challenging aspects of how to describe our relationship, we find more room to write about the various diverse intimacies that we share with a wide variety of people. We free our partner and our expectations of them.
What if we write about people not as how they fit or do not fit into prescribed gender roles? What then if we write about people not as how they fit or do not fit into any prescribed role, any role in GENERAL?
Rather than having to say, for example, “mother,” we can speak of all the things we are reminded of by that person. Mother does not have to be MOTHER like a greeting card mother for mother’s day Mother. She does not have to call on your birthday; you do not have to see each other every year. She can be mentally ill; she can even be a person that in order to stay healthy you cannot see. Yes, a mother can be someone that you can’t see anymore. She does not have to be always there, always the provider. She does not have to be partnered with father or mother. She does not have to be sober, or not abusive. She is still “mother” but she does not have to be society’s “Mother.” The question is, WHAT IS SHE? We can talk about what she IS, as opposed to what she is not.
That is different from saying that all and any behavior from mother is okay or that it should or does feel good. On the contrary. Delinking mother from Mother is simply to let ourselves free of the expectations that mothers be a certain thing and begin to talk more honestly about what our mother is and is for us. And also to allow for other experiences of mothering (with people who are not our mothers) enter our consciousness and fill the feelings of void that we may have in regards to our Mother experience.
This mode of thinking is key in all of our relationships. What if we rather talk about each and every person not as sexual partner or not sexual partner, not as girlfriend or not girlfriend, not as man or not man, not as brother or not brother, but rather, how they fit into our lives through the experiences, smells, and thoughts that we associate with them? What if we speak of the ways that they DO fulfill our needs and desires? What if we are committed to a continual experience of finding and inviting people into our lives who can fulfill our needs and desires in unexpected ways?
Polyamory is not about having sex with as many people as possible, or having as many “romantic” relationships as possible, or about declassifying sex to the point that it is always and ever tantamount to visiting the cinema. Conscientious choice of language in the way that we describe polyamory is not about binding ourselves to so-called politically correct limitations or clean associations in our experience. Rather, polyamory is about finding the nuances and limitless, multiple possibilities of experience across all of our relationships. It is about viewing all relationships as relationships that contain a variety of expressions of intimacy including, not necessarily, but not excluding, sex. It is about freeing ourselves from expectations that can be hurtful and limiting in themselves. Polyamory can fit into our lives beyond our sexual experiences and create revolution in all of our relationships, even if we choose only one person with whom to share our most overt sexual experiences for a consistent period of time or even, over the course of a lifetime (ie sexual monogamy). Our relationships still carry with them the possibility of polyamory as an empowering tool of re-imagination. Language is paramount in that re-imagining.