In part because of a Michael Baisden discussion, and in another part because it concerns a particular scene in my first book, I’m taking the topic of sex and relationships and running with a few Important Things, including but not limited to perception, dynamics, and a little practical psychology.
So, cue the cut, for people who may not want to read it.
A huge part of the reason to this discussion is a Michael Baisden post – again. I like Michael Baisden because he doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and his readers do ask interesting questions. So there was one post that caught my eye: a woman was writing in, asking if it’s possible to maintain a relationship where one is satisfied in every way except sexually?
Personally, my opinion is NO. It is not possible. This is one of the many reasons why people have affairs: because they’re not getting what they want at home, whether in the bedroom or otherwise. The people on Baisden’s page said things like, “Love without sex equals respect” – which made me raise an eyebrow in the “what the hell?!” way – yes, mileage may vary and different strokes for different folks, but that has to be the most sanctimonious, holier-than-thou thing to say. But in general, the answers encouraged the writer to make and take the effort to teach the man of the equation how to satisfy her – a common-sense approach, yes, but a minority among the “this means he respects you” and “absolutely not” replies.
Sex and respect are not mutually exclusive. Believe you me, it is wholly possible to sleep with someone whom you have no respect for; if I had a dollar for every time I got an upset phone call from someone guilty of hooking up with someone who didn’t respect them as a person, I’d buy myself a new computer, at least. Equally, it’s possible to respect your partner but have no sexual attraction with them whatsoever. In both cases, it’s a recipe for failure in a relationship setting. Why?? Because while not mutually exclusive, both are the key to making something work. If you don’t respect someone as a human being, how likely are they to stick around? And if there’s no intimacy – don’t kid yourselves, folks, sex is a huge contributing factor to intimacy – then how long do you think someone will stand for it?
The people who think that it is 100% possible to have a relationship without sexual satisfaction and think that sex is not a very important part of a relationship are kidding themselves. Yes, there are asexual folks out there, but they are in the extreme minority. The majority of relationships, regardless of orientation, length, or arrangement conditions, does involve some sort of sexual connection, and it is simply impossible to understate the importance thereof. And if you are not asexual, and you also aren’t enjoying the sex in your relationship, whether you’re married, poly, dating, or just having a fling, then trust me, something ain’t right.
Let me begin this by first saying that no two individuals have the same attitude towards sex, and that the media has taken our perception of it and manipulates it every day in the name of advertising and sales. And, mind you, successfully, if you consider the ad content alone. Shed the advertising, the Cosmo columns, the bro talks at the pub – leave all that behind. Just start by thinking about the other person. Because when you’re up to getting laid, you’re not the only person in the equation, and the way you perceive the situation is not the same as the perception of the person you’re with. This is independent of the framework you are in; whether you’re hooking up for the hell of it or in a long-term relationship, one major thing to note is that the other person’s viewpoint is important.
For purposes of this narrative, I’ll focus on the “committed relationship” framework. I know all folks from all walks of life read this blog, but I go by the old adage of “write what you know”, so you will find that much will be written from the viewpoint of a straight female. I don’t think like most women do, but if you don’t know that by now, can’t help ya. But I digress.
The most important part of a relationship – of any sort – is trust, followed closely by intimacy. Note that I’m not equating sex with intimacy here, but quite a lot of folks out there do. Nor am I equating sex with trust. But a lot of folks do. See what I’m doing here? Choice of words is very deliberate on my part: a lot of people equate sex with an expression of trust or intimacy, or both, in a relationship. Then there’s folks who see sex as a stress relief – which, biologically, it is, if you consider the dopamine and serotonin spikes associated with orgasm. Then there’s folks who use sex as a manipulation tool, because they can use their bedfellow’s perception of sex against them.
Again, note my choice of words; it’s very deliberate here. Perception. It’s not the act itself that’s the manipulation, it’s how the act is seen or perceived by a person that’s the factor therein. If you are the sort of person who perceives sex as something that’s reserved for a relationship as an expression of intimacy, and you end up sleeping with someone who sees sex as temporary companionship and little else, you’re bound to get hurt if you don’t know the other person’s attitudes towards it in advance. Does it mean the other person used you? Not if they told you in advance that them sleeping with you doesn’t mean you’re in a relationship. If you expect a relationship after you have sex with someone who doesn’t want to get involved past that, then do yourself this favor: don’t blame them for you getting hurt if your expectations aren’t congruent with reality. If the other person tells you in advance what the consequences are and they don’t match with your expectations, they are not to blame. Similarly: if you do not see sex as something that should be exclusive to a monogamous relationship, do not sleep with people who do see it as such without being very up front about it. Yes, it may result in you not getting laid, but it will be honest on your part and spare someone from getting hurt on your account.
No two sexual relationships are the same, just as no two people are. If something you notice or hear about fit with your worldview, note that the people you have made a topic of discussion are not your problem. There are very wise words to live by: “Those living in glass houses should not throw stones”. Just as you observe other people, you’re on display too.
And I don’t think I need to say this, but…if your partner is not okay with you chasing strange going into the relationship, then do everyone a favor and don’t chase strange, even innocuously. In short: if you’re with someone, and it’s supposed to be a monogamous relationship, don’t sleep around. One, your partner will know – even if you don’t think they will. Two, consequences – they will not be pleasant, for anyone. Three, see above about honesty, and start with being honest with yourself. If you’re not happy in a relationship, whether sexually or emotionally, then leave. Don’t mess with other people because of your unsatisfactory situation.
Let’s revisit the Baisden post for a second. Woman is not sexually satisfied, but she wants to definitely try and keep the relationship alive. While I applaud her effort, this is bound for failure. Frustration that builds over a period of time is not healthy by any stretch, and it can, and will, affect everything else, physically, mentally, you name it. Women are just as capable of desire as men, if not more so, any pretense to otherwise is folly. The man is likely very well aware that he’s not doing the job – few men are so truly oblivious that they are not aware that their partner isn’t happy. But, for whatever reason, whether ego, insecurity, unawareness, whatever it may be, this topic has not come up in conversation or gone well, and if the woman has turned to an advice columnist for help – Baisden in this case – then it’s obvious that either she hadn’t talked about it with the man she’s with, or prior attempts had not gone well. She sees her situation as two choices: try to maintain a relationship where there’s no hope of satisfaction, or leave him because she’s well aware that there’s a limit to how long she can take the frustration (If she wasn’t aware, she would certainly not have asked for help). And to think about the man in the situation: if he knows he isn’t satisfying her, then he will be forever worrying that someone else will. And so the relationship will crumble, if not thanks to the frustration, then to the insecurity.
Portrayals of sex in literature and in the media are a huge contributing factor to our perception thereof. And, in terms of writing, regardless of your personal perception, there’s a right way and a wrong way to weave it into the plot of a story – of course, this depends on your tastes. Personally, I have nothing against it as long as there’s something to do with the plot. I’ve not written a detailed scene in any of my books, nor will I – frankly, in my view, it’ll take away from the greater storyline – but I do use the perception play as a part of the bigger plot within my characters. Why? Because, for the purposes of the first arc, at the very least, I needed something to ramp up tension between the two characters I wanted to pull together. The characters knew each other for years on years; the female lead was together with one brother for most of the time – and it was the wrong brother. So how to pull her away and at least break the tension with the person whom I wanted to write her together with?
Considering my character’s personality, best routine was to put her into a high-stress environment, stressed enough to where she needed some sort of an escape from her situation, any sort of a mental out from where she was, if only for a couple of hours. She would want to go to the first person she would feel safe with and do anything she could possibly do to not think or feel anything about where she was at that point in time. The tension has been there, from his part at least, but her making the decision to go to him as a form of escape was the very thing necessary to break it, while the emotional involvement – on both parts – was the start of another subplot.
You may argue that the male character was a masochist on this one, and perhaps you are right. However, the situation gave me ripe grounds to plant and build plot twists on, and work the characters into growing from that experience, and changing their perceptions of not just what happened, but each other. That’s part and parcel of character growth, and you can either run or learn from it.
But that’s writing fiction. This does not happen in real life very often. More than likely, if such a situation were to take place in the real world, you can expect hurt feelings, dashed expectations, bruised egos, ruined friendships, and sometimes, a feeling of inadequacy after the serotonin spikes recede. Which brings me to one of the most important parts of sex in any relationship, be it a marriage, committed dating, polyamory, or one-night stands.
Talk about it. Yeah, it’s awkward, sometimes downright uncomfortable, often going into uncharted territory, but unless you put your cards on the table, you’re effectively guaranteeing getting hurt later. If you aren’t satisfied, someone’s not doing something right. If you’re put off by something, then discuss why: either your concerns are misplaced or you’re just plain not compatible on one department or another, or maybe you just hadn’t thought about something. There’s no one-size-fits-all method to satisfaction, and what works for one person will not work for others. But if you don’t talk about it, how do you expect to achieve it? How do you expect to even come near getting laid with some sort of satisfaction in it for you if the person you’re laying doesn’t know, or understand, how to satisfy you if you don’t tell them?
And the media loves to give you a gilded picture of what a relationship should be, and preys on people’s need for sexual satisfaction or approval in order to sell a product. We see it all. the. time. with some album covers in music, the “music videos” and “reality” TV shows, and nearly all clothing ads. I’ve yet to see a Macy’s ad for women’s clothing that did not feature some sort of a come-hither look. Victoria’s Secret I won’t even write about; I don’t think I have to; their shop-jobs in advertising are starting to borderline ridiculous. And nearly every. single. magazine cover. has to feature a “be great in bed!” column – yes, Cosmo, I’m looking at you – and never mind that most of those tips are actually just complete baloney. What they do accomplish, though, is make you feel wholly inadequate. Guess what that does to your relationship dynamic.
I won’t go into the subtle shaming that goes with it. It’ll get too long and too ranty. But what I will say is this: whatever floats your boat, as long as no one else’s gets capsized in the process. That’s the only thing that really should be said of anything. Shame is the most counterproductive emotion in the human spectrum, right next to fear. But the ad execs for Cosmo seem to overlook that little fact.
While women are the primary targets of such advertising, this sort of insecurity targeting indirectly affects the men (in hetero relationships). Why? Because men 1. take their cues from the women in their lives and 2. usually end up playing the reassuring role, and how exactly is it for them to have to work against effectively the entire fashion/media industry to reinforce their significant other’s self-esteem? One of the most absolutely notable moments was when Kate Upton got called plus-size (even though she’s a size 8!), and a man made a comment to the effect of “Stop telling perfectly beautiful women to adhere to your unrealistic standards. Sincerely, every man who had to reassure his girlfriend that she’s beautiful.” This was a great moment, personally, because in that one remark, that one guy showed exactly what skewed perception of what’s sexy, what’s beautiful, does, and not just to the women targeted by these ads.
To note, by no means am I a prude, but I am a major fan of this thing called common sense. And if we, as people, as human beings, do require physical satisfaction, then why not approach that with common sense too? Too many problems between people are born of a lack of satisfaction and a lack of communication, and very oftentimes, it’s both.
As I’ve been writing this post, Michael Baisden came out with another statement about what he calls “In the Meantime Sex” – that it can get in the way of you finding a long-term partner. Possibly, but I’m of the Y.M.M.V. mind on that statement: your mileage may vary. I see no reason why casual sex is an obstacle to that, personally, for the reason that in my general experience, the people who want a long-term involvement generally make that very clear early on – and likewise if they do not. The trick is to make it clear. Communication, kids: it’s fundamental.
Again, this cycles back to what I’ve written before about perception: if a person views sex as something that bonds, which would be the case for a majority of people, and if they do associate it as something best reserved for a relationship, then they would 1. look for someone with similar views and 2. not engage in casual sex in the first place, because it would fall outside of their comfort zone. Similar goes for some of the folks who remain virgins into their thirties and later: it isn’t something they’re comfortable with doing until they know that they trust the other person.
From an author perspective, all of the above is actually very fundamental in laying down plots for characters. We’re often told to write what we know, but how, then, would you write about something you don’t know? If you’re writing about someone well and comfortable with sleeping around who doesn’t want to settle down, how would you get into that character’s head when you are an author who has never thought that was the way to go? Or, conversely, if you do not want a relationship and actively eschew it, how do you write about a couple who need to get into a committed relationship? Again, the answer is the same: perception. It doesn’t necessarily align with yours, but that’s what you’re actually writing: the perceptive shift.
And, of course, talk to the other side. We all have friends from varying and various walks of life. Ask the tough questions: you never know what you will find out.