sexual attraction doth not our enmity unmake

There is a notion about female sexuality, that sex is (or should be) about intimacy. Before I go into whether it’s true or not, I first want to add that this ambiguous little gem applies equally to men, they’re simply less quick to claim it. Most of the time. We watched 50/50 the other night, and the two friends have a conversation that I think perfectly sums up what my post today is about:

ADAM: The relationship I have with Rachel is – it’s about more than sex.

KYLE *facetious*: What is it about, Adam?

ADAM: It’s about – each other, you know, we care about each other, we talk to each other. It’s great.

KYLE: Uh-huh. Yeah. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that and then bang the hell out of each other afterwards?

ADAM: Ideally, yes, but it’s not a perfect world, okay?

Cecilia Grant’s debut, A Lady Awakened, has been causing a lot of buzz in the romance world since it was published last year – and I finally got around to reading it. Because I’m going to be drawing heavily on the themes explored in it, here’s a quick rundown:

Martha’s husband dies, and she has to get herself pregnant within the month if she wants to keep the estate out of the hands of the Evil Heir. She pays a young man, Theo, who’s been exiled to the country for bad behaviour, to have sex with her once a day. He assumes he will be as a sex god to her. She refuses to take any pleasure from the task. He discovers that her mind is much more susceptible to seduction than her body, and that she loves to talk Improvements. Much talk of agriculture ensues, as do love and orgasms, eventually.

Part of what has made this book so talked-about is the novel approach to sex. Martha isn’t frigid, and unlike most historical heroines she isn’t unaware of her own body’s pleasure. So she doesn’t refuse to respond out of naivety or ignorance. She sees her decision as the best of two bad choices, and doesn’t want to lose the last of her principles by taking pleasure in a necessary act.

But more interesting to me is the simple fact that she feels she can’t be intimate with someone who is a stranger to her. She can only give herself over to pleasure when she likes and admires him.

If she had been naive of pleasure, this would have seemed old-fashioned to me, or like a backward step in a contemporary discussion about sex. She makes her decision fully understanding what it means, however, which complicates things.

Conservative female sexuality, out of which the romance tradition grew, certainly holds that intimacy is more important than sex. The romance is consummated with a declaration of love, not with sex, which will likely be had well before the end of the book.

It’s interesting that in the period when this view of sexuality prevailed, so did the quasi-rape variety of sex, which the heroine only realised she was enjoying once it had been forced on her. I tend to agree with the theory that this was a way for women to express the desire for sex without owning up to desire. A woman couldn’t initiate, but once it was forced on her – once she’d made every feminine objection – she could enjoy it.

This, to me, is not sex that depends on intimacy. It is sex for its own sake.

Then on the other end of the scale there’s Erica Jong’s ideal fantasy: the zipless fuck. She imagines seeing a man across from her on the train, and their desire is immediate, and fulfilled so perfectly that the fantasy isn’t broken for even the space of time it would take to unzip your trousers, and be brought back into reality.

She writes:

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

Once romance began to admit to the kind of female fantasy Jong describes – or at least to the idea that women are sexual beings, and can enjoy pleasure for its own sake – heroines no longer needed to justify their desires to themselves.

This creates a kind of sexuality where sex is what gives rise to intimacy, and leads to love, rather than the other way round.

In which context, you can understand why A Lady Awakened felt like something new. Not a lady denying her own pleasure, but also not a lady willing to find intimacy through the act of sex.

I’ll admit, I found her uncomfortable to read. It made me realise how rarely people voice this need, now, without any irony or shame attached: to know and admire someone before they can feel pleasure with them.

Martha is a particularly upright, reserved character, so I don’t think her needs reflect a common female need in its entirety. But talking about it with some friends the other night, I was reminded that there is a kind of loneliness in unattached pleasure – an eventual desire for some emotional fulfilment.

And of course, that emotional fulfilment is what romance is all about. It’s just difficult to find out exactly what relationship it has to sex.

I find this interesting on a personal level, but also as a writer. In romance, sex – and sexual attraction even more so – becomes a short-hand for intimacy. And that’s just lazy writing. Theo had to work for Martha’s admiration, and a writer should have to do the same.

I was struck by similar thoughts reading a Harry Potter fic called Bond. (This is Harry/Draco – you may read ahead if that’s not your thing.) Harry and Draco have been bonded to each other against their will. The bond forces them into close proximity and after a while creates sexual attraction. They need to consummate, but Harry can’t bear being so intimate with a boy he distrusts and dislikes.

It made me realise that normally, in that kind of fic – and in romance in general – once a character feels sexual attraction any objections to the person they feel it for begin to erode at that moment.

I liked that Harry’s attraction only made him less inclined to go near Draco, because it made him that much more vulnerable to him. Draco, like Theo, had to win him over before he would come near.

All that being said, though, sex has a power like few other things to force intimacy. I also think a person is completely different when they’re so physically close, and they’re less words than skin and sound and smell. So for me admiration, fully dressed, doesn’t necessarily equate to intimacy in the bedroom.

But it’s a fair reminder not to use sex, where conversation is needed. (That’s a truism for fiction, but it probably washes in real life, too.)

Comments 2 Responses

  1. thewanderingvagabond

    Sometimes sex actually spoils what was wonderful intimacy….
    I’m currently having sex with someone, its quite lovely in and of itself but there is another lady with whom I have a great deal of intimacy but I feel and I think she does as well, that if we were to have sex it would destroy that. Suddenly we would feel pressured into ‘taking things further,’ the wonderful closeness we have, without the pressure and expectations of having an actual romantic relationship, would be lost. Of course, there’s also the exquisite undercurrent of mild sexual tension that pervades our relationship, hehe…

    1. anna cowan Post author

      yep, I think there’s a difference between platonic intimacy, and intimacy-with-undercurrents – and I wonder if there’s always an expiration date on how long you can keep up the last? I guess you’ll find out! :-)

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