Sex and compassion

Sex can be many things. It can be an expression of love or of desire. Of devotion and commitment. It can be a way of knowing and a way of communicating. It can be a selfish act or a sacrifice. It can be given, taken, bought or sold. It can be an act of violence. And it can be a source of healing.

An old friend has been suffering. He’s not from New York but once in a while we get to sit down together, face to face, and have time to catch up on our lives. His health is fine, but much of the rest of his life is very difficult. The suffering has been long-standing. The difficulties are complex and solving some leads to others. I listen, and sometimes I have something helpful to offer by way of insight. More often I just listen.

And quite often, while I’m listening, a part of me is thinking, “let me take you to bed.” I want to have sex with him. Not out of lust, and not out of pity. Not because suffering is a turn-on. Not out of a need to “fix” something. Not apologetically. Not to take advantage. The desire to take this man somewhere quiet and slowly undress him and lay hands on his body is intrinsically linked to the outpouring of compassion that I feel when we are sitting across from one another. This is not a “poor thing” kind of compassion, but a “let me show you how good you can feel” compassion thing. A “relax and enjoy this” kind of compassion thing.

I think sometimes people can become so used to feeling bad that the bad feelings come to seem neutral and they forget how good they can feel. Sex can be a way of healing, of remembering how to feel good and being reminded that people care about us. This is not a new idea. Sex is a way of connecting back to the pleasure of the body, the pleasure of touch, the excitement of eye contact and deep communication of desire. The indulgence of warm smooth hands on cool skin. The opening of the self. The feeling of being engulfed, consumed, penetrated, filled. The becoming. The release of orgasm and the feeling of being fully seen – recognized – acknowledged – known – cared for by another human being.

This is not a self-sacrifice kind of healing. There is real pleasure – physical and emotional pleasure – in bringing compassion and connection and restoration to another person. There is a sense of power, perhaps, but not “power over.” There is pleasure in being trusted. There is a sense of self-indulgence as well. A taking of pleasure in one’s one body while bringing pleasure to someone else. There are the simple pleasures of sex.

If only it could be left at that. And I suppose it can, but so often it isn’t. Often sex often becomes complicated. Linked to anxiety. Fraught with unintended meanings. The having of it can threaten our pre-existing relationships. Somehow something irrevocably changes and those changes are unpredictable and not always pleasant.

And then there are all of the cultural prohibitions against promiscuity and the messages about what it means to be “faithful.” And these things can keep us from getting close to one another, or even feeling safe with one another. They can make us afraid of admitting the depth or the reality of our caring for other people. It doesn’t need to be so, but it is difficult to challenge so directly the dominant cultural attachment of sex to romance and then to marriage, or to longtime commitment to something “more” than simple compassion and human connection.

If I were braver, I would do what I have not done – I would reach out to this man. I would say “I want to take you away, just for a few hours.” I would say, “Trust me. Relax. Enjoy.”

But I have not done this. I am not brave enough in the face of my fears.

And it is not just the fear that our relationship would change that needs facing. It is not just the fear of disapproval that might come from others if they knew. It is partly a fear of entanglement. A fear that what I want to offer might not be enough. A fear that sometimes there can never be enough.

And these fears keep many of us from acting compassionately in non-sexual ways as well. They keep us from offering money, from offering time, from caring too deeply or too consciously.

There are so many barriers keep us from compassionate action. What does it take to make us feel safe really connecting with one another and caring for one another? What kind of trust? What kind of faith in ourselves and in each other?

And how should we decide when it is right to compassionately offer sexual connection?

I would like an answer to that question before the next time I see my friend.


Filed under public discourse, sex, sex -- kinds of, sex and health

11 responses to “Sex and compassion

  1. Clearly, you’re the only one that can answer the question. That being said, I hate acting (or not acting) out of fear, myself, although I have been guilty of it more often than I’d like to admit.

    Good luck!

  2. This is something ‘my honey’ and I have talked about. I will have to make sure he reads this, because I was not nearly so eloquent in trying to express the idea that anyone can be sexually attractive when there is an emotional connection, a deep feeling of trust and long-term reltionship involved.

    Interesting stuff,


  3. Charles J

    Some people are not capable of having sexual relationships that aren’t based upon some type of ownership and a deep committment. With this in mind, take care of this man. Ask yourself if he can handle you taking him away for a few hours.

    My suggestion is as follows. Explain your fears of the consequences of a sexual encounter with him and then propose it, in that order. Allow him to make an informed decision, regarding your issues with it.

    Oh and of course you must be brave, but doing things which require bravery is what life’s all about when you’re a pirate. Are you a pirate or a deckhand?

  4. weemaryanne

    We can’t always do what we would like to do, not even for the best of reasons. If you choose not to take this step, you shouldn’t think less of yourself for that. I choose to believe that your intentions, your generous wish for your friend to feel better, will make themselves known to him one way or another.

  5. Evan

    For some reason sex cannot ever be simple. I think that perhaps it is because physical touch is tangled up with our emotions somehow: I kiss my partner and I love her more; I hug her goodbye and I miss her more. The same is true when the emotional connection is less defined, such as you with your friend. The sex would help him, but you are right that it would muddle things as well. The physical would confuse the emotional and everything would become complex as you say. I think you must be a strong person to do nothing. Strong and wise. Good luck.

  6. just a guy

    I have been the guy you are talking about. I have needed some one to reach out to Me, to care, just for a little while. I tried call girls and massage parlors. But they left me with an emptiness afterward. Then i just felt worse. But if a kind woman would have had the compation to hold me and “love” me, I would have been eternally gratfull. Reach out to this guy, let him know how you feel. It will help him to know how much you want him to feel better

  7. Wow, powerful stuff! Like the above posters, done right, a good healing session is possible with a minimum of complications – and we need to encourage not only this kind of thinking in people, but the ability to act upon it as well! More healing coitus!

  8. mj

    It won’t matter your reasons for wanting to share yourself with this person. The future will hinge on what he receives from this contact. Will he read more than compassion? Will he make an attachment? Do you want to?

  9. cke

    The problems he is facing, the help you could and want to give – it is ridiculous that our current times keep these obvious aids out of our reach. If we were to fast forward 50-100 years, I hope and expect that modern marriage and social mores won’t hold the hammer lock on us all as they do now. That it will be OK for people to have many friends of different intimacy levels, and a spectrum of communication ranging from smiles, handshake, hug, kiss, backrub, peeling off of clothes, mutual fondling, up to oral and genital sex would be available and acceptable. On a practical level for today, find out how evolved he (and you) are on this. Can you just be friends helping each other out, as friends should? Can you be today as future compassionate humans we’ll all be in the future? Jealousy, expectations, dictated morality, they’re all overrated, and cause much unnecessary pain. I wish you both the best.

  10. Seems to me the most important question you need to ask–and it may be one you have asked yourself, though you don’t really get at it in the post except by implication–is what this guys needs are, and, correspondingly, how needy is he. I have a friend, a woman, about whom I have felt for almost a decade the same way you have felt about this man, and I have told her this on more than one occasion, but I have also not acted on my feelings for two reasons:

    1. She has made it clear to me that were we to make love, it would cross a line for her in terms of where she is at in dealing with herself and what she is going through;

    2. More importantly, I think, it is clear to me—and I am only sometimes sure it is clear to her—that our making love would touch a neediness in her it would be irresponsible of me to touch in that way because I am not willing to be accountable for what it would mean to her; I do not want to make the kind of commitment to her that touching that neediness would entail for it not to be a betrayal of all our friendship has come to mean for us.

    So, instead, I bear witness, and even though I often come away from seeing her with that ache inside of me of the desire to touch her, to have been able to touch her, and something like regret for not having done so—especially since I have told her that I want to and why I want to—I also know that this is the way things need to be. For now. Who knows how things will change in the future?

    Another thought occurs to me, though maybe this is saying the same thing as I have just said in a different way: Your capacity for wanting to give this man the kind of healing that sex can be is a measure of the depth of your own capacity for compassion; to feel oneself able to give of one’s body to the body of another is, I think, to get down to the only source of such compassion that really matters, whether or not one chooses to act on it in a sexual way, and whether or not the feelings manifest in you as sexual in the first place. Compassion that does not grow out of the body in some way has always felt to me intellectualized and is really, therefore, more like pity, with all of the hierarchization that pity implies. That feeling of compassion is worth nurturing and treasuring in its own right and is important to use, turn to, focus on, etc. just in terms of your self, your own self awareness, despite the fact that it can leave you feeling very lonely and alone, and sometimes just plain impotent (at least that’s the way I sometimes feel), when you cannot act on it in the way you want to.

  11. Melanie

    This is precisely how I became entangled with my love and lover. His pain was so great and my compassion so huge. After much heart pouring, we could not resist. We welcomed each other’s touch, and he felt better, if only for a time. Later when the pain of my father dying slowly was too great to bear, he reciprocated. It formed a bond between us, one I fear is unbreakable and certainly unforgettable. We continue, though it is difficult sometimes for lack of conventionality. But I am happy.