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.