“Dylan (Justin Timberlake): Why can it not be like that? It’s a physical act. Like playing tennis. Two people should be able to have sex like they’re playing tennis.
Jamie (Mila Kunis): Yeah! I mean, no one wants to go away for the weekend after they play tennis.
Dylan: It’s just a game. You shake hands, you get on with your shit.
Dylan: Yeah.” ~ from the movie Friends With Benefits
I have this friend – who to the best of my knowledge has never seen the rom-com I’ve just quoted – who gets really annoyed by people who only have sex with someone who means something to them and who they are in a committed, monogamous relationship with. He gets frustrated by what he sees as their stubborn refusal to realise that a single instance of sexual intercourse is no more significant than a game of tennis; and that there is therefore, no sensible reason for anyone to not approach the two activities equally casually.
When this came up in conversation with him again the other day I realised I know a lot of people, and see even more online, who agree with him. It seems there are plenty of people who would never think to condemn anyone for expressing any other consensual sexual preferences – who in fact pride themselves on being progressive in their approach to relationships – but yet are surprisingly judgmental of others who choose only to have sex with someone they love in the context of a committed relationship. And in many, if not most, circles it’s now almost as taboo to say that you want to wait to have sex until after you’re married than it apparently used to be to admit that you had indulged before the ceremony.
Now in general I take a fairly casual approach to sex. I see it as something that’s fine to indulge in with anyone you fancy who also fancies you. Just so long as everyone involved is respectful of each other’s health and feelings – and their own of course. I’ve never particularly felt that it has to be with someone I expect to enjoy a long-term relationship with, or, well, even ever see again. I, personally, have found it easy to separate sex as the simple satisfaction of a biological drive from sex as the physical expression of a deeper emotion.
(Although post-PTSD the chances of me finding someone who I feel comfortable explaining all my mental health baggage to, and who will be accepting both of that and the significant possibility that I’ve freak out and turn into a nervous wreck half-way through are looking pretty slim. I suspect the likelihood of me finding all that in someone I’ve only just met is on a par with that of my stumbling across a unicorn in a forest – man, I don’t even know where I’d have to go to find a forest.)
But still I find that the suggestion that the decision to go to bed with someone is on a par with choosing to play tennis with them seems emotionally dishonest.
Sex can never be completely meaningless.
While for some that meaning may be more of a social construction than a personal belief, it’s still there. And it still makes the navigation of our sexual relationships rather more complicated than a game of tennis.
It isn’t necessarily safe to just assume without clarification that all parties to a sexual encounter will automatically be on the same page. After all we don’t have reams of literature, television, and film devoted to misunderstandings between the parties to tennis matches.
Also, it’s okay to flat-out tell somebody they’re bad at tennis – people don’t tend to be particularly hung up about their tennis performance; nor are they known to habitually lie about the number of partners that they’ve been on the court with – after all it’s not like anyone’s going to judge them for it.
There are no specific laws against forcing somebody into playing tennis with you; it seems unlikely that being coerced into a tennis game would have such a harmful psychological effect as forced sex.
On top of which your spouse can’t file to end your marriage because you played tennis with someone else and no brand new human being has ever accidentally been created as a result of one single simple game. I’m not aware of any faith that piles on the religious guilt anytime its followers play tennis. Oh, and having sex is actually a pleasant way to spend to your time.
So while you may feel that your individual hook-ups are of no particular long-term significance to your life, it seems to me that you are kidding yourself if you think that at its essence sex itself is as free from baggage as tennis. What you’re doing may not mean very much to you but it cannot be stripped of its wider cultural meaning.
And once we’ve established that what difference does it make to you what other people choose to do with that meaning? What right has anyone to pass judgement on other consenting individuals for what they chose to do – or this case not do – with their own bodies? I’m actually really happy for people who treat sex as a special or sacred thing; they have something in their life that’s important to them and that makes them happy – more power to them.
What I’m not comfortable with is the implied expectation that everybody else should start entering into sexual relationships that they aren’t ready for or just don’t want to be in. I don’t think that anyone should feel any compulsion to make the same sexual choices as anyone else. Peer-pressure wasn’t cool when we were sixteen, now life’s just to complicated for anyone to have to deal with that shit. Ideally everyone should have the space to figure out what works for them and it’s important that the decisions that they make are respected. It’s the only way towards a sexual culture that can start to look even vaguely healthy.