February 22, 2010
"end: noun ... 2 a: cessation of a course of action, pursuit, or activity ... 4 b: the object by virtue of or for the sake of which an event takes place ..." -- Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary
Somehow, about three years ago, my sex life pretty much came to an end. Not by choice, exactly. It wasn't anything I'd planned. In fact, at the time, I didn't even realize it had happened. It wasn't as if I woke up one day and said, "I'm not going to have sex anymore." While in retrospect the end was abrupt, it did not seem so then. After all, you don't know it's your last time until much later, when you can look back and say, "Yeah, that was it. That was the last time I had sex."
You may wonder how I simply lost something that most people think is a really important part of life. The truth is that I can't isolate a single cause. Instead, my sex life fell victim to a series of small blows, most of which were inflicted, directly or indirectly, by HIV. To mix metaphors, it was more like a long siege than a knockout punch.
First, there were the physical changes. I've written before about my lipodystrophy (Lipo: A Trophy?). The loss of fat in my arms, legs, hands, and butt hasn't done anything to make me more attractive, and it's hard for me to feel sexually desirable when I have a condition that makes me so self-conscious about my appearance. An added complication is that HIV can lead to a decrease in libido, and I think I'm certainly suffering from that.
Second, after getting my diagnosis, I made a conscious decision to be more cautious about sex. It only made sense, because I had to make sure I didn't infect others, and I had to protect myself from sexually transmitted infections [STIs] that might stress my now-compromised immune system. Although this focus on all of the possible STIs I might get from a sexual encounter may be completely rational, it doesn't do a whole lot to get me in the mood.
Then there's the problem of disclosure. I won't have sex without revealing my serostatus. As hard as disclosing might sound in the abstract, it can actually be even harder in practice. I have to be willing to reveal my most personal secret to someone whom I may not be sure I can trust completely. That takes some courage, and frankly, I sometimes just don't have it. Even when I do, I know that disclosure may lead to rejection. Of course, I understand that rejection is often the consequence of disclosure. In fact, the very purpose of disclosure is to give your prospective partner the opportunity to reject you, but that doesn't ease the sting. And even if I don't get rejected, disclosure is, shall we say, a buzz killer. If you ever want to spoil a moment of budding passion, just try telling your prospective sex partner that you have a potentially fatal and infectious disease.
The result of all this is that I've had no sex life to speak of for quite some time now.
I wish I could say I don't miss it, but I do. For despite all the sex I've had over the years, I can still be awed by the beauty of the experience -- the enticing sight of another man's body as he undresses, the warmth of his skin on our first embrace, the firm feel of his muscles, the rough brush of whiskers against my cheek, and then the softness of his lips, the sharp intake of breath as he touches me just so, the frenetic heat of the act, followed by its languid afterglow. When sex is good, it is a joyous and exuberant riot of the senses. Who wouldn't miss that?
But it's not just the physical pleasure that I miss; it's the deeper function of sex. What we often overlook (and sometimes simply refuse to recognize) is that, fundamentally, sex is a form of intimacy. It is the coming together of two people for pleasure, for comfort, for companionship, and sometimes, for love. At its best, sex can be the physical expression of love, a means of communicating by action that most precious of human emotions. But even an anonymous sexual encounter is a moment of intimacy -- an instant, however brief, in which two individuals acknowledge their need for each other. To me, there is nothing more human than that.
Unfortunately, in America's puritanical culture, we tend to denigrate sex and ignore the fact that it can help us achieve intimacy. Rather than seeing it as an expression of our basic human need for connection, and honoring its role in helping us form and maintain intimate relationships, many view sex as something dirty. Sex is an act from which we are advised to abstain, and it's considered almost incompatible with virtue. Indeed, to some, there's an inverse relationship between a person's virtue and the frequency of his sexual encounters. Simply put, people who have lots of sex are seen as "loose" and lacking in morality. In contrast, we hold up as paragons of virtue those who abjure sex completely -- monks, nuns, and ascetics.
Personally, I dispute the whole notion that abstaining from sex is a mark of virtue. (I can assure you that these past three "sexless" years haven't made me a better person.) We humans are social animals, and we all need some kind of connection with others. Abstaining from sex doesn't make us better people; it just cuts us off from a vital part of our human nature. Besides, I think we can all agree that fostering closeness and connection between individuals is a good thing. And if attaining closeness and connection is our goal, then sex should be celebrated as a means to that end.
Our lives are enriched by all of our social relationships, but especially by our intimate ones. It's a mistake to deny the special role sex plays in forming and sustaining those relationships. Because when it comes right down to it, we spend so much of our lives just trying to achieve a little intimacy. And intimacy, to me, is the end of sex.