A few months ago, a friend of mine was lamenting to me of her inability to enjoy meaningless sex. “I want to want it," she said, “but I just find it kind of dull and upsetting at the same time.” I gave her my standard line that everyone should do exactly whatever the fuck they like with their own genitalia within a few consent-based boundaries. “It’s different for you”, she said. “You’re kind of lucky like that. Sex doesn’t mean much to you.” It was well-meant, and I took her point, but it was also - to be frank - bullshit. Sex means a lot to me. I couldn’t help but feel a little taken aback.
One of the things that sex means to me is friendship. The weekend before that conversation I’d had sex with a dear, long-standing friend. Someone who has been there for me for almost a decade. I think of this person as my tribe and feel safe and relaxed around them; having have slept with them a hundred times before.
We're not "dating" and haven't been for a long time. When we sleep together now it’s after a party or when we’ve gone out for a few drinks. It's about friendship and trust and a kind of love that is longer-lasting than any relationship I’ve ever had.
Another is ‘escape’ - but the good, healthy kind. I am someone with a busy, anxious mind. I have to keep it filled most of the time, or I go to places I don't need to be. When I'm doing the washing up, I listen to audiobooks to keep myself occupied. I always have the radio on while I'm in the bath.
Pain and pleasure and all the things that come along with good sex quieten all that buzz and noise better than anything else. Moreover, they take me entirely away from whatever I'm stressed or obsessed or preoccupied with that day. So far from this being meaningless sex, it signals a rest and an escape that’s massively good for my mental health. Additionally, it can often shake me out of a bad place. It’s about release, too - stress and tension can dissipate entirely with the right sort of beating.
Then, of course, there’s the meaningfulness of validation. I know what you’re thinking, but there are times when this is a constructive and positive thing. Sex helps me to see my body and my mind through the eyes of people I trust and respect and am attracted to. As a result, I feel more confident, and this helps me to remember that my body - and the rest of me - is likeable and wantable. If this is all your self-image is based on you might be in for some trouble, but as part of a wider whole, I find it a force for good in my life.
This is also, incidentally, part of what I like about having photos and videos of scenes and encounters. When I look at those images, I’m seeing myself through the eyes of the people who took them. As a result, this is often a kinder viewing than I might give myself. However, sex isn’t just about my external self; it also means self-exploration and exploration of my partners.
Every person carries worlds upon worlds inside them. Deep, psychological places that I get an incredible rush from discovering. I'm ten years into my sex life and still finding out new things, both about myself and other people. I hope that never ends.
It’s that exploration and shared journeying that leads to another of sex’s great meanings: connection. It’s all about that moment, after all. That moment when you look into someone's eyes while they're so close to you, and you're touching each other everywhere at once with all of both your bodies. In these moments, all you want is to be as close to them as you can be.
This person could be a partner or a friend or a one night stand. But at that moment you feel like you're temporarily a part of each other. It doesn’t happen every time I have sex, but that’s okay - because sex means fun, too. It is, essentially, one of my favourite pastimes, and I don’t think that devalues it. After all, do we think that books are devalued by calling reading a pastime, or that the benefits of exercise are outweighed by someone who thinks of swimming as a hobby?
Sex has helped to shape my friendships, my learning experiences, my politics, my life choices, my self-discovery, and my career. It means so many different things to me that it never has to mean any specific one of them, and at some point, it’s meant almost everything.
I didn’t explain all of this to my friend. I hadn’t quite put it into words by that point. For a start, I wasn't sure how to verbalise just how off-base she was. Instead, I smiled, and shook my head. "No, I don't think so", I told her. "I don't think meaningless sex applies to me at all."
Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to genre fiction, social justice and M.A.C lipstick. Follow her on her website or @see_abi_write.
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