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Perfect Sex June 1, 2000
Tired of shallow sexual encounters?
When I bumped into John a few weeks ago, there was something I was dying to ask him. But I had to be patient - I hadn't seen the man in five years. The last time we had talked was at a party to commemorate his birthday and my impending departure to California. The highlight of that memorable event was a question that John's girlfriend Sally asked him as he blew out his twenty-four candles. She wanted to know if there was anything left, in the way of sex, that John still hoped to experience.
'Yes,' he said after a sober pause, and a quick wink in my direction, 'I haven't had perfect sex yet.'
I knew exactly what he meant because we were both on this high-minded quest for perfection. It had started during college, after we discovered a shared weariness for the shallowness of vagrant sexual encounters. The decisive point for me had come after a few wild evenings with a pretty girl I met during spring break. I began falling for her - until John suggested that I might simply be mistaking fantastic sex for love. He said it was a common error. I resisted his logic, but when I caught myself, night after night, fighting off a renegade desire to sneak out of her room and rush back home, I was forced to admit I was a fool.
Beginning senior year, John and I agreed to give up promiscuity for the promise of a better way. We wanted to have sex with someone we really cared about, not some random woman picked out of the weekend frat-party line-up. If we could pull it off - find that special person, develop a real relationship with her - then we wouldn't just be having sex, but rather, perfect sex. We'd be making love.
Our great enterprise began forthwith. I started to nurture my relationships, focusing on one person at a time. Before long, I discovered novel and exciting experiences like steady dating, and commitment. I had my first bruising breakup, with its related reconciliation. Finally, I managed to say to a girlfriend, 'I want to make love to you.'
It was all very crazy, but at least sex had meaning now.
Graduation passed, John had his birthday, and three days later I woke up in Berkeley, ready to continue the mission and fall in love with a California girl. But I had an annoying thought in my head. John was in love with Sally - so why the hell was he still looking for perfect sex?
I found the answer as I retraced the ins and outs of my recent, love-making past. All that effort spent on my new real relationships had kept me from realizing that the sex, meaningful as it was, had been patchy at best - sometimes bad, more often good, but certainly never perfect. And as I attempted to determine what had gone awry, a disturbing pattern emerged.
For the first few weeks or months of a relationship, as mutual affection intensified, the sex would usually improve. But then, feelings would begin to interfere. Things said and done elsewhere would creep into bed with us: a caring gesture not returned, insecurity from a thoughtless comment, resentment over an unforgotten argument. The sex would get hung up in all these by-products of love, and no matter how good we pretended it to be, it wouldn't make us feel any better.
It was almost cruel, that just as you were approaching sexual nirvana - your bodies communicating in a kind of physical telepathy where every touch and every kiss seemed guided by a sublime foreknowledge of each other's erotic needs - the same emotions that allowed you to get so intimate in the first place would gush in and pull you away from it.
As I struggled with this paradox, my faith in our noble cause began to wither. In the most vulnerable moments, heretical thoughts besieged me. One sad day, it occurred to me that the term 'making love' was nothing but a whimsical name for 'fucking,' a poetic phrase coined to idealize a base desire we were all too embarrassed, or conceited, to accept at face value.
Wilting faith aside, I couldn't simply turn away from my dream of perfect sex. There had to be a way to keep the increasingly tangled feelings of a lengthy relationship from interfering with its increasingly satisfying physical intimacy. I suspected it was a hopeless wish, but it had become a matter of stubborn pride. I was like the kid who still professes to believe in Santa even though he's seen his parents piling the gifts under the tree.
So, I continued my obstinate search for the perfect mix of sex and love. But the next relationships only reaffirmed the earlier pattern. I became cynically aware of it, to the point where I could predict, with grotesque certainty, the moment when some previously benign difficulty would surface and begin gnawing at our sexual rapport. The phenomenon was so evident to me that I even drew a nice graph to preserve my insight for future generations.
The increasing disenchantment was weakening my resolve. Already there was a tight scuffle between my mind, which wanted to believe in perfect sex, and my flesh, which gave no credence. I constantly had to suppress very urgent longings for pure, unpretentious sex. It was a corrupt, virulent desire, and I couldn't help it when I unconsciously started replacing sterile bedroom expressions like baby and darling, with supercharged words like hot, wet, and hard. I was getting in touch with my dirty side, and really liking it.
Eventually I gave in and admitted that there is no such thing as perfect sex - at least not the making love kind. I was relieved to relinquish the futile quest, though I felt odd about my renewed compulsion for unfettered sex. I feared I might be regressing to my superficial college days - but the truth was more complex than that. I wasn't really pining for my licentious past, I only wished all the emotional hang-ups could be stripped away so I could rescue the poor, misunderstood sex suffocating beneath them.
And I was past thinking that simple sex was shallow. We just hadn't been smart enough, back in college, to separate our wanton pursuit of sex, from sex itself. We had associated it with our drunken, dumb, animalistic behavior, and recklessly branded it superficial.
The years since graduation had taught me that good old, plain sex is actually the opposite of superficial. It's not devoid of intellectual components. Great sex doesn't require devotion, but it does benefit from a lively brain: foresight, interpretation, improvisation, and the imagination to fantasize can turn a casual toss in the sheets into a kinky bedroom carnival for two. And just because there's no need for love doesn't mean the sex is not meaningful. The natural high that comes from mutual happiness and satisfaction should keep even the most emotionally starved adult woozy for days.
I was happy with my new-found understanding of sex, and I sometimes wondered if John had come to the same conclusions. When I ran into him that day, as we discussed our jobs, my latest break-up, and his girlfriend-now-fiancée, I was impatient to ask him. Then, as we prepared to say goodbye, I said, 'So John, did you ever end up having perfect sex?'
He smiled, as if sharing a sweet secret. 'Well, yes,' he replied, 'we make love, you know, the way we used to talk about it.'
I was stunned. He wasn't joking.
'Sometimes,' he continued, 'it's so good that I almost cry.' I knew John was prone to exaggerate, but this was too much.
He must have seen empathy in my empty stare and my half-open mouth because he said, 'Man, you've been there too, haven't you?'
I didn't know what to say. Here was John, believing he'd had a glorious epiphany, not realizing that he was simply misinterpreting his experience by relying on an outdated frame of reference: our college-day, preconceived notions of romantic sex.
I wanted to tell him that great sex doesn't make you cry, it makes you laugh - but I felt sorry for him. John had mistaken his blind, mystifying love, for perfect sex.
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