Sex in a time of terror

Sometimes being physically close feels like the best defense against death.

Published September 21, 2001 7:08PM (EDT)

My sex-kitten friend Ruby met a cute man in a bar Saturday night and he walked her home. "I don't mean to be presumptuous," she said to him as they stood in an awkward moment in front of her building, "but do you want to come up?" Pause. He hesitated, so she jumped in to reassure: "No, no, no, not for terror sex -- just to see my apartment."

Ruby didn't want him to get the wrong idea. And she had been noticing a new phenomenon among her close friends since Tuesday. The world had changed; so had relationships. Now, just about everyone she knew was having what she and her friends call "terror sex."

It sounded so inappropriate. We are experiencing horror and disbelief at what happened. We are grieving for friends, family and even strangers, who were alive just last week. Thinking about sex in a time of crisis seemed cheap. It reeked of bad-movie cliché: Cue the majestic music. The sounds of war outside as the barrel-chested man comforts the weeping woman. She tells him she doesn't want to sleep alone tonight. "Hold me," she cries. And he does. A fighter plane zooms overhead.


A fighter planed zoomed overhead. Really. They are flying over my house even as I write this, so nothing seems far-fetched. Anything can happen.

Sonia doesn't know exactly how it happened with her. Exhausted after a nearly 10-mile walk last Tuesday, she watched the news at a bar with friends, and one of them came home with her. The two went to her roof to watch the incomplete Manhattan skyline, still burning. The next thing she knew, they were making out.

"I didn't think about it at all," she said. "When you walk home from Manhattan to Brooklyn with people covered in dust and blood you don't care." She didn't want to be alone. She was in a daze, traumatized.

And the sex was incredible.

"We thought it was the end of the world." She paused and grinned. "Whoops." Still, the sex felt as if their lives depended on it. "We had sex like it was the end of the world, and if I could do it over again, I still would."

How can we make emotional room -- amid the fear and confusion and personal loss -- for any thread of sexuality? People are talking about their deepest emotions with total strangers; message boards are popping up all over the Web. We feel we need to connect with others more than ever before.

Connecting with others is almost an understatement in this case, says Dr. Peter Salovey, professor and chair of the department of psychology at Yale University. We have never faced anything like this before. People are questioning everything and reassessing their priorities. We are feeling that "life is precious and civilization is precarious," he says. In the anxiety and uncertainty, people are reattaching their bonds.

But why not just hug?

"You want some kind of homage to a life force," says Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of numerous relationship books. "I'm alive, I'm functioning, I'm real. There's a euphoria, a triumph in sexuality that you can see why someone would want to do it as a very profound act." It is the deepest physical closeness, of course. Sex is basic in the most biological sense, she says. It is about flesh, tissue, heart.

Symbolically, it is profound as well. "It's not so much sexual arousal as it is wanting the security and the closeness that it represents," says Salovey. In trauma and tragedy, he said, it comes to represent closeness and commitment, rather than passion.

Schwartz says this connection can be particularly profound for men and that physical intimacy is often a direct line to the emotional equivalent for them.

Julie doesn't know how long she and her boyfriend, Martin, were just holding each other, terrified on the day after the attack, when he turned to her and said, "I want to make love to you."

"He's at his most vulnerable in that state," Julie said. "For him, it was a real need to connect on that level." It was different from the sex they had in everyday life. It was Important. There was urgency to it. She felt like he was going off to war and this could be the last time.

My grandmother felt the same way about 50 years ago. "Boys were going away and you didn't know if you were going to see them again," she told me. She was a teenager -- gorgeous, brash -- and she definitely liked to have a good time. Already, in her native Canada, the military boys that she danced with until long past her curfew had suddenly gone away.

She arrived in the U.S. around 1940. Then, Pearl Harbor left her and the rest of the country speechless. "Everything seemed irrelevant and unimportant," she remembered. War changed everything. It intensified relationships. And though what we now refer to as the baby boom officially erupted when the troops came home in 1946, my grandmother saw the beginnings of it in December 1941.

Today, many are predicting a new baby boom. Sara and her husband, like many New York couples, spent the entire day Tuesday frantically trying to find each other, each trying to get home, frustrated by the busy signals, emergency recordings and disabled cellphones. She foresees a lot of new babies nine months from now. "It's not like my husband and I have been having a lot of sex," she said. "But now I have this heightened awareness of how much I love him." After they were both safe and at home that night, "I kept saying to myself, 'I'm so grateful I have my husband, I'm so grateful I have my husband.'"

This kind of intensity leading to a new baby boom makes sense to Schwartz. "During crises, birth rates go up," Schwartz said. "People want to connect. It's life-affirming to feel your body attached to your head."

Back in the early 1940s, family friends introduced my grandmother to the man who was to become my grandfather. They married quickly. All her friends were doing the same. "We were 'war brides,'" she said. "It was a scary time. We used to talk about how the world was going to end."

This carpe diem attitude that many of us are feeling today inspires throwing caution to the wind. All of our emotions -- not only passion -- are heightened. And sometimes there are consequences. "People make promises," says Schwartz, "and then once their heightened sense of emotion is gone they say the emotional equivalent of 'just kidding.' That can be devastating."

But for many, being able to drop their guard, to be close and to live in the moment is a relief. Alberto and Jonathan recently started dating, and they weren't feeling very sexy last week. At home, the dust and smell of the burning buildings was unbearable. They sat on opposite ends of the couch, legs intertwined, and they talked, telling stories of their childhoods, getting to know each other.

"And that's weird for gay people," Alberto said. "I think gay people engage in hot sex first and intimate sex second. This was a beeline to intimate sex." He felt a connection that otherwise probably would not have developed until much later. Now, they are talking nonstop, calling to check in on each other; and when they do have sex, Alberto said, he feels something more intense about it. "The way we were touching felt more intimate."

Stephen found that same kind of intimacy in a sexual encounter with a virtual stranger, days after the attack. "We talked afterward," he said, almost incredulously. "Which I never do." Stephen was traumatized and almost speechless from witnessing both planes crash into both towers. He had been rushing to get to the World Trade Center for a temp job. He was running late, and watched the entire tragedy unfold, sitting on his bicycle on the Brooklyn Bridge.

"I was watching thousands of people die. Thousands more get maimed. And I felt like I had died." That night and the next day, he went to vigils, online to chat rooms, almost looking for love -- or at least sex. "I wasn't horny," he said. But he wanted to be with someone. "I don't remember his name," he said. "But I will always remember him. We had sex as if it was our last time to have sex." Stephen said that for many gay men sex feels so readily available that, after a while, it almost becomes deadening. Now, that's all changed, he said. He almost laughed at himself when he called it "making love," but he was earnest.

"Whether you have sex with your husband of 20 years or a stranger on the street, it never feels like the last time," he said. But since the tragedy, it does. "Five thousand people had sex for the last time sometime last week."

For married couples who already feel that kind of intimacy that comes from being together for years, it's less about the sex act itself, and more about reconnecting.

"After 27 years of marriage, you want your own space," said James. "But we've slept spooning lately." James received a hysterical cellphone call from his wife as she watched the World Trade Center explode from across the street. After spending what seemed like the longest day apart from each other, they gently hugged in reunion. "I said to her, 'I believe you are here' -- not 'I don't believe you are here' but 'Yes, I believe you are here.' It was the only thing that felt real."

"Relationships are real," said Salovey. "Most gratification isn't from work, material things or routines, but from relationships."

And trauma makes that all the more salient. "Love is more potent than death," James said of his personal experience. "I believe in this moment right now more than I believed in any other moment up until now."

So perhaps it is not terror sex so much as it is a breed of love that touches strangers and longtime lovers across the board. Roberta and her husband would have been in Manhattan were it not for an appointment with her obstetrician in Long Island for a sonogram. She is four months pregnant. When she heard the news of the terrorist attack, she said it felt "not so much like the end of the world, but the end of our world if something had happened to the other one."

My grandmother thinks the whole idea of terror sex or terror love, though crass in phrasing, was inspiring in spirit. "It is possible," she says, "not only to fill the need to be close to another human being, but a belief in the future, that our children and grandchildren will continue to keep this beautiful country alive."

By Cole Kazdin

Cole Kazdin is a writer in New York.

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