Earlier this fall, a study in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology raised eyebrows with the news that 44 percent of female respondents reported sexual problems, including low desire. A few weeks later, Lauren Slater opined in the New York Times that "sex interests me these days about as much as playing checkers." Then, just yesterday in Salon, Kit Naylor admitted, in an essay that sparked hundreds of letters, that she's been off sex for a decade and a half.
Everybody's different -- hence the confusion and frustration that so often ensues when one tries to sync one's desire to another's. But when women say they have a low sex drive, what are they really saying? Is it a simple admission that we're not in the constant state of writhing one sees in a Victoria's Secret ad? That work and family sometimes take precedence over the old in-out? After all, only 12 percent of the Obstetrics and Gynecology study partipants said they were bothered by their lack of libido. Yet the sense that something is indeed bothering these women persists.
What's sadder even than the frequent use of the word "shame" in both Slater's and Naylor's admittedly brave confessions is the way both also work themselves up over the big dealness of sex -- Slater refers to its sanctity; Naylor says she has to be in love to make love.
So I wonder why, if sex and intimacy are so tangled up, anyone thinks you can avoid the first and still find the other? Sex isn't just the ends; it's also the means. I'm not suggesting it's the only way to get to know a person (although it's a hell of an icebreaker), but I do believe it's pretty damn tough to make a connection with anybody when one is physically cut off.
I'd be less skeptical of these writers' claims about their respect for sex if they had indicated an understanding of it in the context of a fully sensual life. And the thing that makes me despair in all of this public discourse is the nagging suspicion that for so many women, the great refusal isn't just to intercourse, it's to all that other great stuff that might lead one there -- to touch and scent and taste and everything messy and complicated and physical that we so deeply crave. It seems so tragically fearful, so mired in embarrassment. Sexuality isn't just sex. When Slater says she wants to separate those private moments from "the daily wheel of life," it seems to miss the point spectacularly. If you lock it up in a box, of course it'll wither. The loss isn't merely of those moments of naked sweaty passion, it's all those human-to-human moments in between, the ones that only come from being open and vulnerable and, yeah, sometimes scared.
It's hard enough for a lot of us to be comfortable with all the imperfect, involuntary things our bodies do. It's harder still to share that with others and let them show those sides of themselves to us. What's missing from the recent public dialogue is the greater context, the need to be happy and at home in our own skin, and how much easier it is to embrace the pleasure of someone else's flesh when we are.