“I can’t. I don’t know you well enough yet.”
There can be no discussion about sex without at some point wrestling with this phrase.
As I talked about in a previous post, ever since the decline of organized religion began, the role of sex in the west has slowly been getting less and less clear. Nobody knows anymore whether we should continue holding sex as sacred and if so, why?
Finding itself at the intersection between the divine commandments of the past and the natural human sexual instincts, the west has thoroughly confused itself on the topic of sex.
Incoherent messages stemming from a mixture of highly conservative and radically liberal ideas. As those who read my first post on the topic know, quite a few of these ideas draw out the implications of seeing sex as a form of communication.
The conservative case has always been one of caution. Yes, sex is great at building intimacy and communicating a deeper part of you to your lover. Yes, sex creates strong bonds. But that’s precisely why sex should best be exercised with caution, within a relationship or, if possible, marriage.
On the other hand, the liberal case takes the bonding power of sex and embraces it firmly. After all, If sex bonds us all so well, let’s have more of it. It’s fun. It harms no one. And it makes life that much more enjoyable.
On the surface, it seems that both sides agree that sex is a form of communication. But look deeper and you begin to see the nuances and the implications of each position.
Conservatives, driven by caution from the power of sex, would rather postpone sex as much as reasonably possible without giving up on it completely. After all, the whole point here is to save the sexual form of deep communication for last, i.e. when the other person has finally proven themselves safe and worthy of the act.
Liberals, at least those of my type, would naturally disagree.
In the end, it is this very disagreement that makes the phrase “I don’t know you well enough” baffling and stupid as a sexual rejection.
Taken seriously, what such a phrase truly communicates is a commitment to conservatism, to safety, to caution. Sex is so dangerous that no mistakes are tolerable.
To be honest, I have never found this position persuasive.
Firstly, it has never seemed to me that sex is that psychologically dangerous. (and here I assume that knowing someone well enough does not refer to their HIV status..). Sure, a sexual misstep leaves a bad after-taste, but life moves on pretty fast. There are greater tragedies in life than sleeping with the wrong person once or twice.
Secondly, even if sex requires opening up deeply, there are still gradations to the process. Two lovers only get to truly know each other as they deepen their relationship. Sex might be a big first step (for some), but the dangers of a one time contact have always felt exaggerated to me. Consequently, the extreme caution of “I don’t know you well enough” has never ringed reasonable to me.
But there is more to this last point. The phrase doesn’t sound reasonable because, well, it often doesn’t make much sense. Embedded in it are assumptions which few ever question, but I have intuitively identified and found troublesome to accept.
The first assumption is that one can really know somebody well enough without ever seeing their sexual side. To me, it has always seemed that there’s a real catch-22 situation going on here: to have sex, you have to intimately know the other person, but to know them intimately, you must know them sexually as well. It’s not clear how one gets out of this vicious circle and why, especially if one is committed to staying cautious and keeping sex for the right people only.
The second assumption is one that manifests itself on first dates especially. It’s one that basically equates physical with relationship time. I know for a fact I could have spend years around a person and feel less connected to them than I could to somebody I’ve just met. One thing the whole “sex on a first date” debate consistently seems to miss is that you don’t always need to wait years to know somebody is a match.
An easy objection here is that the passage of time ensures that the first impression was true; that there are dark sides to people one can only see over time.
To which I say: fair enough. However, what if those dark sides only show themselves sexually? And how do you know how much time is enough? Is six months enough to get to know a person? A year? Two? A marriage vow? It seems highly arbitrary.
Moreover, not only is it arbitrary, but it’s self-punitive. The more you wait, the more you have to deny yourself the pleasure of sex without the guarantee that things will ultimately work out fine.
I am not sure how much more certain you can be the other person is a great one after a year with them compared to an evening of deep conversation, but I presume it’s not worth the sexless 12 months in between.
The crucial fact which I always have in mind when I think about such a cautious position is this: even people who’ve been married for decades get divorced and sometimes regret their marriages. What makes you think you can judge people better?
Ultimately, that’s the problem. To someone of a more liberal bent, the best response to “I don’t know you well enough yet” is “Well, get to know me then”.
Needless to say, sex is certainly among the best ways to know somebody.
And still, I don’t think this is where the story ends. It might be just me, but I’d guess the same applies for many other people out there, especially those of the male variety.
We are often reminded that sex and love can blind us.
But just like sex itself, lust, too, can blind us. In my life, there have been many times when the arbitrary barrier to sex imposed from the other side has transformed sex into a high-status goal which it otherwise would not have been. After all, if the other person values sex so much, why shouldn’t I? Of course, I’m naturally attracted to the best prize out there…
The problem is that then the relationship changes. The party that wants to vet you as a worthy sexual partner thinks they are doing a great job, while in reality they are only creating incentives for the other side to be different and play it safe. This is why, in my experience at least, only once sex has happened and there is nothing to achieve anymore does real communication begin to happen. Without a goal to change their behaviors, people fast reveal their true colors.
In the end, this is why I hate “I don’t know you well enough”. To my ears it sounds like a refusal to talk while at the same time saying “I would like to have a conversation”. In other words, asking to do something which, while technically possible (e.g. by non-verbal means), is only made unnecessarily awkward by an arbitrary restriction.
In the end, it’s worth remembering this: there is rarely safety in life. Even extreme caution does not always ensure a good outcome. Rather, measured risks are usually what gets us ahead in life, and the sexual has no reason to be an exception.
Curiosity is not something that should attract us to books only…
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