Register Thursday | October 6 | 2022
Sad Sack Illustration by Anna Minzhulina.

Sad Sack

Have sex and intimacy become uneasy bedfellows? Undressing modern romance.

STEPHEN MARCHE: I was talking to a single guy the other day in a bar, and he was in his early thirties and a successful architect and relatively attractive and clean and the rest of it. So I asked him about his sex life. And you could just feel this patina of sadness cover him. He had what I would assume for many would be an ideal sex life. Lots of partners, lots of wildness. And yet to him, sex was a source of just profound melancholy. I hate generational generalizations, I really do. But something is going on here, no? 

ALEXANDRA MOLOTKOW: Well, I think we’re still working out a decent sexual etiquette. Relationships are more precarious than they once were, we wait longer to get married, which means a lot more interstitial fucking. Casual sex can lead to awkward situations for which there’s no real playbook—it’s not like a dinner party—and it’s weird being intimate with strangers. So I think some people use coldness and aggression as a buffer. Both during sex and afterward, to ensure that no one gets the wrong idea, and to inure themselves to an experience that (to me, at least) can be very draining and somewhat humiliating but occasionally necessary. That said, lots of people are very comfortable with casual sex (and with showing tenderness), the same way some people are more comfortable talking to strangers at parties. The point is that sex is a real mode of socializing now. But I definitely wouldn’t say that tenderness is no longer a feature of sex. (And was it really all that “tender” before the sexual revolution, when sex carried much greater risks for women?) 

MARCHE: For sure. I mean I was watching Alfie the other day, the original from the swinging sixties, and he refers to women as “it” throughout that film. But the sexual script is getting torn up and rewritten every couple of months. I had not heard of choking until a couple of years ago. I had no idea that was something that somebody would do for pleasure. What’s coming two years from now? I know that in Japan one of the well-established genres of porn is tentacle rape porn, images of women violated by squid. And now there’s this thing I read about on Vice of cartoons of women with giant nipples that shoot shit out of them. How do you work those fantasies out irl? What does it mean to have desires that can’t be performed, I mean not just because of morality but because of physical reality? We will see, I guess, what the spectrum of human desire is. But it seems infinitely changeable, an infinite variety. I know they say that every generation thinks they’ve discovered sex for the first time, but it seems like we’re discovering sex about every week or so. It’s disorienting. 

MOLOTKOW: I don’t think Shitting Dicknipples are anything close to sexual script—more “an extreme cliché of how bizarre sexual fantasies can get,” as that Vice writer put it. Anyway, people have been getting up to all kinds of crazy business since the beginning of time, they just weren’t documenting it in cartoons on the internet. You really had no idea that people choked each other for kicks? 

MARCHE: Well, I was aware of course that people did everything. I read de Sade in my French theory class in college, and Story of the Eye, and all that. But that was not, to me, the same as something that was generally done. It was deliberately transgressive, and it felt transgressive. Kink, and its huge variety, does not shock me or at least not usually. What is becoming normal shocks me, that you could go out with somebody on a date and end up choking them after dinner, like oral sex. That seems to me to be what’s new. Issues of power and control—the control of men over women—are THE subjects of pornography today. It’s the subject of romance fiction, too. I read a study recently, from the University of Ottawa, that claimed that over half of the descriptions of male and female orgasms in romance fiction were about loss of control. Also, Fifty Shades of Grey. Snooze, I know, but that is literally about becoming a slave. And loneliness, well, some guy shouting “whore” and choking some woman, that sounds like about the loneliest sex imaginable. To return to my architect friend, I could practically feel his craving for intimacy. Sex for him was not intimate. 

MOLOTKOW: Yes, I think you’re right, I don’t think it’s unusual to go out for dinner and to the Lego Movie and then one of you gets choked. I imagine that’s new. I mean, there’s more awareness about kink and alternative modes of sexuality—”alternative” is a horrible way of putting it, because it assumes a “normal” form of sexual expression when in fact you’re as likely to want to be slathered in mayonnaise and left in the backyard as you are to be tied up in fancy knots and spanked with a studded leather paddle. Desires are always weird. The specificity of fetish, or rather the mainstream tip of fetish, always confused me. But power dynamics more abstractly are universal and I think there’s more public recognition of how two (or more) people might explore them. (“Explore” is also a horrible term with regard to sex.) Because power and control is a popular fantasy for women, too. Like, half of women. No one knows for sure why that is. A hypothesis: if you’re female, from your tenderest years, the very concept of sex is linked to violence and ruination, and those cognitive lumps warp your desires. Tragic that the subjugation of women should be baked into the foundation of heterosexual concourse, but it seems to be. 

MARCHE: You say that it’s good we’re talking about it. But on the other hand, it seems to create this incredible contradiction whenever we do talk about it. Despite postmodernism or the philosophy of simulacra or whatever, people remain amazingly inept at separating image from reality. In part it creates this impression that male sexuality is inherently violent, and that sex is entirely about power. 

MOLOTKOW: On a scale of one to ten, how false do you think this impression is? Because I think there’s some truth in it, especially in the notion that sexuality is about power. It totally is, big time, almost always, don’t you think? Even if it’s not necessarily the man who holds it, even if it’s from moment to moment, gesture to gesture over a vanilla event, even if the power exchange is totally innocent and loving—it’s very often a power game, like any form of socializing. You can never take the evil out of sex, only create standards and establish a dialogue and all that deeply unsexy scaffolding. 

MARCHE: Here we are getting at the crux of the matter, and the part where, once again, I feel like an ancient Victorian gentleman with a walrus moustache and a meerschaum pipe talking about old campaigns. “You can never take the evil out of sex.” Reading that, some very deep part of me feels: What the fuck? I just don’t think of sex as evil. That seems to me, I’m sorry to say this, but Catholic or something. I’m sure that one thing we can agree on is that sexuality cannot be defined by any one feature anymore. I think even a word as broad as “power” won’t suffice. I mean, people are weird. That we know. But to me the idea that power rather than tenderness would be the primary drive—surely that has to be down to pornography’s influence, no? This is different, of course, than sexual crime or sexual violence. But the sense, within relationships of all kinds, that sex is fundamentally about power rather than  rather than, I don’t know what. Love? Instinct? Carnality? Even physical pleasure? 

MOLOTKOW: I know it seems Catholic, but I don’t mean that sex is inherently evil—what I mean is that it dredges up the baser, more disgusting impulses and is an act of aggression as often as not. (In a whole-world context, not a relationship one. Also consider how much aggression is for pleasure.) I don’t think pornography caused this. I think the reverse is true: pornography reflects a lot of what’s frightening about human sexuality in a way we can’t ignore. My gut-level “blech” reaction to the idea of sex as tender is because, like many people not in relationships, I associate tender relationship sex with boredom and mild tones of incest (the sibling vibe). Which is unfair, I admit, and maybe a little protective. I’ll put it this way: I would much rather have a varied, expansive sex life with a freakish but loving partner than watch porn and have sex with strangers and risk feeling violated, but the latter option is probably better than going without. Actually, I don’t know. Celibacy is underrated. 

This conversation has been edited for length.