Sex, Intimacy, and the Argument for their Separation

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My first kiss was with a girl when I was about eight years old. It was not at all sexual, but it was  extremely intimate. Minnie* and I kissed as a show of force: many in my class found the idea of same-sex connections strange (or even abhorrent – how could two people of the same gender kiss?!). But Minnie and I proved them wrong. Our peck on the lips came from a mutual understanding and desire to show our peers that same-sex relationships was nothing weird. I have long since held this believe, and I have never cared about a person’s sexuality: they sleep with whom they sleep with, and love whom they love. Indeed the kiss Minnie and I shared was less about sex and more about an intimate intellectual victory. I cherish this moment for two reasons: firstly, I learned I was straight; secondly, I relished making others learn something new about themselves and humanity in general.

Everyone has their own relationship to intimacy, and while definitions overlap, they are also distinct. The first time I truly understood this was with the first person I’d slept with. It was a classic meet-cute: he dropped a $5 bill, I picked it up and returned it to him. We watched the play and got to chatting afterwards. This chatting lead to drinks, which lead to a date the following week. This date lead to him inviting me back to his place. It was only then that I disclosed I was still a virgin.

In doing so, I expected him to feel betrayed or shy away, but instead he kissed me, took my hand, and we continued walking home knowing what was about to happen. I felt safe, considered, protected, and valued. It’s not that I had ever placed any real value on my virginity – it was something that had to be dealt with, like a flu shot, and required cooperation from a willing participant to help me “lose” it. But social pressures made me feel like I was out of bounds for not having lost it by my mid-twenties. The fact that I was still a virgin made me insecure, uncertain, and concerned about how I would be perceived by peers, friends, and even future lovers. I was adamant that when the opportunity presented itself naturally and safely, I would take it. Theatre Guy was my meal ticket: he supported me, and I gave myself to him unreservedly. I thought we were building intimacy.

But our relationship took a turn after that weekend, and it was here that I re-examined the relationship between sex and intimacy. He travelled a lot, meaning our time together was limited to weekends, during which we made it a point to meet when we could. The next weekend we’d met, we were both exhausted but desperate not to part company yet. Against our better judgement, we slept together, but this time things were different: constrained by our desires, we couldn’t help ourselves, but the encounter felt forced. I left early in the morning, and a few days later we realised our relationship could not continue romantically. We broke it off but continued to meet asexually, subconsciously (at the time) aware that what bonded us was not, in fact, sex.

One night after an evening of whiskey and a dissection of the Torah, we opened up about what happened that night. It was then when we realised why we didn’t work: for him, sex and intimacy are intricately intertwined. While one can happen without the other, his most fulfilling connections come from having both. On the other hand, in my book sex and intimacy are exclusive – sex is messy, technical, enjoyable, animalistic, but not the heart of intimacy. For me, sex is a way to deepen an intimate bond already built through other means like culture or common interests. Decoupling sex and intimacy comes naturally for me. Indeed, with Theatre guy, mutual bonding over vegetarianism and cultural curiosity was foreplay – it showcased our initial compatibility. While verbal foreplay was enough for me to form a strong intimate bond with him that could be deepened through spending time together either with sex or without (but still with physical contact), he needed sex to build deeper intimacy.  And when we realised our sexual language was incompatible, he found it difficult to connect more deeply with me, a condition that remains to this day. A few weeks ago, we called each other to discuss this article, and our dynamic clicked back: after a few awkward pauses, we fell into a natural rhythm that would have continued had we stayed talking longer. It was not easy though – his desire to open up was shadowed by uncertainty, while my extroversion acted as both a conversation grease and a barrier to comfortable conversation. Nevertheless, our bond was unquestionable. This is the definition we often forget when we think of the term ‘intimacy’, but it is actually the foundation of other -ships and -ances like friendship or bromance.

By contrast, I met my last boyfriend on Bumble. Our relationship reaffirmed my definition of intimacy and sex being linked but not married. Like with Theatre guy, our foreplay was conversation: we were turned on by the fact that we bonded intellectually and emotionally. However, sex was simply a by-product of our emotional connection: a physical good-to-have that deepened our bond but was inherently independent of our relationship. Indeed our first kiss only happened a month after we met! This relationship emphasised the importance of friendship, proximity, and psychological co-dependence as the foundation of intimacy. However, this was also our kryptonite. During our brief but deep relationship I found out I was due to move to another school for a master’s degree. We agreed that our relationship would not be able to handle long-distance, and therefore we chose to break up before my departure. We never made it that far, instead breaking up four months before I was due to leave. This was his way of protecting himself from a hurt and vulnerability far more intense than he was expecting. I suspect that my continued existence in the same country acted as a balm, knowing he could still reach out in person because of our friendship.

These two stories have two things in common: friendship and proximity. While I continue to be in contact with both men, our relationship has naturally changed. Distance has made this change more tangible: our friendship is limited to text or the rare phone call, and a brief readthrough of our text histories paints a picture of comfortable but constrained conversation. But a dinner with my ex when I recently went back confirmed our friendship continues when we are physically together, underlining the importance of proximity in this definition of intimacy.

I bring friendship into this conversation in part because of the friend-bond I had with these two lovers (with or without sex), and in part because of a woman whose label is undefined beyond ‘friend’. I have known her for more than half my life, and during a recent examination of our relationship, we realised part of our bond comes from longevity. While we do sometimes need to repeat stories, our intimate connection comes from shared values and a shared history. The fact that we are never going to have a sexual relationship only highlights further my definition of intimacy: a bond formed based on mutual values, compatible intelligence and an attraction to the curiosities of the world around us, which we then examine. For 13 of our 17 years together we were in a long-distance relationship, meeting up once a year at best. Proximity played an interesting role in our relationship: while we continue to live in different countries, as our time zone difference reduced from 12 to 8 to 1, our relationship grew stronger, much more intangible and far harder to define. And yet, this is one of the most intimate relationships I have ever encountered. We have sheltered each other through multiple storms, and while life without her seems possible, it is also unimaginable.

When conflating intimacy and friendship, as I have done, it is easy to get the two mixed up. Instead, in understanding that the two are distinct but intertwined entities, we recognise the power of each individually and both together. Intimacy is deeply personal: while it often requires another person to feel intimate with or about, the actual sensation and attitude is very much personal – how I related to Theatre guy was not quite how he related to me. Friendship is mutual – while the depth of feelings may not be at the same level, what binds two people together in the first place is the basis of shared intimacy and connection. From shared values to shared experiences, traumas or interests, the depth of friendship is increased as more commonalities emerge and the urge to spend more time together increases.

At this point, you may be wondering if I live in denial about the very obvious relationship between sex and intimacy. I assure you, I am not oblivious. Sex does indeed have its effect on intimacy: Theatre Guy was not at all wrong! However, I continue to question the linearity in that argument – is sex really the basis for intimacy as we are taught? During a recent conversation, a friend opened up about a new trend in her hometown: the car key swap. This is a game in which several couples drive to a common location (a mutual friend’s house, a hotel, a club), and drop their car keys in a bowl. Women then pick up a key from the bowl (not their own key), and the male owner of that key goes home with the woman who picked his key. Openly approved by both members of the marriage as well as all the other partners who show up to play, this game is generally consensual. While this is not a new concept, it is surprising to see it happen in a relatively small, conservative Indian town. In particular, this kind of game is risky by nature – it has the potential to be a breeding ground for long-term extramarital affairs. And, as we have already discussed, not everyone has the ability to separate the connection between sex and intimacy. However, my friend and I were talking about the ability of such a game to strengthen marital intimacy, especially when we account for a cultural tendency towards loyalty and innate dependency on the concept of family. A married couple’s loyalty is inextricably linked with their marital partner and family first: this is who they go home to most days, and while this game allows for sexual exploration, the watchword is trust. Intimacy here exists with the person one feels most deeply connected with, and the intimacy of two bodies together is only a part of that, not the whole. In essence, this game is the foundation for an open marriage, but the fun of a sexual encounter that allows for temporary bonding, some creativity, and an opportunity to learn about sexual desires and preferences does not preclude the responsibilities one wakes up thinking about the next morning. It was interesting to realise that in many cases, sex with someone else does indeed strengthen a married couple’s intimate relationship. This avenue is explored safely, but not completely openly – couples are unlikely to discuss this game arrangement with other members of their family or with more conservative members of their community. Keeping this secret is another way of protecting the bond and deepening the intimate connection within the marriage. Trust, loyalty, transparency, friendship, and sex: in this unusual setup, we find a very solid foundation for intimacy.

There is one final element that needs elaboration: gender. We briefly touched on it earlier, but let’s open this can properly. Many women around the world have been brought up hearing that we are softer, more emotionally charged, more likely to confuse sex with love. But this is simply not a universal truth in women. Within my own story, Theatre Guy is an example of the exact reverse – where his deep bond came with sex, my deep bond didn’t require it. A recent conversation with my friends-with-benefits partner had me pegged as less emotional than my male counterpart. This is not to say I did not feel: the reason our situation occurred and then continued with relative regularity is primarily because there was mutual attraction and comfort in each other’s company, enough to be able to share physical intimacies. But while these gendered understandings of emotions, sex, and intimacy may have truth during pre-contraception-era sexual encounters, where having sex meant a much higher chance of life-long consequences (pregnancy and childrearing), in many current-day urban environments, this kind of thinking is no longer accurate. Sex can be enjoyable without it leading to deeper commitment. This distinction, while unnerving at times for some, is an important one to consider when discussing the layers of intimacy. It is also one that requires de-gendering. Enough work, scientific and anecdotal, talks about the comfort women have with their sexuality outside of a relationship. Indeed when we see characters like Samantha from Sex and the City, we are forced to acknowledge the disengagement between sex and intimacy. And this is simply one fictional story: my own posits a second.

All four of the stories related here have one thing in common: each of them provide different layers to the definition of intimacy. Personally, analysing each situation has been a self-growth exercise. We are often taught conventional expectations around what intimacy in a relationship is, and how to have healthy intimacy. Oftentimes, however, this ‘healthy’ intimacy takes place in unconventional ways: open marriages, childhood friendships, parental relationships, and even sometimes friends-with-benefits. In simple terms, one of the things we as a society need to stop doing is conflating concepts that, while related on the surface, are in fact uniquely powerful. Sex has the ability to make or break relationships, but it is not a guarantee to building deep, soulful, intimate connections. Intimacy is a separate entity, protected by elements deeper than the physicalities of sex, and it’s time that we own and embrace this. We may feel intimately connected with sex, but let us not forget that sex is not the only way to be intimate.

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