This is a post about exercise, sex, and pleasure, but I wouldn’t be writing it if I hadn’t once worked on regulatory policy for trucking. In that former life of mine, my trucking project made me intimately acquainted with the concept of fungibility – the idea that certain goods are equivalent enough that they can be easily exchanged or substituted for other goods.
So anyway, this post is about sex, not trucks, and it’s only barely about exercise. Maybe it’s just that I really never understood the appeal of running (and feel okay with that ever since my brother-in-law told me that injured runners keep his physical therapy practice in the black). But I just can’t get on board with the idea that good sex is comparable to a good run, or to anything else either, though figleaf makes as good a case as possible for their comparability:
My big epiphany this evening, by the way, is that sex feels really, really good but it’s not the only activity, not even the only physical one, that feels that way. And now eight or ten hours after running I’m still feeling a warm endorphin rush. Eight hours after even the best sex and I’m… mostly ready for more sex.
Again, that’s not to say sex isn’t pretty darn nice, and I’m actually a little worried that you’re going to read this and say “he’s saying sex isn’t that great.” But it isgreat. It’s just there’s other stuff that’s really, really great too. And I think, or at least I’m considering, that we overweight sex with so much other significance that we (ironically) feel guilty and/or crazy and/or maybe even “kinky” about admitting there could be anything that could compete with it.
It’s definitely blissful to be in the flow of making music, writing, even teaching – to inhabit that space where I know and feel that everything is right my whole self engaged in something I love and do well.
Meditation. Very dark chocolate. The aroma of lilacs in my back yard.
But I wonder about the wisdom of comparing any of these things. Yes, they’re all embodied experiences that give us a chance to transcend the everyday. But I see no need to claim (as figleaf did in his post’s title) that “there are some things that feel better than sex.” Why rank them? Is it just that those other things can be done on our own, without a partner, whenever we feel moved? Because the only reason for ranking that I can see is the intense pressure to sublimate our libido into other projects, whether that pressure comes from society or from a reluctant/unavailable/nonexistent partner.
Of course, sublimation isn’t the same as fungibility, either, and it never pretended to be. The whole point of sublimation, after all, is to transform libidinal energy into work or other endeavors that society deems more important than sex. Sublimation isn’t the same as repression, and some of it is absolutely necessary. We can’t all spend every day rutting. Freud was right that civilization depends on it. And yet, I can’t help but think there’s no shortage of sublimation, at least among my friends and acquaintances. If anything, we’re shorting ourselves on pleasure.
As for the overloading of sex, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between generally harmful aspects of this and benign or potentially enriching ones. The harmful freighting of sex usually has very little to do with pleasure; it comes into play when, for instance, a woman’s “purity” or experience or looks determine her worth, or a man’s “conquest” determines his status. It’s toxic, as well, to say that sex must *always* be wedded to love. That assumption undergirds abstinence-only sex “education” and leads too many people (women, especially) to feel emotionally bruised when a hookup doesn’t evolve into a relationship.
And yet. We sell sex short if we insist it has nothing to do with love. The potential for deeply connecting with someone – and not just getting off – is a pretty important one. Otherwise we’d all be perfectly content with solo sex. Otherwise couples in sexless marriages would be as happy as any other; but on average, they’re not. Within a relationship, sex helps us stay connected, be more forgiving, find more delight.
Speaking as a woman, I’m also wary of playing down the importance of sex, which is what we do if we treat it as fungible. Much of my time is spent in ordinary activities that give me deep satisfaction – mothering, reading, writing, teaching, discussing – but their rewards are quite different than the pleasures of sex. We’ve spent over 10,000 years subordinating female sexuality to patriarchal imperatives, and only about the past 40 trying to claim it as valuable and autonomous. (Okay, if you count Victoria Woodhull, that bumps it up to 140 years – still a nanosecond in human history.) Calling sex just one pleasure among many not only denies the particularity of sexual pleasure. It also neutralizes the radical potential of unfettering women’s sexuality. And yes, here I might be overloading sex a bit, myself, but I also think it’s true that people can’t be truly free if they’re sexually repressed. Still: women’s sexual pleasure is a feminist issue.
As for endorphins that last eight hours? Well, as cool as that sounds, I’m not likely to experience that for myself. I’m going to stick to my trusty bike riding; no running for me. But I’d say being ready again for sex after eight hours isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.