(painting: Couple Eating by Georges De La Tour)
How come there’s no good way to talk about wanting sex? Either we sound like school children snickering in the corner and saying words like “horny,” or we sound like uptight grandparents peering over rims (eyeglasses, wine glasses), and mentioning that we “have appetites”. Here’s a quick inventory of words from my thesaurus:
School kids: horny, hard up, hot to trot, randy, turned on, frisky, hot and bothered.
Grandparents: desiring, concupiscent, lascivious, libidinous, passionate, lustful, amorous.
Steering clear of either of those categories, we’re left with bland phrases like “in the mood.” In the moment, we can find sexy things to say to our partner. “I want you,” for example, is a super hot thing to hear when making out with somebody. But if we’re talking to our friends or our therapists, we have to just bluntly say, “I want to get laid,” or “I want sex.”
It’s a particular challenge to express this while composing an online dating profile. And I quickly learned that, as a woman, you really don’t need to say anything. Propositions for sex are going to arrive. Frequently. When I started internet dating after my husband and I split up, I wanted sex more than conversation or cuddling. So I ended up writing something like this on my profile: “I’m still recovering from a recent break-up, so not looking for anything serious. I want a lover to spoil, and who will spoil me back.” Boy did that work. My inbox began filling with messages from other people who were horny, hot to trot, lustful, and concupiscent. They were mostly pretty respectful (I would later learn, through experience, that it was because I hadn’t checked the “casual sex” box).
My first sexual encounter, post-divorce, was bad. But I wasn’t ready to give up! I wanted sex! Good sex! I know some people have friends to call on for this, but I wasn’t able to do that because, well, I always fell in love with whomever I slept with, which kind of tends to ruin friendships. Then I got a message from bikr71, who chose to focus on the fact that I played the guitar instead of that I wanted a lover. He also said that he loves kissing, and maybe if I gave him a guitar lesson he could give me a kissing lesson. Hey, it worked.
bikr71 had posted only one photo of himself. It was blurry and far away, with him wearing sunglasses and riding a mountain bike. Basically, I could tell he was a human who could ride a bike, but nothing else. I wrote back and asked for more photos, which he sent. I learned that his name was Lalu and that he was super attractive. We wrote a few messages back and forth, during which we established that neither of us wanted a serious relationship at the time, but we were both… horny. And then I suggested we meet for a cup of coffee and a “Chemistry Check”. A Chemistry Check is when people meet face-to-face and blatantly decide if they are attracted to each other in the flesh. I have become very unshy about asking for these.
Lalu lived in the suburbs and didn’t make it into Portland very often. We made tentative plans, and in the meantime I went over to my friend Twyla’s house to hang out and, inevitably, show her bikr71’s profile and giggle about it. Twyla has been married forever. We are like best friends from foreign countries who meet in between to share notes about our cultures and traditions. She loves to laugh heartily at my dating stories, and I love to laugh heartily at her married stories. Plus I love her husband, including his extremely exagerrated eyerolls whenever I talk about dating.
Twyla and I are in the middle of giggling over Lalu’s terrible, fuzzy profile picture when he texts me to say that he has finished early with his friend, and do I want to meet up for coffee that night? Twyla and I shriek, and her husband’s eyes practically scrape the ceiling he rolls them so hard. I text back “yes,” and then dash to the bathroom to do an emergency first-date, er, chemistry check primp. Twyla follows me in to ogle at the weird dating rituals I am demonstrating, and to give me advice on the proper amount of eyeliner to apply. Sometimes I think that at least half the fun in dating is talking about it with girlfriends.
As I drive to meet Lalu, I work to keep my feelings in check. I am about to meet a stranger under the pretense of becoming lovers and nothing more. Years before, a coworker had told me a story. Single and concupiscent, she had responded to a Craigslist ad placed by a man looking for no-strings-attached sex. They met, had sex, said goodbye, and never saw each other again. When she told me the story I’d felt horrified and fascinated. Was she slutty or empowered? I felt conflicted then, and I feel conflicted now. By going to meet Lalu, am I lowering my standards of safety and respect in exchange for easy pleasure, or am I taking charge of my sexual needs in a mature and liberated way?
I still haven’t answered this question when I pull up to the coffee shop at 10pm. I park a couple of blocks away because I am still embarrassed of my minivan. Sooo not sexy. As I am walking, a blue hatchback parks and I just know it’s him. I keep walking and listen as the car turns off and the door opens and closes. Then footsteps. I stop and turn. “Are you Lalu?” I ask the man, who is obviously Lalu. He smiles and we shake hands, then awkwardly hug. He is shorter than I thought, about my height or maybe even an inch shorter. Lots of men are around my same height and size. I’m like the average sized American male.
Lalu is very relaxed and calm, which helps put me at ease. He is also extremely polite and respectful, and not in the showy way that lots of people put on. I can tell that he respects my decision to look for a lover, no strings attached, and isn’t even surprised by it. We have coffee and chat. Conversation is easy, and he keeps his eyes fixed on me. He has gorgeous eyes in a color I’ve never seen before. They are golden and warm. It is pretty obvious that we are attracted to each other. It’s also obvious that we have lots to talk about, and this could easily be turning into a first date. But do you have a first date with someone that you only want to have sex with? Or is it just a “first sex” that you end up having? After about 45 minutes we get up to leave.
Once outside, Lalu suggests we kiss, saying we should at least know if we like kissing each other before meeting again. He has already brought up kissing in the cafe, in a matter of fact way, telling me how much he enjoys it. So we lean into each other and kiss. It’s not electric. It’s slow and comforting, like sinking into hot water after being in the snow. He smells clean and resiny, like amber or myrrh. We have discussed the logistics of meeting again. He has two children, and I have one. We both share time with our exes. He works long hours in the suburbs, and I can’t go to his house, for some reason that he doesn’t go into. We kiss beneath the dark trees and I am calculating when we can see each other next. Feeling bold, I suggest he come home with me right then. His eyes widen with surprise, and then he hastily agrees.
I am housesitting for my cousin. I drive to her house, busily ignoring the mood-killing fear that she is going to return from Hawaii to find me hacked up all over her bedroom. I know I am taking a risk, that I don’t know this person, but at a certain point we have to take a risk with people. I’m just taking the risk very early, is what I tell myself. Lalu arrives and we don’t waste any time talking or playing the guitar. We kiss in the living room, and then I lead him straight to the bedroom.
I set a boundary right away, telling him that I don’t want anything below the waist, and that clothes aren’t coming off. This is something I started doing years before, when I found myself going farther on dates than I’d wanted. Nowadays, I set my intention of how far I want to go before the date even begins, and then I tell my date what my boundary is as soon as we start to make out, or earlier if my boundary is no kissing. It helps, and I can always break it, though it’s harder to enforce my boundaries later if I’ve established that I’m willing to break them. Plus, I don’t know, there’s something sexy about knowing there’s a wall that desire will have to push up against.
Lalu kisses me like we are deeply in love. His hands are slow and confident as they move over my clothing, across my face and hair. We lie on the bed and press our bodies together, exploring slow and deep kissing. He keeps his golden eyes halfway open, fixed on me in a steady gaze. I love kissing with eyes open, though I get shy and close mine half the time. He doesn’t get shy. He is in charge and very good at playing me, working my body up so that I am beginning to consider shifting my boundaries. But I adore anticipation, and I know that this feels delicious, this holding back, and once we give in we can never return to this place of anticipating the first time. We spend a long time like that, enjoying every minute.
We make plans for him to return that weekend, and over the next few days we send playful and teasing texts. It feels almost like having a boyfriend. He wants to know how work is going, how I am feeling, and he answers the same questions from me. But then we will quickly get salacious, turning our answers into sexual innuendos and hinting at what we are looking forward to at our next meeting. I am determined not to fall in love until I know someone pretty well. Once in love, I have a difficult time accurately assessing someone’s personality and motives. I’m pretty easy to gaslight is what I’m trying to say, and maybe we all are, but I’m also not so good at recognizing an unhealthy situation until I am deep in it. Lalu is funny and nice and sexy. I know I am treading dangerous water if I am trying to stay out of love.
He comes over the next Sunday afternoon. Once again, we kiss our way into the bedroom. I tell him what my boundary for the day is (clothes can come off, but no intercourse), and he surprises me by saying, “Oh, I’m mostly just looking for a kissing partner. I don’t care if we do anything else, I just really like kissing.” I find his assertion charming and annoying at the same time. It’s nice to know that he’s not going to pressure me into sex, but… I kind of really want to have sex at some point. We do end up doing more than kissing, and everything we do feels loaded with tenderness and care. After he leaves, my cousin calls from Hawaii and I tell her about Lalu. “I didn’t know that you could make love without being in love,” I tell her, which looks dumb as I type it now, but I am not used to men being this sensual.
The texting continues, and becomes more flirty and playful. We are running into logistical obstacles, or he is anyway, for meeting up with any frequency. At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. I hadn’t been having any sex for several years anyway, so if I could only meet my lover two or three times a month, that was two or three more times than before! But as my attraction to Lalu grows, so does my interest in him as a person. This makes me want to spend more time with him, and suddenly my nights alone feel more lonely than before we met. I am fixating on him, and I don’t really know him. Even though my brain is working overtime to infuse this situation with rational caution, my heart wants to catapult myself into the middle of his life.
To overcome this, I turn back to the dating website. Lalu and I don’t have any agreements to be exclusive, and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t have more than one lover, especially if it helps me not to fall in love prematurely. So in between visits with Lalu, I go on dates with other people. But problematically, the other people just make me like him all the more by comparison. Also, against my better judgement, I look at Lalu’s dating profile to determine how frequently he is on the website. My heart sinks whenever I see the little green dot next to his name, marking him as being logged in. I solve this by sending him a passive-aggressive message through the dating site: “Hey, I just want you to know that it’s cool with me if you’re still on here, and seeing other people. We hadn’t really talked about it, but thought I’d go ahead and say that.”
He responds with, “Oh, thanks sweetheart. But I can barely manage one lover!! I am going to be shutting this account down because it is too hard to keep up with the interest from other people.” With such phenomenal communication already happening between us (that’s sarcastic, by the way), I see real possibility for a relationship (not sarcastic, which is alarming).
A couple of weeks have gone by since Lalu and I met. We text everyday and have had three steamy make-out sessions. It is clear to me that my willpower to resist falling in love is quickly crumbling. I had a strong suspicion that I would not be able to keep sex and emotions separate. Lalu and I talk about this, and he is of the mind that one can involve sex and emotions without falling in love. Indeed, he does seem very emotional when we are together, but the look in his eyes is that of being in love. It’s confusing. I begin to drop hints that I’m falling in love with him. I hope that he’ll say something in kind, but he only smiles and reminds me that our agreement is to be lovers only. He says that he fell in love with someone soon after his divorce, but decided that being in a relationship interferes with his ability to be the kind of father he wants to be. He is determined to be single until his children are much older, and he didn’t think he would find someone who was okay with being lovers only. I smile back because this is what I said I want, too.
Lalu is different from other lovers I’ve had, very respectful and gentle, no macho agenda. He was born in South Africa, raised by an Indian father and Welsh mother, and moved to England as a teenager. I think that what I am experiencing is the lack of typical American male entitlement. He doesn’t act like he’s entitled to me, or to me doing anything for him. He is grateful for my time and my attention, and asks for permission rather than forgiveness. When we finally make love for the first time, I realize that I am definitely falling in love.
It has now been 3 weeks since we met. Lalu is going to the coast for a vacation with his sister and his kids. He warns me that his reception might be bad, and I say that it’s fine, really, it’s fine. And I think that I am fine, until he doesn’t respond to my texts. Then I start to feel… anxious. I know the town that he is staying in, and I know that people typically get cell coverage in the town, so I suspect he is getting my texts. I have become used to our daily, flirty texts, and I miss them, but there is something else that is making me anxious. Just before he left to the coast, Lalu asked me to send him some naughty pictures. And I did. I have done this one other time, but it was for a serious boyfriend (who never even looked at them because he was into hard core porn, and my pictures were very boring by those standards). So I sent Lalu some pictures that only my lover should see, and he sent me a message of surprised gratitude and then left to the coast. With my pictures on his phone.
Now, I know all the girls are doing it, and it’s not supposed to be a big deal, but I’m 39. It’s a big deal for me to send someone pictures of my naked vajayjay doing stuff. And then I don’t hear from him, and I’m sure that my pictures are sold to a dozen porn sites by now. But Lalu does text eventually, and we have a flirty conversation late at night, and then it’s back to radio silence and I get anxious, and then he reappears and says reception has been terrible, and this goes on for the week. I am also anxious to communicate with him because all those other people I have been dating as a way to take my mind off him are wanting to make weekend plans with me, but I want some weekend time with Lalo. It’s getting complicated. I need to go full force anti-love mode.
I schedule several dates with other people. The night before I am supposed to see Lalu again, I spend the night with someone else. Nothing works. I have no choice but to tell Lalu that I am in love with him. He comes over on a Sunday afternoon. His sister has taken his kids to the zoo and he doesn’t have much time. We make love, and then I tell him that I can’t be happy with this casual arrangement because I’m falling in love and need more. He responds how I knew he would, by saying that he isn’t available for more. He is kind, but firm. I had hoped that maybe, along this path, he had started to fall in love too. But he isn’t budging. We say good-bye and agree not to see each other or text anymore. Unprompted, he tells me that he will delete the naughty pictures from his phone.
Surprisingly, I am the one who has an easier time cutting things off. This is partly because I have just met a woman named Emma whom I will go on to fall in love with (and who will love me back), but it’s also because I don’t do well with fuzzy boundaries. Lalu continues to send me flirty texts, and I continue to tell him that I’m not interested unless he wants to be in a relationship. He will disappear for a while, but then start texting again. It’s almost a blessing, actually, because it starts to annoy me and helps me move past him.
He finally stops, and then months later he begins to send me romantic messages out of the blue, from Europe, where he is on business. At first I am intrigued. Things didn’t work out with Emma and I am dating again, so I text back. Within half an hour he brings up the naughty pictures I sent and tells me how much he misses them. Ew. As an experiment, I ask him if he would like more. He says that he wouldn’t object. Wrong answer, dude. So I send a text that I know will get rid of him: “Does this mean you’re ready to be in a relationship now?” It works. He texts back a mumbly apology and that’s the last I hear from him.
Here’s a funny thing. In between breaking up with Emma and hearing back from Lalu in Germany, I had a lover for 3 months named Josh. I never fell in love with Josh, and he never fell in love with me. We liked each other, enjoyed each other’s company, and had satisfying sex. We talked early on about our desire to find a long-term partner, but we both shared that we weren’t ready for it yet. And then we didn’t really talk about it. Sometimes, while making love or just after, I felt like I loved Josh. But then the feeling would recede like a wave sliding back across the sand, and I would feel grateful that I hadn’t said anything foolish to Josh, like that I was falling in love with him. Yet when Lalu texted me again, I knew I couldn’t be with him without falling in love.
Many experiences later, I am convinced that I cannot fall in love with just anyone and, similarly, that I am unable to stop myself from falling in love when it does happen. And so I have become a bit wiser about this whole thing. When I am aware that there is a risk of falling in love, I have learned to pull back and get some perspective (usually by dating other people) while assessing if I actually want to fall in love with this person. It really works. So far I have been able to steer my heart clear of many disastrous waters. I’ve realized that my heart is a child and love is an ice cream cone. I can’t keep my heart from wanting love, but I can decide when and where to indulge if I keep my head about me. And if I want someone who is just a lover, which I have successfully done many times now, I stick with people like Josh.
I am no longer conflicted about tending to my sexual needs by taking lovers. My attitude is that if all parties are in agreement, it can be a very happy situation. I used to think that women couldn’t have sex without falling in love, and so a woman who was in a purely sexual relationship must be denying her emotional self. Now I understand that I can have sex without sharing all of myself, and it’s still fun and satisfying. And even though what I ultimately want is a partner whom I can share everything with, I am not always available to create that. It takes a lot of my time and devotion and energy to build that kind of relationship, and I don’t want to invest it in just anybody. I have become happy to wait for that right person, and if I feel hot to trot, desiring, or frisky, I can share fun sex with people along the way.