Saturday, October 20, 2007
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
I’m a sucker for grocery store candy.
Whenever I’m in a checkout line all of those bright, gleaming packages just jump out at me, massaging and probing desires I didn’t even know I had. Do I want any Peanut M&Ms? Ya know, maybe I do. Before this desire can fully articulate itself, before I can feel anything interesting about why I want Peanut M&Ms or whether I really want them or how how they will improve my life the bright yellow package is in my hand and my desire, still just a waning “maybe,” has been summarily executed.
In a way, desire isn’t something that I ever learned to think about, just something I learned to either satiate or ignore. I can identify an endless stream of snacks and gizmos and elixirs and archetypal relationships that are supposed to make my desires a thing of the past, but banishing desire isn’t really the same as understanding it. I’ve never fasted for Ramadan or given up something I wanted for Lent. I’ve had few opportunities in my life to really learn to love my desires, to just let myself get caught up in the tension and pleasure of wanting. It’s a shame, because desire matters. If I leave the Peanut M&Ms on the shelf and take a little journey into my sweet tooth I can sometimes come away understanding myself that much better and experiencing pleasure that’s that much deeper.
It’s probably not a shock that in a culture grounded on mass consumerism these sort of journeys of desire are not that encouraged. If I don’t have some candy or a Mini Cooper or an iPhone I’m supposed to get one, and if I’m stuck just desiring one I’m supposed to feel ashamed about it. When it comes to our material desires, shame is a big part of what keeps us in line. Exploring our desires and ourselves may make us happier, but it certainly doesn’t make us better consumers.
I bring all of this up because sexual desire seems like a sure-fire way to break this trend. With a million variations layered inside the infinite complexity of human relationships sex is so rich and so complicated that instant gratification isn’t really possible. You’d think that sexual desire is something that can’t be neatly avoided, that when it comes to sex everyone (or at least 99% of everyone) would have to delve into all of the pleasure and frustration that goes along with desire. Openly exploration and discussion of sex should be taking a massive bite out of consumerism, transforming our desires into things too deep and too varied for marketing departments to tackle.
I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I can see why it’s beneficial for our culture to objectify and commodify sexuality with one hand and shame it with the other. Shame keeps our desires simple and predictable. So long as we’re ashamed to think about sexual desire we’ll be a little bit ashamed to think about desire, period. We won’t understand ourselves or what makes us happy or how to demand it. But if we can learn to question that shame, if we can learn that desire can be fun, then we may just unlock something revolutionary.
When I was in school, I learned all about sexual shame and the end of the world. Shame, after all, is almost always grounded in fear. Homophobic and transphobic rhetoric often talk about the breakdown of the most fundamental rules of our society. If left unchecked, sexual desire is so strong and gender exploration is so all-consuming that they could rip through our society like wildfire, leaving everything from the family to country to the food supply smoldering in an orgy of ash. Sexual shame is the bulwark, the lining around the fireplace that keeps us from utter, all-consuming entropy.
In practice things aren’t nearly that easy. A lot of sex is boring or awkward or not worth the effort, and the wildest orgies tend to take a lot of meticulous planning. Sexuality doesn’t spread like wildfire because it only really feels good under specific circumstances. Sexual shame isn’t keeping sexual desire at bay, just keeping us from better understanding where it makes sense and where it doesn’t.
If you take away sexual shame the world doesn’t come to an end, your relationships get better. You don’t just turn into a raging sexual juggernaut, you learn to more openly discuss sexuality on your own terms. (And if your terms happen to be those of a raging sexual juggernaut then more power to you.) All that sexual shame does, in the end, is impair communication and make relationships that much choppier.
And I’m not just talking about Relationships with a capital R. Lurking behind sexuality are emotions and desires that are just as present among friends and coworkers as they are among romantic partners and one-night stands. I’m talking about messy things like intimacy and power and negotiation, those fundamental building blocks that are present in human relationships regardless of sexual status. Sexually or otherwise, getting along with other people ain’t easy. It takes work, it takes experience and it takes skill to build something like a marriage that works or a community that stands the test of time. When we’re ashamed, afraid and isolated it’s that much harder to build those skills, and we need them now more than ever.
That’s because there’s a very different type of apocalypse in the works, one that substitutes the fires of hell with the fires of the internal combustion engine. Scientific debate is long over, climate change is hard, urgent fact. The world is getting hotter faster than almost any time in human history, and we have to simultaneously stop contributing to the problem and prepare for the impact. In his book Deep Economy Bill McKibben proposes an elegant way to do both.
As the world gets hotter and fossil fuels get rare and more dangerous to use we’re going to have to start depending more and more on our local communities. We’ll have to shift from cars to public transit, we’ll have to shift from fast food to farmers markets, and we’ll have to shift from a culture based on individual consumption to one based on sustainable communities. The planet just can’t afford to give us all our own individual cars and lawnmowers and washing machines- we’re going to have to start working together to manage the resources that we have available. We’re going to have to start sharing. And if we want to share, we’ll need good relationships to do it.
When you get right down to it things like intimacy and communication are more than romantic minefields, they are fundamental survival skills. If we know how to articulate our desires and negotiate those desires with others then we can survive and thrive. If we don’t…well, fear, isolation and shame may just become things that we can no longer afford.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Home Cookin’ and the Economics of Intimacy
There's nothing quite like a home-cooked meal. In age when it’s usually more efficient to just buy food and plop it on the table, there’s some something that drives us to take extra time and make food with people that we love. We’re used to thinking about relationships as emotional things, but they also have a certain sort of economic functionality. Every time we make dinner together we engage in a sort of emotional economics, at once exchanging goods, services and intimacy.
Relationships matter. In business they practically matter more than money. Take another look down the frozen food aisle and think about the sheer number of relationships that went into each item. (insert bit about love in the frozen food aisle.) Whether in business or politics or entertainment, webs of relationships play a huge role in defining our world, and power tends to go to those who can build and maintain those relationships effectively.
There is a catch to all of these powerful relationships. Getting all of that stuff done tends to put a hamper on any sort of emotional intimacy. It's not that we're not allowed to feel things in our professional relationships, we're just not allowed to feel anything that might get in the way of transacting business. It's not always pleasant, but succeeding in any sort of professional environment means knowing how to take emotions out of the workplace and dump them somewhere more suitable.
That's part of why having a personal life is so important. At the end of a long day you can step away from all of those productive, emotionally dry relationships and cut loose. Our friendships and romantic relationships may not be raising any third quarter profits, but they let us explore a range and depth of human emotion strictly forbidden in relationships that have serious work to do.
And emotions, after all, are kind of the point. We spend all of that time slaving away in a professional environment in large part because we need money to spend on our loved ones. In a very big way we are hard-wired to be social creatures, and we sustain and fulfill ourselves by forming rich, loving relationships with the people around us. In these small communities of family and friends we are liberated from the harsh dictates of economic production and can focus on creating another sort of value. We can have fun, we can fall in love and we can have the sorts of experiences which make life a lot more meaningful than an earnings statement. Relationships, in other words, can either be emotional or they can be functional. They can't be both.
Or can they?
Let's head to the kitchen. There my sister is making mashed potatoes, I'm prepping some mushrooms and my friend Poonam is mussing around with sauce. Amy and Alex ring the doorbell with some wine, and when we finally sit down at the table we have, well, something of a paradox.
There's no doubting that the few hours we just spent together had some tangible economic value. Between the farmers market, the convenience store and the cheap wine isle, the three course meal we're about to enjoy put us back around five bucks each. In raw economic terms, the labor that we put into preparing our food increased it's value from five dollars to the roughly fifteen dollars (with tip) that we each would have had to throw down for dinner, wine and dessert at a restaurant down on Valencia St.
Of course added economic value seems like a fairly harsh way to talk about what all of us experienced as a couple of friends getting together and having a good time. As we were increasing the value of all of those mushrooms and spices we in some intangible way increased the value of our relationships with one another. We all had fun, we all got a little bit closer to one another and there was no rigid professional creed keeping the meal in check.
Of course, we could just go out to eat. It’s almost always easier and faster to skip working with your friends and just buy things with them. After all, spending money together is at the heart of how we think about intimacy, from the classic date (dinner and a movie) to the classic family vacation (a hotel in Disneyland.) If all you care about is having fun with people you care about then money (if you have it) is the way to go, it’s just that stable intimate relationships are about a lot more than just having fun. There is a point where spending money on your relationships with people just doesn't make them any better. I'm reminded of my recent trip to Disneyland, where at least a few frazzled parents and kids seemed to feel like, as much as it had been custom engineered for optimum family fun, the most magical place on earth could stand to be just a little more magical. On some level parents paying to have their kids entertained aren’t really getting any closer to them, and kids being paid to be entertained won’t necessarily feel loved. Separating economics and emotion can be incredibly convenient. Worrying about making money all day at work and then going home to spend it on the people you love works pretty well, but there comes a point at which you simply can't squeeze any more love out of money.
Speaking personally, there something missing, something hollow in relationships where all we do together spend money. On some basic level, I like to have other people around because they make my life better. Don't get me wrong, spending money with other people, whether I'm eating out or shopping or seeing a movie, tends to be more fun and more meaningful than just spending money by myself. If I couldn't spend money with other people, or show off the things I had bought with it or talk about the movies I bought tickets to money beyond what I need to survive would probably lose a lot of its point. Still, I've become extremely fond of those moments when relationships are both intimate and functional, when the people I love and I can be more than just conversationalists and co-consumers.
Disneyland has nothing on the magic of building something together, especially when that thing and the process of building it makes both of your lives better in some measurable way. When love takes a role in the economics of my day to day life it's, well, around in a way that some romantic abstraction of love never seems to be. I don't need roses and a candlelit dinner to get in touch with love in my life, it's there when I shop at my friend's convenience store on the corner, with the people I design websites with and talk about the news with and learn to bake bread from. At the end of the week, learning how doing things and feeling things can complement one another means that I get to do a whole lot more of both.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Let’s talk about doin’ it.
See, MTV was interviewing me the other day and they wouldn’t let up with questions about what I do with the intimate regions of my schedule. Now, whatever scruples I may have had about throwing my personal escapades to the paparazzi feeding frenzy have long since passed. I set out in this world to create discussion about all the details of this whole nonsexual thing, and when it comes to dropping public discourse my own, shall we say, personal experience is that the dirt makes the diva.
When it comes to explicit aerotic details of nonsexual intimacy you all know that I just love the language. I’ve got the kind of mind that loves nothing better than dreaming up new, provocative ways to describe the way that intimate things go on. Deep down inside my own personal mission, let’s call it a hobby, is to make you see so much possibility outside of the bounds of bump-n-grind sexual relationships that you break out in a sweat. There’s a reason words are one of the favorite nonsexual tricks I keep up my sleeve, they can unite whole communities, caress emotions, they can redefine love in the very moments you are having it. But baby, I wouldn’t want you to think that words are all I got.
Just ‘cuz I can talk dirty doesn’t mean that all I know how to do is talk.
See, I like doin’ it. And that’s good because I’m doin’ it every night of every week and for most of the day on weekends. Don’t get me wrong, I provide serious attention to my professional responsibilities and I am dedicated to the work that remains to be done on AVEN, but my number one priority is exploring every possibility and every sensation that my relationships can offer me. Every interesting possibility anyway. So get nice and comfortable, we’re gonna take a little guided tour of my nonsexual experiences in the field. A warning for anyone new to asexual relationship dynamics or otherwise squeamish about nontraditional methods of getting’ it on: all of the intimate relationships I’m going to talk about are with sexual people and none of them involve sex.
I engage in something called Community Based Intimacy. That means that what most people do in their relationship with their boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse I do in my relationship with my entire community. Because I’m asexual I couldn’t date in the strictly traditional sense even if I wanted to. And for a long time that was really confusing because without dating I had no way to know which people I was supposed to be in love with and which people were just my friends. Without a system like to think about their relationships many people feel alone and isolated. For this reason people who can’t engage in strictly traditional dating, like asexual people, seek out less traditional ways of thinking about relationships. These range from simply dating without having sex to mixing elements from traditionally sexual romantic relationships and traditionally nonsexual friendships to radically redefining the way that relationships are described and categorized. Community Based Intimacy is a system of thinking about relationships which holds that special significance can not be given to one boyfriend or girlfriend, or even to a small cadre of partners. The core idea is that every relationship has to be thought about the same way because every relationship matters. Here’s a snapshot of what that looks like for me right now:
I have three primary relationships, about a dozen secondary relationships and another hundred or so people I keep in touch with. One of those primary relationships is with an individual and the other two are with groups, which means that there are a total of about nine people that collectively make up what for most people would be a girlfriend or a boyfriend. This has its advantages and its disadvantages, it’s relatively stable and there’s lots of variety, but scheduling can be a nightmare. More on that later.
Let’s start with my most traditional primary relationship, which is with my friend Karuna. Karuna and I have had a strong creative bond ever since we met. Both of us are people who put ourselves out there, and our relationship is built around supporting one another when we need to go out on a limb. We sing karaoke, improvise elaborate routines on the dancefloor and spend hours sipping tea and reflecting on our lives. Whenever we get together there’s this powerful creative, supportive energy that I’ve come to count on. She’s a part of why I don’t sweat appearances on national television.
W e hang out once a week or more, usually in a way that involves a lot of laughing and expressing ourselves in public. We’re affectionate and have committed to being there for one another, at least for the foreseeable future. Karuna also has a boyfriend and there’s a clear sense of how her relationship with him and her relationship with me compliment each other. I’m working my way to becoming friends with him as well.
My next primary relationship is with On Your Left (or OYL), an activist crew that’s in to gossip, dancing, elaborate adventures and causing trouble. Because the relationship is with three people instead of one it’s more reliable (since at least one member of the group is likely to be around), but it’s harder to get the kind of intense emotional connection going that a one-on-one relationship can have. And that’s not a problem, support and safety and reflection are what I do in my relationship with Karuna, my relationship with OYL is a place for pushing limits and breaking laws, though we only really break laws in the service of social justice. We get together once a week to ride 14 miles through San Francisco on a mix of bikes and rollerblades. We spend the first half of the trek discussin political issues in San Francisco and around the world and the second half gossiping about our love lives. We also get together on weekends to go dancing and eat dinner, and out activist roots make us a hotbed for political activity. A couple of hours ago we all got together to take on a multimillion dollar corporate PR campaign, with some pretty amazing results.
So, I’ve got a place to be safe and a place to be excited, the only thing left is a place to be comfortable. Intensity is all well and good, but in my experience the hardest thing to do in a relationship is to get comfortable hanging out for no reason. My relationship with the Hotpocket, a group vaguely constituting my housemates and their close friends, is my family and my foundation here in the Bay. In the year and a half I’ve lived here we’ve build up an amazing rapport, and I know that whatever else happens I’ll have a place where I sit back and crack jokes and let everything else slip away.
It’s called the Hotpocket because when I first moved in someone commented that with three bachelors living in an apartment the only thing in our fridge would be hotpockets and beer. We do things like bread and fry all of our vegetables and watch anchorman. Actually we do exactly that at least once every six weeks. We’ve gotten a kick out of decorating our living room (pirates), our kitchen (pictures of pork and pork-related products) and our bathroom (movie stars in bathtubs/awkward-looking porn.) We cook for each other, go on trips together, and have accrued more house traditions than a kibbutz.
Those three relationships make up the core of my life. I do something with each person/group once a week if not more, and between the three of them they provide a good chunk of the experiences that I want my life to consist of, everything from dancing to fighting for what I believe in to cooking elaborate dinners. For most other things there are my secondary relationships, friends I see more rarely and friends out of town who fill in the rest of my life and calendar. These are people and groups that I hang out with every other week to once a month, these relationships run the gamut from professional advice to performance art to up-and-coming relationships vying for primary status.
Do the math: if I have a full time job, devote one night a week to each of my three primaries, one night every two-to-four weeks to my secondaries, have occasional conversations with the hundred or so other relationships floating in the ether, put in 10-20 hours a week on AVEN and leave time to meet new people I wind up having to move at quite a clip. It can be overwhelming at times.There are definite disadvantages compared to more traditional romantic ways of doing relationships. It’s harder to keep track of what’s going on, and even though there’s a lot less at stake in each individual relationship it’s almost guaranteed that at any time there will be some sort of drama going on somewhere in the social network. For better and worse there isn’t the kind of intense emotion that people feel when they just focus on their partnerships, I don’t fall in love the way some of my friends do because falling in love like that means that for a brief moment you have one person be everything.
On the flipside there’s a lot more that happens in most communities than could ever happen with one individual person. A whole community won’t leave a nasty note and storm out the front door- whenever one relationship fades there are plenty of others to keep things steady. Because I’ve got lots of relationships to call on I’m rarely without the support that I need, and because things are always changing I never feel trapped or bored.
But honestly, practicalities aside, my biggest turn-on is power. Whenever a job opens at VolunteerMatch people around the office will submit a spattering of resumes from their friends and acquaintances, I’ll forward on five or six. Every electoral cycle I’m worth anywhere from a hundred to a thousand votes to a candidate or issue of my choosing once my community is mobilized and we’ve hit the pavement. There is a lot that couples can do together, but communities’ unmatched ability to come together and change their world makes the possible things that I can do with mine virtually limitless. So if any of you out there are hording your hopes and dreams on that special someone, take some time and think about what could happen if you share the love.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
I don’ t know how many of you have read “The Tipping Point”, a pop-science treatise that has worked its way well up the New York Times best seller list. One section mentioned a study that I want to talk about today, I think it has some very cool and very interesting implications. As I understand it in 1992 a guy named Robert Dunbar decided to tackle the question of human brain size. We’ve done pretty well with our massively enlarged frontal lobes, but what advantage did they give our primate ancestors? What advantages were primates in Africa getting from bigger and bigger brains?
I’ll read from a summary (http://www.commonsenseadvice.com/human_cortex_dunbar.html)
“One theory holds that our brains evolved because our primate ancestors began to gather food in more complex ways. They began eating fruit instead of grasses and leaves. This involved traveling long distances to find food, and required each species to maintain a complex mental map in order to keep track of fruit trees. More brainpower might have been needed to determine if a fruit was ripe, or to discern proper methods for peeling fruit or cracking nuts.
The problem with this theory is that if one tries to match brain size with the eating habits of primates, it doesn't work. Some small-brained monkeys are eating fruit and maintaining complex maps and some larger brained primates are eating leaves.
What does work, apparently, is group size. If one examines any species of primate, the larger their neocortex, the larger the average size of the group they live with.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has done some of the most interesting research in this area. Dunbar's argument is that as brains evolve, they become larger in order to handle the unique complexities of larger social groups. Humans socialize the largest social groups because we have the largest cortex. Dunbar has developed an equation, which works for most primates, in which he plugs in what he calls the neocortex ratio of a particular species - the size of the neocortex relative to the size of the brain - and the equation gives us the maximum expected group size for each species. For humans, the max group size is 147.8, or about 150. This figure seems to represent the maximum amount of people that we can have a real social relationship with - knowing who another human is and how they relate to us.”
Apparently groups of about 150 show up everywhere, from hunter-gatherer societies to factories to the army. Dunbar and his associates make a big deal out of this number, but I want to focus on a broader implication of the study:
People evolved big brains to form relationships. Computers are good for a lot of things, but they’re best at mathematics because that’s what they were first built to do. Even those early computers could far outpace the human brain in doing mathematics quickly and efficiently, but even modern supercomputers are incapable of understanding and navigating simple social situations. Our higher brain functions are built from the ground up to be very, very good at thinking about relationships. And not just one or two relationships, lots and lots of relationships. We’re built to handle complex communities, whole societies. While most of us deal with far more than 150 people in the course of our lives, juggling 150 relationships allows to have a pretty firm hold on much broader social systems which touch everyone on the globe.
The evolutionary advantages of this kind of a social system are obvious. We’re able to build complicated technologies like computers not just because we’re smart, but because we’re born into a society that has already figured out things like mathematics and electronics. Without complicated societies we’d have no collective memory and no venue for the free exchange of ideas, and our big brains would be still be stuck inventing stone tools. Arguably this ability to form relationships is our most powerful, most valuable and most defining trait as a species. Community is what we’re hard-wired to do, at the same time our super power and the site of many of our most basic and most primal instincts.
Stop for a second and think about all of the vastly complicated relationships that you navigate every day. When you meet a friend for coffee you immediately start crunching more data than MIT. Your friend’s facial expression, the inflection of their voice and the entire history of your friendship are all instantly cross referenced and analyzed without you so much as breaking a sweat. While you’re busy recounting the details of your first day at work, your subconscious is busily referencing and editing a massive pile of information about your friend, a set of information that lets you know what to expect from her, how to act around her and give you the general sense that you “know” her. These relationships with friends and coworkers, most of which “just happen” without any conscious effort, are so complicated that they put moon landings to shame.
Navigating these maelstroms of information is more than just what we’re good at, it’s who we are. Think for a second about our strongest, most fundamental emotions and how deeply tied they are to the people around us. Love, hate, jealousy, comfort, happiness; all are tied deeply to the relationships that we form with others. Emile Durkheim, considered one of the fathers of sociology, made a name for himself be driving home this point. After in depth research he concluded that suicide was a result not of depression or anxiety, but of something he termed “anomie,” which is the feeling that one doesn’t have a place in society, a state where norms are confused, unclear and not present. According to Durkheim relationships with those around us are so fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and our well being that without them we literally cease to exist.
So we’ve established two things: forming relationships is very, very important and we all just so happen to be very, very good at it. Form relationships well and we can navigate society with ease, zeroing in on the people and resources that we need to live our lives and fulfilling our emotional needs to boot. Form relationships poorly and we wind up stuck at home alone with no one to fix our computer, get our foot in the door jobhunting, cook us dinner or talk to us about the game. So how do we make sure that we wind up with the relationships that we need? How do we as think about the relationships that we form?
Because we’re such social creatures a good way to understand how we think about something is usually to listen to the way we talk about it. We all intuitively understand that a ball falls to the ground when you drop it and that it travels a ways and then falls to the ground when you throw it. If we want to do something more complicated than throwing a ball, say throwing a ball really far and hitting a precise target, then we need a language to talk about what’s going on with the ball, a language like physics. And when you get down to it that’s all that physics is, a set of words and concepts and equations that people use to talk about how things move around. Having a better language about how stuff moves let’s us have a better conversation, which let’s us build cooler airplanes and cell phones and vacuum cleaners. And it’s not just physicists that soak themselves in technical jargon. Walk into any room of computer programmers, fashion designers, sports fans or teenagers and unless you happen to be one too you’ll feel like you just got off at the wrong floor on the tower of Babel. That’s because experts in things (yes, being a teenager requires expertise) NEED that nuanced language to describe what’s going on. Learn the language and you’re pretty much an expert yourself.
So if we’re all such experts at thinking about relationships, how do we talk about them? A lot of this language is nuanced. Bosses have words like “synergy” to talk about their relationships with their employees. We all have works like “obligation” and “trust” to talk about our friends and family, but usually only when those relationships are going sour. The curious fact of the mater is that for all of the effort our ancestors spend evolving the ability to think about relationships we spend remarkably little time actually talking about them, with one notable exception.
Tell a friend that you want to meet them for coffee and talk about a relationship, and they’ll probably assume that the relationship involves sex, or at least that it’s on its way to involving sex sometime in the future. When it comes to relationships that involve sex or that might involve sex there is tons of jargon and everyone’s heard it. Flirting, dating, friends with benefits, breaking up , marriage. As soon as a relationship has a whiff of sexual potential we approach it with the lexicon of a trained medical doctor, noting every phone call and every tonal inflection like we were treating a patient with cancer.
This poses a very interesting question, one which (to my knowledge) has yet to be the subject of any serious academic research: Why do we spend to much time and energy talking about relationships that involve sex and so little time and energy talking about relationships that don’t? Remember, we got our big brains not so we could think about one sexual relationship or the four or five relationships that constitute a family but so we could think about the dozens and dozens of relationships that constitute a community. Actively thinking about only one relationship, or even about three of four relationships in a family is a little like buying a high-powered laptop to play pong; it doesn’t make pong any easier, and you can do a lot more.
For the moment let’s avoid speculation on how this verbal discrepancy between sexual and nonsexual relationships came about and talk about how, well, WEIRD it is. You hang out with someone, everything is chill, you introduce sexuality and suddenly you’ve gone from throwing a ball back and forth to calculating a moon landing.
This transition doesn’t seem to make sense to anyone. To be sure sexuality is important to a lot of people, and it certainly has it’s own set of neurochemical implications, but given the prevalence of relationship-free sex throughout history it seems unlikely that sex and love share a purely chemical bond.
There’s a proverbial moon landing if ever there was one. Finding, maintaining and fully realizing love is one of the hardest, most important and most fulfilling things that people do in their lives. And even though most of us love our friends and our families we only actively look for love in relationships that involve sex and it’s that search for love that makes sexual relationships so marvelously complicated.
Remember-we’re basically walking talking relationship-forming machines, it makes perfect sense that our instincts would be geared towards a search for companionship. It also makes sense that that search would be really, really hard (that’s why we have these big brains to begin with.) What doesn’t make sense is why, when we’re built to be part of a big, complicated community and when big, complicated communities are such an integral part of our emotional and material lives, we would cram all of our need for companionship into such a tiny box. Communities were the secret to our prehistoric success and they’re just as powerful today, wielding a level of political and social power that few individual families can match. Communities and the networks of friendships that they encompass can provide much of the stability and emotional support that we look for so desperately from relationships that involve sex, so why do we talk about relationships like communities and friendships don’t matter?
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that the language we use to talk about relationships sucks.
Take a moment and try to envision a world where the way that we think about and talk about relationships was more reflective of the way that they actually happen. The word “single” would be stricken from our vocabulary, along with the awkward, narrowly focused social scenes designed with single people in mind. Rather than setting out on a hell-or-high-water quest to “find the perfect someone”, people would leave home confident in the supportive relationships that they already had and excited about building new relationships to expand their community. Rather than looking for one sexual relationship to do everything (and probably coming home, or at least waking up, empty handed) they would look for a relationship that could do something and expect everything to happen once all those somethings were added together.
If in between finding someone to go hiking with and someone who shared their obsessions with The Doors they happened to find someone to have sex with they would be able to focus a lot more energy on talking about how to have fun and be safe and a lot less energy on the emotional baggage that sex is forced to lug around currently. That’s not to say that sex would be divorced from emotion- a lot of people would still only enjoy sex once real intimacy was involved, but the process of finding that intimacy wouldn’t be seen as an exclusively sexual one. At family gatherings awkward questions about when you would “find someone” would be replaced by equally awkward questions about the strength of your community and the breadth and depth of your network of friends. Maybe you’d still fall in love, get married and have kids, and when you did you’d sit down with your spouse and all of your friends to talk about working together to raise those kids.
Ok, so to me that sounds appealing. Maybe the idea of maintaining close relationships with 20 people as part of your childrearing sounds like your idea of hell, the point is that the language we use to talk about relationships matters and we’re free to change it if we want to. Think about it as the software that we use for our overpowered relationship-forming hardware. By thinking about and tweaking the way that we talk about relationships we can use all of that brainpower to make our lives that much better.