Wednesday, March 19, 2008

a brief walk through the labyrinth of sex and love

The other day a couple of people I know had a disagreement. The woman was concerned that the man, aged fifty-one, had an interest in a woman fifteen years his junior. ‘What’s wrong with women closer to your own age?’ she asked.

The man was annoyed at the question. He didn’t like the idea that the woman seemed to be playing this as a moral issue. She seemed to be implying that, the closer the woman was to his own age, the more ‘right’ his feelings would be.

We don’t generally choose the people we love, they choose us. Also, as survey after survey after survey has shown, men prefer young beautiful women, women prefer men of status. This is a general rule, with of course many exceptions. Men and women, then, are equally but differently shallow. Only, of course, it’s not shallow at all, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. What attracts men, generally, is women of child-bearing age – and the best years of child-bearing, which isn’t the mid thirties but the early twenties, and the years round about. They are the best bearers of the seed.

Now I know this is controversial stuff and some women will argue that it’s all just a self-serving take on sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and that we’re more than just animals, that we’re not merely driven by our instincts, and that we don’t see men – at least not all of them – ditching their partners when they hit menopause and chasing after the young and fruitful.

This is a complex and confusing matter, and I’ve already confused it further by treating sexual desire as if it is love. They are in fact two separate things. You can continue to love someone though you no longer feel sexual desire for her, and this happens, for example in marriage and long-term relationships, much more often than people like to admit. Love, to me, is essentially about empathy and identification. Suffering with he who has suffered, delighting in her delight, I mean really feeling it, being bowled over and knocked about by it. The love thing often interferes or clashes with sexual desire – it’s where commitment and loyalty come in. It’s also supported by mythology. The other day, I heard this remark in a film – ‘when I kissed her lips, I realized that I never wanted to kiss any other lips than hers again’. The fact that this referred to a lesbian relationship might have obscured its underlying traditionalist message, the message from Plato’s Symposium as relayed, no doubt facetiously, by Aristophanes: that love is about finding your other half, the Desire and Pursuit of the Whole.

I for one am unconvinced by this mythology, but who hasn’t been beguiled by it? When you kiss another’s lips for the first time, isn’t it sweeter if you somehow believe these lips are the best ever tasted, the most perfectly matched with your own? Love of this kind is an invigorating, if often harrowing, invention.

This mythologizing of the other is all down to hormones, the women’s magazines tell us, and it lasts no more than a few years at most. After that comes a readjustment of expectations, or a break-up. If the latter occurs, both parties will probably be guided in their next choice by those general categories above-mentioned, youth and beauty for the male, social status for the female, and they will quite likely look askance at each others’ facile, shallow choices. Unless of course, they still love each other, in that empathic way I’ve mentioned. But then, why would they have broken up?

To me, the mature option is to recognize that love and sex really are different, and to cut each other a little slack, as the Americans say. To be mature enough to recognize that having sex with another isn’t necessarily a slap in the face, nor a denial of love. It’s simply a recognition that there are no lips we want to kiss to the exclusion of all others, that variety does spice up life.

It’s often a hard road to hoe, what with jealousy and insecurity, not to mention the effort required to entice new sexual partners to your bed. It’s hardly surprising that most of us give up – if we ever travel that road – and settle into complacent monogamy, spiced up now and then by easy-to-hand fantasies from parties, movies or the internet.

So to return to our fifty-one year old single gent and his sexual pursuits and fantasies. Does he really deserve scorn for showing interest in a woman fifteen years his junior rather than five years his junior? Would he be more ‘moral’ to pursue women closer to his own age? If he fell for a woman of twenty-five, would this be obscene? My own view would be that in a world of mature, consenting adults, let people pursue their objects of desire as they will, and let the cards fall as they may. Tears, longings, mixed and missed messages, rebuffs, hope deferred and heartsickness may follow, along with moments of exhilaration and, with a little luck, contented days. Our gentleman may end up getting just what he deserves. Then again, maybe not.



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