Conflating Sex And Intimacy Is A Mistake
In my NYC therapy practice, I often see patients–both individuals and couples–who confuse sex and intimacy. But, sex and intimacy aren’t the same thing. There’s intimate sex and un-intimate sex. There’s intimacy without sex and sex without intimacy.
For some, especially young people and those less experienced with sex (though not only), sex can come with intense feelings and can feel like intimacy. If we see it this way, we make assumptions that many of the tasks of creating intimacy (developing trust, getting to know each other, feeling safe, exploring vulnerability and awkwardness, etc.) have already taken place or are unnecessary. In assuming this, critical parts of these steps can go unattended and one or both partners are less likely to feel close.
This being said, sex can be an expression of intimacy and can exist within the context of intimacy. Being intimate with someone could compel you to want to be sexually closer and having sex might support feelings of intimacy. However, it’s a mistake to conflate the two and assume intimacy is necessarily the driver of sexual attraction or sex automatically produces intimacy.
First, What Is Intimacy?
Before digging into the distinction between sex and intimacy, it seems necessary to define what exactly I mean by intimacy. It’s almost impossible to discuss intimacy without resorting to cheap metaphysical talk about souls, hearts connecting, authenticity or essence, but I’ll try. As a couples therapist, I understand intimacy as being close to someone in a manner that isn’t about what they bring or what they do. It’s not about their cooking, how handsome or beautiful they are or their funny jokes. Deep intimacy is being with someone in their “their-ness.”
It also exists in relationships in which you have moments of complete disregard for your own safety. This is why the wheels come off when people try to have intimacy with unsafe people. In general, we spend most of our time attending to our own safety in some way. In intimacy, that can be let go–at least for a while.
Understanding Sex As Synonymous With Intimacy Can Be Oppressive
The insistence by society that sex must always exist within the context of intimacy is oppressive and negates the fact that all sorts of healthy people throughout the world and history find great pleasure and meaning in sex that isn’t intimate. Lots of people shake off the world’s restrictive notions about sex in significant ways. They believe strongly, for example, that certain kinds of attraction or kink is morally acceptable.
And yet, some individuals and couples still carry, in some semi-hidden corner of their mind, a sense of shame or guilt. Even those who believe deeply that a given activity or preference around sex is morally and spiritually just fine, sometimes guilt sneaks in through tiny cracks and crevices. It’s important to know that this guilt can present itself in unexpected ways. This can be somewhat benign like a lack of interest in sex or more serious such as getting stuck in an unhealthy relationship.
Sex Without Intimacy Can Be Fun, Even For Couples In Serious Relationships
In my NYC therapy practice, my rules around sex are that everyone needs to fully consent to both sex itself and the kind of sex they’re having. I also believe that everyone needs to have fun. Sex without intimacy can be particularly fun. This can be true for partners who don’t have much intimacy or those who are madly in love.
In regards to the latter, there can be all sorts of possibilities for those in a serious relationship when they give themselves permission to let go of the trappings of intimacy and decide together to have fun for the sake of fun. Sex without intimacy, even for married couples or couples in a long-term relationship, can be simpler and less complicated. It can allow couples to relax and focus on their shared enjoyment.
Partners with a lot of intimacy in their relationship can enjoy sex that isn’t built around intimacy. Sex doesn’t have to be the consummation of romantic love–an expression of deep feeling. It can simply be fooling around–a sort of sex that doesn’t in any way necessarily interfere with love.
Friends With Benefits
While not required to have a good time, it is a good plan to be friends with someone you’re having sex with, even if you don’t have intimacy. There’s lots of wisdom about this, often suggesting that friends “just can’t have sex.” My beef in that argument is with the “just.” Lots of friends have great sex together.
Of course, there are new elements in a relationship that are likely to form in the context of sex being introduced in a friendship. Some people can handle that, some people can’t. Just because I believe sex and intimacy are separate things doesn’t mean I don’t recognize sex can change a relationship, can contribute to new kinds of intimacy and therefore, complicate things.