Sexless in the City

Sometimes reading romance novels doesn’t quite prepare you for a love life...

For this 30-year-old urbanite, love is always a misadventure: The Harvard Lickwit, Hippie the Groper, the 5% Man, and the Ad Weasel. These and many other men wander in and out of her life — but never her bed.

Monday, January 30, 2006

In search of the cool

Dear Anna,

I’m out at a bar/club. I strike up a conversation with an attractive female, or vice versa. It becomes unmistakably clear through the course of our conversation that she would be willing to go home with me. I go outside and have a cigarette before telling her I have to leave. Maybe I get her number if she gives it to me, but I don’t call. I go home depressed that I can’t find a girl that isn’t willing to go home with a guy on the first night. How do I meet a genuinely cool girl?

Best Regards,
Mr. Uneasy
Dear Mister:
How come I never met guys like you back in my bar-trolling days? Kidding ... But seriously, I commend your respect for women, if that’s what this is. And I commiserate with your frustration. Because I do, I’m going to answer this two ways: both from a more Jesus-minded idealism and also in a pragmatic sense.

It’s a funny thing: for all that time I spent doing the bar scene, hoping I’d meet some cool guy, I never stopped to consider if I was the sort of woman a cool guy’d be attracted to. Partly I was struggling to believe that I was worthy of a good man, but there was also plenty of ego involved. I thought of myself as a catch and was so focused on whether or not potential men measured up to my standards, whether they could meet my needs, I never reflected on whether I was prepared to serve the needs of another.

My emphasis, in other words, was “Do you have what I need to get?” not, “Do I have what you need to get?” Which I know sounds like, for me as a woman to say it, I’m merely playing into patriarchal mysogyny. But if God were to bring me a man who’s going the same direction I want to, I’m fairly sure that guy would be just as other-oriented as I’m trying to learn to be. It would be mutual self-donation, not just the woman serving the man who serves himself. If I’m worried about how well my husband is donating himself to me, that’s not very unconditional, is it? But at the same time, loving someone that way doesn’t mean enabling them in abusing you, taking advantage of your generosity, and so on. Holistic love both covers up a multitude of wrongs and draws boundaries and confronts the loved one when he crosses those lines.

When you start to show such kindness to people even if they don’t seem that deserving, it can be very transformative. Something like that happened to me right after I launched this blog. He might not have met me in a bar but my conversation implied that my standards were not much better than that girl you didn’t call. So what did he do? Did he just duck out the back door quietly? Did he use me for casual banter and a release of sexual tension? No — at least for the most part. Instead that guy kept reading the blog (which was how he had found me) and gradually opened his life to me in friendship. Which was less than I wanted, sure, but also in some ways much, much more.

As I got used to the notion of a man who could give me attention without it having to be so sexual, I gained the courage to cut back on attention-seeking behaviors that had so profoundly disregarded my deepest desires. Sure, your woman at the bar might have been up for sex, but probably because she’s used to that being the terms of relating to men. Whether or not you like the terms, at least when you have mastered them it gives you more discretion over how much you are used. Many women use or even introduce sex in relationships to give themselves a sense of control; a way of protecting against rejection and other kinds of slights.

Advice born from idealism
Perhaps to find the kind of woman you want you have to show her that with you, sex is not a prerequisite for relationship. You might find she’s quite relieved to learn that. Weirded out too, perhaps, because you’re denying her a major source of control, but over time a woman who’s wise will learn she doesn’t need the defense of manipulation when she’s found a good man. That’s been the case with my friend, anyway. The further our friendship’s gone without him freaking out at stuff I’m afraid he’ll despise me for, the more I’ve gained the courage to be honest. It’s kind of like crossing a river, stone by stone, you know? You test them one by one and as each proves to bear your weight, you find the courage to try the next until one day you look up and find you’ve gone much further than you thought you would.

So what if you started relating to some of those women you meet as if they had more worth and value than they probably see in themselves? What if, more radically, one night you had the courage to let a woman know she’s worth more than using for a one-night stand or the sort of short-term relationship that’s easily tossed away? Because — really — even if it’s her “easiness” that dismays you, you’re still showing more respect by not taking advantage of that than using her for what she’d give in a desperate play for your affection. In other words, don’t just not take her number, or take her number and then never call — explain as gently but candidly as you feel moved why you’re not following through on this fleeting but flirty connection.

But that’s a little bit radical, I realize. Or maybe quite a lot in fact. Another change you could make is to start looking beyond bars. Interesting, caring people tend to attract a circle of likewise cool friends. Don’t overlook your existing social network. Your married friends, if happily so, not only have other friends than you, they probably want to see their friends participate in the joy they share.

Advice if you dig pragmatism
And then there’s always bonding around shared passions:
  • One Brick connects volunteers with various causes needing help in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Activities I’ve done with them include raking leaves in Central Park, painting a public school, sorting toys for a Christmas give-away, and sorting clothes and books donated to a church in Astoria. After each event, volunteers usually go for drinks or a meal — a good way to chat up that cute girl you just worked beside.
  • Join a car club, the more specialized the better. I hear Porsch, Benz, Beemer and Land Rover clubs have especially tight community. You never know what sort of grease monkey-loving women such clubs might attract.
  • While I have no personal experience with Meet Up, I’ve heard folks of all kinds use it as a way to connect with others who share their interests.
  • If your interest is simply community and New York is your home, check out the Lunch Club. It brings together people of all ages for lunches, dinners, poker nights and a growing welter of other fun activities.
  • When all else fails, try coffee shops and Apple stores. Both are contenders to be the new bar, except with more daylight and less buzz — surely better conditions for meeting someone you could date more than one or two times.
Bottom line: lead an interesting life, and you tend to meet interesting people. Focus more on what you can do for others than how well they meet your needs, and sometimes you might be surprised how well you are provided for.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Sex and death, pt. 2

And now the conclusion to Sex and death, pt. 1.

Clearly plenty hedonists agree with me that sex looks damn near the best of this world’s good stuff. But that charade also puts the heat on all we folks supposedly faced more toward the future than the present. Just what is it we’re passing up for, um, God? The older you get, the longer you’re single, the worse it gets. Sometimes it seems like you’re literally smelling the smoke of your share of good stuff slowly burning up because God forgot to light the fire of your youth until you had a lover at your side to share it with. Right? Can I hear an Amen? Oh, sorry. Sometimes Mingus makes me forget myself.

But seriously, that’s where this blog came from. A girl torn between the world-renouncement she thought a God it was mighty hard to believe in, much less trust, asked her to do, and what seemed to be her dwindling share of what good was for certain in this world she was sposed to believe isn’t all there is. Somewhere along the line that forces you to a reckoning. And if you believe those are your two options — embrace the world or have nothing to do with it — that reckoning produces either things like repression and undue conservatism or hasty marriage, masturbation, technical virgins (if you still try to hold to your faith), or, if you’re honest, recanting all faith and choosing sex over God.

But notice I said if you believe your two options are renouncing or embracing. What if we’ve gotten that wrong? In Christianspeak, the distinction I’ve been talking about is often put in terms of the world and heaven, the world and the kingdom. Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom, especially in Matthew. But he didn’t have the either/or split it’s so easy to lapse into. His vision of the kingdom involved faithfulness now — important work to be done in the present — that somehow prepared the workers for and connected them to the glorious kingdom coming in full in the future. In other words, present labor and good stuff connected to even-better good stuff in the future. Not one versus the other.

Interestingly, a metaphor Jesus often used in his parables or stories of the kingdom is cultivation. Which implies both lack (imperfection, brokenness) and worth (since a harvest will come from this ground). But also sowing instead of necessarily reaping; giving instead of taking. Recall that I started this off by discussing the typical obsession with maximizing our own personal share of what good’s to be gotten in life or afterlife. Both world-renouncing and world-embracing typically encourage if not rely on such selfishness. Because of that, attempts to address disparities in goods-distribution can be half-hearted and even self-serving (driven more by one’s self-righteousness than a true concern with justice or compassion for the needy). After all, for most of us the drive to maximize pleasure is fueled by an obsessive escapism — a need to insulate ourselves against the pain and suffering of this life. How much benevolence is a token gesture to address overwhelming problems merely so we can justify ignoring their gravity most of the time?

This then is how mere good things become our gods — by promising a temporary escape from all that misery, they become our stopgap saviors. I used to think loneliness and silence were some of the worst things about life, because they were the worst things in my life. Only the family a marriage and sex could produce seemed like the antidote to that. But as I began realizing this summer, should I obtain such good things, the good news of that “acquisition” is good only for me, not most other people (except those for whom it makes me an easier person to get along with). And furthermore, the most it can provide is an escape — it hasn’t fixed the underlying brokenness that produced the conditions of loneliness and silence that drove me to idolize sex and marriage in the first place.

For all these reasons, I find myself increasingly drawn to Jesus’ image of cultivation. It both affirms my sense of the beauty and pleasure in life (its worth) while acknowledging the painful reality of how imperfect and fleeting are those joys (its lack). And it frees me from needing to use good things as medication against the pain (hence the increasingly addictive consumption or pursuit of my fix of choice). Instead I can merely enjoy them as the temporal blessings they are. Furthermore, a world-cultivating attitude means thinking about just that — the good of the whole and the healing of it, not just what’s good for me. It’s a curb against the envy when others get the things I think I “need” while I do not.

And it means life need not turn boring and humdrum should I wind up with a family. If it’s not just about my needs and happiness, the adventures don’t end with attaining my goals and dreams, but encompass seeking the flourishing and healing of others (so much as it depends on me). For that’s the other thing I feared just as much as dying a virgin, you see — that if and when I did get married, I’d still be stuck with the rest of a life and no more adventures to have; a purpose fulfilled and run out before my days themselves were up. Perhaps that’s why I was secretly so scared to get the one thing I said I wanted above all else. But if my purpose increasingly is fulfilled by hewing to Jesus’ world-cultivating model, I can have a meaningful life until my death — whether or not sex is a part of it (though, really, it’s not the sex as much as it is the intimacy that matters). So no, Brent, I’m not less committed to abstinence, and I won’t say that that absence has lost its sting, but what I feel less and less is the faux deprivation of living without a nonessential good that one has made a life-sustaining god.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Notice to NY readers

Normally I don’t do this dahlings, but last night I saw such a fantastic comedy in the theater, I had to recommend it to everyone I know living in or near New York. Seriously. It’s that funny. I went with five other women, and we laughed uproariously throughout the entire show. All of us were absolutely delighted. Certainly a reminder how joyous theater can be. And at $15/seat, this is a real bargain!

Only in performance two more weekends, so catch it before it’s gone:

Dog in the Manger (adapted from Lope de Vega)
Sanford Meisner Theater
164 11th Ave. (btw. 22nd/23rd Sts.)
Jan. 22, 27, 28; Feb. 3, 4
Tickets online at Theatremania, more on the company at

So go, already! Tell ’em Anna Broadway sent ya.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Sex and death, pt. 1

Gee, it’s only been two weeks since I posted last. Guess it might be time for something new, eh? Sorry, dahlings ... so much going on in the last month. Roommate drama, sleeping by shotguns, seeing Sis before she deploys shortly, fending off advances from the chap I like to call Strong Pursuer ... and the small matter of pondering where the heck this blog is going. It is, after all, something like 18 months old by now. And, really, keeping up the same line all that time — if that’s what I’ve done — might suggest some immaturity after a while. God forbid you should think ill of me.

But public image aside, some days I think I’ve almost worked out almost all the sexual tension once so ubiquitous on this blog — well, most of it, anyway. And no, that’s not due to sedatives in the food (which I hear they give the boys at boot camp; makes things simpler all around). A god has been displaced, so to speak. How’s that, you say? Well, let’s talk life for a minute.

From a time standpoint, one thing we’re sure of is that we each have a finite span of days to live; evidence is pretty clear on that point, right? Just as the facts are equally emphatic about that bit of days directly preceding us (parents, ancestors, world history and all that). At the point of death for all people so far, there is another stretch that follows them (children, descendents, more history and such). But depending on how you view things, there’s either a divergence or not at that point: the dead person goes on to some sort of post-life existence (good, bad or prolonged) while life on earth continues ... or life on earth is the only time line following death. Grim thoughts, I know, but bear with me.

Now when it comes to good stuff, most of us are reasonably confident it exists, right? But what it is and when you get it, that there’s some disagreement on. For those in the post-death extinction camp, it’s pretty clear that life is your only chance to take in good stuff. Hence hedonism, hence sucking the marrow out of life, and such views. Within such a view, it’s safe to say there’s equally strong consensus the good stuff gets doled out disproportionately in this life. Not much you can do about that, except try to share sometimes, and make sure you get enough for yourself.

But for those who think there’s any sort of life after death — on earth as well as for the dead — things get a little complicated. You’ve still got the unfair-distribution problem regarding good stuff on earth, but if you believe there’s life after death, is there good stuff to be had in that spell of days, or not? This is where the world-renouncing camp emerges: that group of people who think the post-death good stuff is actually better than the good stuff life has to offer, so there’s little point getting too caught up with the whole business of life. It’s like that relationship you maintain while waiting for your real soul mate to come along.

In theory, the split between the world-renouncing and the world-embracing camps would closely track the life-death-extinction/life-death-life divide I talked about earlier. But not always so. After all, there’s this thorny problem of certainty. No one’s really come back after death to verify what happens, so both sides — both — are forced into a faith position. Which for the life-death-extinction crowd might mean you try to do a few good things here and there in case there’s any sort of post-life investment program it might be good to save toward, or some sort of, uh, reckoning after death. But for the life-death-life crowd — if that view (supposedly) goes along with renouncing the goods and joys of this world — it means sometimes you start to eye the apparently quite-fun goods of this world a little uncertainly.

Ultimately, I think that’s where a lot of the problem with sex has happened for the Christian tradition. The leadership has tended to decide that since we’re life-death-lifers, we should also be world-renouncers. And while we’re renouncing the “goods” of this world in quasi-Buddhist fashion, we might as well renounce sex as one of the least-fulfilling, most-deceptive and therefore destructive “goods” to be had. Well, OK, maybe that’s slight caricature. But still. A church that’s trying to marshal people around this vision of future ultra-good good stuff (because supposedly that’s the best way to compel our good behavior, which of course is the chief function of the church) will be inclined to demean this world’s goods. Otherwise, you get people like Lot’s wife, who should have been looking toward the future and instead looked back to the part of this world she was leaving, and turned into a pillar of salt! Salt, mind you! (Which was clearly not at all what Jesus meant in that part about being the salt of the earth.)

I’ll admit I’ve been setting up something of a straw man here, but personally I think both extreme world-renouncing and extreme world-embracing are out of balance. In their own way, both tend toward extreme selfishness. Cause who doesn’t want good stuff? We all do. Even us un-admitting masochists. So, depending on where we think it’s at and where it’s gotten (now or later, by grasping or virtue), we put all our energies toward getting it. And this is where sex comes in. Even if, supposedly, you should be in the world-renouncing camp, it’s hard not to notice all the power here. I mean, what, beside what water does to the ground, is possessed of equal life-making force as sex? And it sure seems to be a good time — people hollering and moaning in the closest approximate to non-narcotic ecstasy most of us have probably ever seen (which is why, I’m telling you, more people should listen to Joe Cocker).

.... And check back next week for the riveting conclusion!! Sex and death, pt. 2!!