Lauren Slater Essays On Love

Except suppose I was wrong? Suppose there was someone out there with whom I could have passionate sex the rest of my life? So I continued with my conservative Christian, and we had fantastic, obsessive sex while the whole time I waited to see when (or if) this affair would run out of fuel. I prayed that it would, so I could marry the man I loved.

Actually, I never had intercourse with this man, though we did just about everything else. He did not believe in sex before marriage. Therefore, when my fiancé asked me if I was “having sex” with someone (why was I coming home at 3 a.m.?), I could answer “no.” On the Christian man’s end, when his God asked him if he was having sex with someone, he also could answer “no,” and so we both lived highly honest, righteous lives filled with perpetual sex.

But then the inevitable happened. Sex with this man turned tepid, then revolting. While the revolting part was particular to this crazy relationship, the tepid part was wholly within my experience and proved, for me, that there is no God of monogamous passion. Thus freed from the tethers of this affair, I returned to the gentle arms of my pagan husband. We are going on our 10th anniversary. He wants hot sex. I turned tepid long, long ago.

A University of Chicago study published in 1999 found that 40 percent of women suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction, usually low libido. There are treatments for this sort of thing: Viagra or a prescription for testosterone. But the real issue for me is that I’m not sure I have a dysfunction. On the one hand, I am miserable about our lack of a sex life because it makes my husband miserable and cold and withdrawn, and it is so unhappy, living this way. “Have sex with someone else,” I tell him.

“The problem with that,” my husband says, “is falling in love. If you have sex with someone else, you just might fall in love with them.”

“I’d kill you,” I say.

Of course I wouldn’t. But I just might kill myself.

I have no answers for how one exists with almost no sex drive. A gulf of loneliness enters the marriage; the rift it creates is terribly painful. My sincerest hope is that once we make it through these very stressful years, assuming we come out the other end, my husband and I will be able to reconnect.

Until then, I could get treatment, but I’ve had so much treatment — for cancer, for depression — that in this one small area of my life, can I claim, if not health, then at least the absence of pathology?

My first orgasm happened decades ago when I was 19, in a rooming house with a broody bad boy who had a muscular chest and a head roiling with glossy curls. We both loved the Grateful Dead. Every time I slept over, we woke in the mornings and listened to “Ripple,” the clearness of the music, the pure simplicity of it, affirming for me again and again that I was part of a people, a species, capable of creating great beauty.

We’d gone out all summer before the start of our respective freshman years: Not once did he ask me for intercourse, even on our last night together. The very absence of his question underscored its implicit presence. When?

I confided to my roommate that we had not yet done the deed. Hers was a pause of shock. I was afraid. I didn’t want to bleed. Sheer fear of that plunging pain is what held me back.

Instead of telling my would-be lover the truth, I made up an elaborate lie. I was raped. Too traumatized to have sex. I needed more time.

Remembering this now, for the first time in a long time, I do not judge myself. I consider it a great deal to ask of a relatively newly minted woman that she offer her intact body up for this frankly difficult deed.

I also find it interesting that shame, an emotion that’s supposedly deeply rooted in the human limbic system, untouched by time or class, is in fact very much subject to time, class and culture, too. In the 19th century, to be raped was to be shamed, forever. In the late 20th century, to be a virgin was to be shamed. And so I lied, to save my skin.

Except one time, on a May night, through the open window, warm liquid breezes poured over our naked bodies, and then he touched me just so and I tipped into the orgasm and was grasped. This was different from whatever I’d achieved on my own. This was softer, gentler, full of a wide-open love, a deep falling-down love. When it was over, I hated him. I hated that man (that boy, really). The intimacy was too much, too wrenching and shameful.

There is nothing so intimate as the sounds of sex, which are a shared secret between lovers, part of the glue that binds them together. We have our regular speaking voices, and then we have our sexual voices. While these voices may be odd, disturbing, even disorienting, especially if overheard, they serve a special purpose: to bring us close.

My husband’s sounds draw me near to him, when he allows himself to have them, when I do. In the right situation, with the right sanctions, these nighttime sounds — what we say and what we do not — would be preserved, bottled, so they did not wash away with the laundry, the toothpaste foaming down the drain, the home from work at 9 p.m. nights, you angry, me angry.

In our culture, sex has lost its sacred quality. If I were mayor or president, I think I would institute some rules for the good of the American Marriage, a prohibition or two — no touching allowed until Tuesday — because longing springs from distance. It is ironic but also absolutely understandable that proximity can kill sex faster than fainting.

I’ve always found it odd that on a Tuesday night you might go about the bodily act of having sex and then, the next morning, amid a chattering group of children, eat Cheerios. It seems to me that if sex were separated out from the daily wheel of life, it might survive monogamy more intact.

I am a woman in love, but I am not in love with sex. I am in love with glass and stones, with my children, my animals. I am in love with making, as opposed to making love. Someday, I hope to build a house. And inside this house I want to live with my family — my children and animals and husband, whom I love so imperfectly, with so many gaps and hesitations.

The Grim Reaper, who for me is not death but mental illness, visits me from time to time, drawing me down with his sword. And each time this happens I never know if I will return to love. And each time I do I am more grateful than the time before. And so I see my life — my large, unwieldy, disorganized life — as a banquet. So much! So rich!

I AM captivated by things, by solid, actual concrete things that can be assembled, made, whether books or babies. For me, sex does not even come close to the thrill of scoring gorgeous glass for a window I will use, of hearing the grit as the grains separate and the cut comes clean and perfect.

Sex cannot compete with the massive yet slender body of granite I excavated last week, six feet long, this stone, packed with time and stories if only it could speak. I’m going to spend months carving it with a silver chisel. I am going to figure out a way to make this stone into an enormous mantel under which, in the home I share with my husband and the babies we made, our fire will flicker. The stone will give off waves of warmth in the winter, and it will keep the night-coolness captive all through the summer days.

I imagine my mantel, my windows, my glass, my gardens. I cannot believe how lucky I am. I have so very much to do, such wide and persistent passions, so little time in which to explore their many nooks and curves. Here. Now. Don’t bother me. I’m busy.

Continue reading the main story
Correction: December 7, 2008

The Modern Love column last Sunday incorrectly described a piece of granite, which the author said she planned to carve. It is an igneous rock, not sedimentary.

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By Lauren Slater
Photographs by Jodi Cobb
Opening photograph (above) by Pablo Corral Vega
Scientists say that the brain chemistry of infatuation is akin to mental illness—which gives new meaning to "madly in love."

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In the Western world we have for centuries concocted poems and stories and plays about the cycles of love, the way it morphs and changes over time, the way passion grabs us by our flung-back throats and then leaves us for something saner. If Dracula—the frail woman, the sensuality of submission—reflects how we understand the passion of early romance, the Flintstones reflects our experiences of long-term love: All is gravel and somewhat silly, the song so familiar you can't stop singing it, and when you do, the emptiness is almost unbearable.
 
We have relied on stories to explain the complexities of love, tales of jealous gods and arrows. Now, however, these stories—so much a part of every civilization—may be changing as science steps in to explain what we have always felt to be myth, to be magic. For the first time, new research has begun to illuminate where love lies in the brain, the particulars of its chemical components.
 
Anthropologist Helen Fisher may be the closest we've ever come to having a doyenne of desire. At 60 she exudes a sexy confidence, with corn-colored hair, soft as floss, and a willowy build. A professor at Rutgers University, she lives in New York City, her book-lined apartment near Central Park, with its green trees fluffed out in the summer season, its paths crowded with couples holding hands.
 
Fisher has devoted much of her career to studying the biochemical pathways of love in all its manifestations: lust, romance, attachment, the way they wax and wane. One leg casually crossed over the other, ice clinking in her glass, she speaks with appealing frankness, discussing the ups and downs of love the way most people talk about real estate. "A woman unconsciously uses orgasms as a way of deciding whether or not a man is good for her. If he's impatient and rough, and she doesn't have the orgasm, she may instinctively feel he's less likely to be a good husband and father. Scientists think the fickle female orgasm may have evolved to help women distinguish Mr. Right from Mr. Wrong."
 
One of Fisher's central pursuits in the past decade has been looking at love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine. Fisher and her colleagues Arthur Aron and Lucy Brown recruited subjects who had been "madly in love" for an average of seven months. Once inside the MRI machine, subjects were shown two photographs, one neutral, the other of their loved one.
 
What Fisher saw fascinated her. When each subject looked at his or her loved one, the parts of the brain linked to reward and pleasure—the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus—lit up. What excited Fisher most was not so much finding a location, an address, for love as tracing its specific chemical pathways. Love lights up the caudate nucleus because it is home to a dense spread of receptors for a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which Fisher came to think of as part of our own endogenous love potion. In the right proportions, dopamine creates intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention, and motivation to win rewards. It is why, when you are newly in love, you can stay up all night, watch the sun rise, run a race, ski fast down a slope ordinarily too steep for your skill. Love makes you bold, makes you bright, makes you run real risks, which you sometimes survive, and sometimes you don't.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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