Relationships, sexuality, and sexual intercourse

Principal author:
John L. Clark


I quite hate the way the dominant culture currently labels things as "relationships".

I wonder if, when you read the title of this article, some part of you thought that all three of those things were essentially the same thing.

I really like talking about language. Ever more do I realize that our language, our view of the world, and the way we live in that world are all intimately woven together, and so I believe that it is crucially important to be pointedly conscious of each of these. Today I'm going to start with language. I turn my critical gaze on the current use of the phrase "a relationship", in particular when it is commonly used to characterize a (human) person as being "in a relationship".

In the mathematical sense, a relationship is some property that holds between certain individuals (that is, a member of a relation that defines a set of all such cohorts that fit that property). Yes, yes, I know, math just models the world. But still, it's a rather useful model. Lots of things and more can be modeled as relationships (and relations). It's an extremely general tool. Thankfully our culture hasn't completely thrown this useful concept out the window, and so, for example, we still sometimes talk about "relatives" as "relations" (so it's generally useful to say that my Dad has the father relationship with me). The world is rich with many possible relationships of manifold varieties!

Yeah, that's all very interesting, but when people in the dominant culture (as of this writing) talk about being "in a relationship" with another person, they mean something very specific. There, such language generally implies a reciprocated sexual relationship with some degree of commitment. I believe that sexual relationships can be beautiful and healthy things; my problem here is the general understanding that the primary, default relationship is a sexual one, and that all others are less important.

With this usage, if I (for example) am not in a relationship in this dominant sense, then I am not in any relationships. That would make me a non-entity, totally disconnected. This use wipes out (or, less melodramatically, subsumes) every other sort of relationship. And, if we look around at the results of this language and this world view, we see so many people in fact defining themselves by whether they are in a sexual relationship with someone, and suffering greatly if and when they are not. When someone speaks with great reverence about being "in a relationship", I mourn all the other fundamental, beautiful relationships that this use silently elides and discards, and I further mourn the damage they are doing to themselves and their communities in the process.

It would, of course, be extremely interesting to explore the origins and other history of this tragic cultural artifact. Maybe I'll do that sometime, and you're welcome to chime in with your thoughts, if you like.

Now, there's a second oddity going on here. Many people that I converse with refuse to agree that when they talk about "relationships", they actually mean "sexual relationships", even when these "relationships" are clearly about some combination of attraction, sexual expression, and commitment. It seems that whenever they perceive something described as sexual, they interpret that as meaning only having to do with copulation. And we run into the extremely frustrating and destructive social void that is the taboo surrounding expressing frank awareness of the full reality of sexual expression. Here again my purpose is not to dismiss the beauty, vitality, and wonder of physical sexual intimacy, but rather to point out how important it is to understand that being sexual is far more than simply copulating with others.

All of this is, in my (not at all humble) estimation, grotesque on its face, because it simulataneously prioritizes sexual relationships over all others at the same time as it conflates sexuality with copulation. Wow! Thus the dominant culture has just taken at least three extremely distinctly beautiful concepts (for those keeping score at home: relationships, sexuality, and sexual intercourse) and slammed them into each other with such force so as to fuse them into insane radioactive sludge, at which point the result is not beautiful at all.

Yeah, the dominant culture's entire perspective on sexuality is deeply misguided and broken (but I repeat myself); I certainly do want to dig into this further (with a particular eye to the nuances of how commitment is, heh, related to sexuality), but my main point here is to invite you to reflect on this particular use of language as a symbol of our culture and our lives, and all that that implies.

It's also tempting for me, at this point, to run a survey on the ways in which we express our sexuality in our lives, but I'm going to largely save that for later, I think. I do want to emphasize, though, that when two people are formally and mutually considering each other as a sexual partner (what I would call courting each other), that itself is driven by our natural sexuality, and so it is reasonable to call that a sexual relationship, irrespective of the details of their physical intimacy (for example, if the participants presently eschew intercourse for any number of reasons). This allows us to then apply our awareness, as a community, to the ways in which our sexuality is useful and valuable for us, while at the same time allowing valuable symbolic space for the recognition and appreciation of the richness of relationships available to us, and to others. It further allows us to recognize that we can and should explore how we can healthily express our sexuality without depending solely on copulation. As always, it turns out that building up a useful model that keeps distinct things distinct also helps us live our lives in healthy and beneficial ways. What a shock.

Work to support a clear, truthful, and good world through your perspective, your actions, as well as your language, as each supports the others. One of many useful places to start is to perceive and discuss sexuality for what it is.

This page was first published on 2013-07-10 19:55:00-04:00.

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