The author of the memoir Things I Should Have Told My Daughter reveals a few crucial relationship moments.
By Pearl Cleage
It was one of those chic Atlanta restaurants where the women wear sky-high heels and tiny little dresses, the men wear well-cut suits, and everybody's hair is perfect. I was having dinner with a group of interesting women. Their ages ranged from 20s to just shy of 60, and their professions included blogger, news anchor, comedian and magazine editor. I fell into an easy conversation with the oldest of them.
Over our second glass of wine, she confided that she and her husband rarely had sex anymore and that she didn't much miss it. I murmured something noncommittal and she raised her eyebrows.
"Well," she said, "How often do you and your husband have sex?"
"Every day," I said, not prepared to lie once the question was on the table.
"Yes," I said. "It's like a basic part of our ongoing conversation."
That part about the ongoing conversation was lost on her as she turned from me and announced to the table at large, "Pearl and her husband have sex every day!"
The collective shriek of disbelief was followed by a barrage of questions. I responded as honestly as I could, although I declined to go into specifics. The details about what goes where and who likes what and when are beside the point, which is the importance of sexual pleasure in nurturing long-term intimacy. The sad fact is that many couples who begin with regular orgasmic exchanges allow those episodes to gradually diminish in frequency, intensity and importance until both partners begin to wonder what all the fuss was about and turn their attention elsewhere. Some people call this marriage.
Single people usually know better, especially when the excitement of courtship and the hope of sex cause both parties to search for ways to ignite similar feelings in the object of their affections. When these efforts are reciprocated, the shared sexual pleasure may become the foundation of a relationship that may evolve into something more lasting, but that's not why single people spend so much time doing it. They do it because good sex is amazing, even if it never leads to anything more than those sweat-soaked perfect moments when you can't get close enough no matter how hard you try.
But married people tend to forget all that. Of course, real life demands attention. Real jobs must be tended to. Real children must be raised. But all of those challenges are easier when there is equal care given to maintaining those get close moments.
So why don't we? That's what I wanted to talk about, but after a few moments of intense questioning, I realized it wasn't going to happen. My new friends viewed my statement as improbable. (She's exaggerating!) Undesirable. (Why would anybody want to have sex that often?) And vaguely inappropriate. (How old did she say she was?)
That's when I remembered what my mother told me when she finished up with the birds and bees discussion.
"How does it feel?" I asked, safe in the space she had created around us and where I knew I could ask her anything.
"If it's someone you want to be with, it feels good," she said. "But if you love the person, it's really wonderful, so hold out for love if you can. It's worth it."
I assured her I would. Of course, I didn't, and I had sexual exchanges that felt really good just like she said they would. Then I fell in love and that's when I understood what my mother was really talking about. It was wonderful. And it's been wonderful for the last 20 years.
Maybe I see sex the way I do is because my mother introduced the subject of pleasure so naturally, the idea stuck. Or maybe because I had the good fortune to meet a man who said he wanted to live in a permanent state of courtship and then did it. Whatever the reason, I was tired of trying to explain. Besides, it was almost 11:30. I had a late date waiting for me at home, and when he asks me how was dinner, I know this story will make him smile.
Pearl Cleage's most recent book is Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs (Atria Books).