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Sexual Isn't Sensual: The Word I Want Back

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We all have our own ways of coping with bad days, I guess.

Some might phone a friend or family member to let off steam. Others might head to the bar to tipple away their workday worries, or splurge on dinner out at a favorite sushi joint.

You can find me in the perfume store.

No, not the headache-inducing ether of Perfumania (yech) or even Sephora. I'm talking about the little-known creators of luxury fragrance: Tiny scent artisans like Le Labo, Atelier Cologne, and Frederic Malle own my heart. Moderately bad days call for a fragrance-sniffing foray and maybe a sample or two from their small stores in New York, but the really awful, terrible, no-good variety of day often results in a full-bottle purchase, squeezing my already-tight budget even further.

This innocent, albeit costly, attachment to things that smell good isn't the only way senses rule my world. If we were to go shopping together, you'd notice that I finger the fabrics of the clothes before even looking at them: It's always touch first, look later. And if you peek inside my purse, you're likely to find a little bottle of truffle oil stashed away -- just in case some lackluster fries need emergency resuscitation.

Maybe you'd describe this behavior as hedonism. I actually don't know what to call it because the word I once would have used to describe my love of smell and taste and things that feel good on the skin is now mostly associated with sex: Sensual.

The synonyms for sensual are pathetically incongruous with the world I've just described: X-rated. Animal. Animalistic. Arousing. Bodily. Carnal. Debauched. Exciting. Fleshly. Hedonic. Hot. Lascivious. Lecherous. Lewd. Libidinous. Licentious. Lustful. Rough. Sensuous. Sexual. Sexy. Steamy. Stimulating. Unchaste. Unspiritual. Voluptuous.

Since when did a word I associate with the finer things in life -- with femininity, sophistication, and finding stuff that makes you happier to be alive -- start hanging out in the red light district?

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with sex. I'm an avid (if selective) consumer of that, too. I just think it's different. It's a related desire, but it's not the same.

Grammar fiends will tell you that my annoyance with sensual's apparent identity crisis is a bit misguided. It's true: the technical word for aesthetic pleasure of the non-sexual kind is sensuous (which, you'll notice, is a synonym listed above). Sensual was imbued with more lewd connotations hundreds of years ago, so Milton created sensuous to serve as a more chaste form of the word.

I appreciate Milton's effort, but much like the Academie Francaise hasn't succeeded in getting the French to call an email a "couriel," sensuous never really caught on the way it should have. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a person outside academia or the Modern Language Association who could explain the difference off the top of her head. Which means that if I try to explain my sensuous after-work activities to a friend, I sound more like I have a penchant for erotic massage than hibiscus shampoo.

Maybe it's the abundance of nonfiction extolling the power of the "Divine Feminine" I've been reading, but I can't help thinking that letting sensuality become synonymous with sex says something sad about our culture -- and the way we view sense-triggered emotion. Why can't we have a simple word that describes physical passions beyond the sexual? Does that mean we think those passions aren't important?

I'm not saying that sensuality shouldn't encompass sexual desire -- of all the physical thrills, sex certainly is one of the most profound. But there are so many other sensual pleasures -- the taste of that first sip of wine, the sensation of shedding your work stilettos for a pair of slippers, the first whiff of flowers at the cusp of spring -- that could never be described as lecherous, lewd, lascivious, and so on.

There are plenty of other terms out there to signify unadulterated carnal desire, sexual for starters. So why can't we reclaim sensuality for what it originally meant in Latin: "endowed with feeling"?

Unless the fine nuance between sensual and sensuous becomes recognized by more than just the word purists among us -- unlikely, I realize -- I'll continue to be a sensualist. And when, after a particularly bad day, I descend the glass stairs at Barney's and gaze contentedly at the glass trays of fragrance displayed in front of me, I'll just smile at the bemused saleswoman across the counter.

"I'm sorry. I really love this stuff," I'll say awkwardly, wishing there was a simple word to convey much more.

SLIDESHOW: My Sensual Pursuits

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