In her teens and 20s, she saw sex as a simple game of conquest. Today she'd rather stay home than wake up with a stranger. What changed? Lisa Dierbeck traces her evolution from vamp to veteran.
I don't believe in casual sex. It's not that I'm opposed to it exactly, it's just that -- in my own experience -- no such thing exists. If it's not emotional, I'm not interested. For me, sex without feeling is an empty ritual, a cold, mechanical exchange that leaves me lonely and depressed. Given the choice between that and solitude, I prefer to be alone.
Even the phrase "casual sex" has a hollow ring that bothers me. It's a contradiction in terms. Where's the casual part? I've thrown casual dinner parties, serving Chinese takeout on paper plates. I've worn casual clothes to plush offices on Fridays. But applied to relationships, casual is a code word for apathy. If someone says, "This is only physical," my translation is: "I don't care about you." Forget casual. The more accurate word is heartless.
Sex strikes me as too intense a venture to be taken lightly. Thrilling and uncertain, it involves baring your soul, not just tearing off your clothes. Because sexuality is a powerful, anarchic force over which we have little control, it's soothing to pretend it's no big deal. I used to be blasé about it. I treated sex like a swimming pool. Instead of hesitating, I always plunged right in. Now, as a reformed tramp at 40, I look back at my wild ways and wonder what planet I was on. I have more respect for sex, its hazards and surprises. Watch out for that sweet dark-eyed hunk at the watercooler; he may turn out to be a mean, manipulative jerk. And if you're hell-bent on a casual liaison, you might miss that shy, bespectacled geek at your local library who could set your heart aflame and worship you. Either way, a sexual experience is unpredictable. Offering a rare chance to feel transcendence -- an ecstatic state that transports people outside themselves -- the sexual embrace has a strong spiritual side. Whatever happens, having sex with someone changes you.
I didn't always think this. For a long time, I saw sex without strings as the key to independence. I was raised in 1970s New York, a rollicking, amoral, sex-crazed place. The decade introduced freedoms undreamed of by my grandmother Lillian, who'd been taught to close her eyes chastely during intercourse and contemplate her rose garden. Claiming the right to an appetite was a critical step forward for women. But in our eagerness to take the guilt out of sex and let it be natural and healthy, we might have gotten a little carried away. During my childhood, the rules were suspended while the Sexual Revolution swept through town. Our teenage sisters lurked in hotel lobbies, stalking rock stars. Our moms and dads frolicked at key parties. Our high school teachers took their students to bed, and no one got sued or fired. My friends and I roamed the streets of Manhattan incautiously, a reckless pack of underage girls dressed to kill, in platform shoes and hot pants. My single burning ambition was to be a sex kitten. As ambitions go, it was pretty easy to accomplish.
It took me many years to figure out that I wasn't who I was pretending to be. Outwardly, I'd become a bold, brazen adventuress who made a habit of propositioning men she hardly knew. I'd hand my phone number to a guy at a party, arrange to meet him on his doorstep, spend an hour or two in his apartment, and slip away. Every time I did this, I felt a curious combination of victory and devastation. I was afraid of something that I couldn't pinpoint, and I wasn't nearly as frisky and footloose as I acted. I was a confused young woman who had trouble trusting men. Easy sex was a tactic to keep men at arm's length by treating them as conquests. If this sounds like something a guy might do, it was. Alarmed by the power imbalance between men and women, I thought sleeping around would even up the score. I wore my sexuality like a protective suit of armor. My swaggering bravado was a put-on. I led a rather sad, disconnected life—until I mustered up the courage to let my guard down. I can't help wondering now if maybe there are some women out there, like me, putting on this same kind of act, suppressing their passion and vulnerability. I believe women today are under pressure to reinvent them, to conform to a bed-hopping, no-strings ethos that's in vogue.
Now that the love affair has been replaced by the booty call, it's fashionable to treat sex as something without weight or meaning. Our aggressively modern culture has chipped away at our collective faith in romance. Decades ago, "The Joy of Sex" made history with its illustrated, step-by-step recipes for lovemaking. It was a useful, practical source of information, except for one colossal error. Unlike cooking, sex isn't a hobby. People aren't playthings. They're richly intricate creatures full of good and evil impulses, psychological conflicts and contradictions. Sometimes we insist upon a "casual relationship" to deny the uncomfortable truth: Sex is complicated.
As a society, we've tried to simplify things by separating physical pleasure from emotional attachment. At the same time, we've started to confuse sexiness with physical perfection. While we're running off to our plastic surgeons for Botox injections and breast implants, we've forgotten that what's really sexy can't be bottled. It's an inner spark that's as distinctive as your personality. Being hot is a state of mind, and it's subjective. It takes two to generate heat. Desire demands emotion.
In fact, the alchemy of attraction is so personal and inexplicable, no one fully understands it. Poets, playwrights, and novelists have spent centuries trying to grasp it. A how-to guide can teach you how to have a bigger, better orgasm. A vial of Viagra can "enhance performance" so you can sex around the clock. But there's no secret formula for what floats your boat, or who. Ever since I stopped leaving my heart on the bedside table, I've thought of sex as mystical. Romantics like me may be an endangered species, but instead of trying to blend in at the swingers' parties, let's stand up and be counted.
Lisa Dierbeck is the author of The Autobiography of Jenny X (Picador).