One of the great burdens which our Romantic
culture has imposed upon long-term relationships is the idea that love and sexual fulfillment
must always, if things are working as they should, fit neatly together. This beautiful
and hugely convenient idea raises a passionate hope that over many years two people will
not only like and help one another, manage their domestic finances reasonably well, perhaps
raise a family, have enjoyable holidays, understand one another’s problems, schedule cleaning
rotas, put up with each other’s failings, see each others’ parents and friends and
pursue their careers in harmony, but they will also be devoted and exciting sexual partners,
endlessly entwining and recombining, sometimes being gentle and slow, at others, brutal and
urgent, travelling together on a shared, life-long erotic adventure. It’s this sublime idea
that begins to torment us when – as is the case in almost every relationship – sex
starts with time to get at once less intense and less frequent, more cautious and more
frustrating, more at odds with daily life and eventually definitively more daunting
as a prospect than reading a book, watching the news together or simply going to sleep.
This can appear nothing short of a catastrophe, a sign of monstrous failing and very often
a prelude to a break-up. And yet the problem is not ours alone. It is simply that almost
everything that can make love go well seems primed not to make sex go well – and vice
versa. We are afflicted by a fundamental misalignment in the qualities of character and spirit required
by good sex on the one hand and successful love on the other. A relationship cannot survive
in the long term without tenderness, soberness, practical intelligence and selective resignation.
We have carefully to fathom another’s motives, explain our moods, overcome hurts and sulks
and assume a mantle of predictability. Sex on the other hand, in its most dramatic, thrilling
versions, demands that we be heedless, decadent, perhaps cruel or untenably submissive. It
can involve the crudest language and moments of sublime degradation. In having to suffer
from feelings of inadequacy around what happens in long-term love, we are the victims of major
cultural failure: the failure of our surrounding culture to continually stress a realistic
picture of an unavoidable tension between two crucial yet incompatible themes of existence.
In a wiser world, we would collectively admit that the very rare cases where love and sex
did run together were astonishing exceptions with no relevance whatsoever to most of our
lives. We would instead learn to pay admiring attention to those who had accepted with a
reasonable show of dignity and grace that the natural price of long-term togetherness
is a decline in the quality and frequency of sexual contact – and that this is, in
a great many cases, a price very much worth paying. Our Sex book explores how sex truely operates. and that far from thinking about sex too much, we haven’t begun to think about it nearly enough.