There are so many moments in our sexual upbringing, most of them unforgettable—although we may dearly wish we could forget them—that it's difficult to remember what our lives were like before having experienced them. The way we think, talk, and have sex wouldn't be the same were it not for that mortifying moment when we had to admit, to the entire playground, that we had no idea 69 stood for other than 70 take-away one, or the terrifying realization that our parents might actually do it. I, for one, will never forget when my mother sat my third-grade self down to tell me that when people were in love they did some very special things together, explaining—fact for fact—exactly what sexual intercourse entailed. Mom, I was nine. The only thing I could think, aside from how scary you could sometimes be, was "ewww."
But however scarring the open-minded, let's-talk-gross-details part of the conversation might have been, there is something else that has stuck with me. My mom talked about sex and love. I don't talk sex and love; in fact, I've gotten into fights with ex-boyfriends about whether or not sex is an act of love. The relationship between sex and love is far from simple—not even Freud could come up with a concrete model for how they interact.
It is rare for college students to have sex with people they're genuinely in love with. Nevertheless, each one of us has to navigate the connections between love and sex. There's an old saying that women need to be in love to have sex, but men need to have sex to show their love. And while this may sometimes hold true—many of the couples I know experience this very conundrum—it oversimplifies our sex lives. Emotion invariably changes the way we have sex, but those changes differ from person to person and situation to situation.
Not needing to be in love to have sex isn't necessarily the same as not needing intimacy to have sex. A single friend of mine recently confessed that he was only comfortable having sex with close friends. Sex with friends seems to make sense: friends know each other well and often harbor deeper, hidden emotions. The truth is, though, that sex with friends does little to avoid emotional complication. Unless two friends truly feel the same way about each other, sex inevitably complicates the friendship. Sure, I've seen friends easily transition from "friends with benefits" into a relationship, and I've even been in situations where sex with a friend changed absolutely nothing about the friendship. But I've also seen friendships fall apart simply because the two friends couldn't communicate about their differing emotions.
At the other end of the spectrum, random hook-ups allow us to have sex without intimacy—at least at first. They appear to us as a means of receiving sexual pleasure without any of the emotional complications. We like to say that unattached sex is a sign of our independence, our strong sense of sexual identity. But as many of us know all too well, the sex/love conflict can easily strike again. We fall to pieces, unhappy with ourselves for getting involved in the first place.
Sex comes with some fundamental expectations, such as physical pleasure and the satisfaction of knowing that somebody wants to be in bed with you. The set of expectations we have for ourselves rarely changes—what does change is the set of expectations we have for our partners. When we are emotionally invested, or in love, we assume that the sex will automatically be better. In reality, emotions tend to make it that much more difficult to be in tune with each other.
Love raises the bar, but in doing so makes that bar harder to reach. With friends, we expect each other to feel and act the same way about the sex and are disappointed and angry when it doesn't work out. And while we like to think random hook-ups avoid all complications, we secretly expect our partners to want something more.
If the interactions between love and sex shape so many aspects of our sex lives, what makes the gross minutiae of my mom's conversation with me so easy for us to talk about and the more important connection between love and sex so difficult?
The thing is, talking about the pros and cons of body hair or how to avoid cock-blocking only skims the surface of a much deeper issue facing college students. As much as it frustrates me, the random-hook-up-intensive world we live in is not surprising. We do it again and again because we're scared to try anything else. There is so much we want to feel, yet we are terrified of those feelings. But the idea that hook-ups are any less emotionally taxing than real relationships is an illusion. As difficult as it may seem, it's worth taking a plunge.