Dear Gillian: I'm looking for love but I'm just finding sex

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 5:39pm

Dear Gillian,

Sometimes it feels like I’m constantly ‘looking for love.’ However, I have lost sight of what that truly means. In this day filled with Tinder, hookup culture and increased sexuality, how can I look for love with all this sex in the way? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity for sex but I often feels like it gets in the way of finding a relationship. I've never been good at finding the love part, and the sex part just seems to complicate it for me. I desire both but one seems like an immediate gratification and the other seems like exit out of a long complicated maze. Please send me advice on how to navigate between desire for sex and longing for love. Are they mutually exclusive? Is it possible to be on the hunt for sex and find love along the way? Or do I have this whole thing upside down? Please help.

— Lovelorn and Lonely

Dear Lovelorn and Lonely,

People have been sitting around musing on the topic of what love and sex do to and for each other since Eryximachus proposed that for the post-feast entertainment in Plato’s “Symposium,” everyone should belt out a little oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. This wine-fueled series of exegeses on the subject yielded some thought-provoking opinions that have stood the test of time. But they were so wide-ranging that the only conclusion from them is that there is no coherent consensus on the topic, one which is destined to dominate everyone’s little black book of eternal mysteries of human existence.

Plato — well, the words of the prophetess Diotima through Socrates’ speech — posits that the erotic desire of romantic love cannot be satisfied by sex and is really an existential yearning to transcend our own beings and mortality. Exactly what you have in mind every time you bring someone home, right?

Then there’s Aristophanes’ creation myth of primordial beings with two bodies in one before they were split in half by the gods, leaving a world of “individuals” trying to fuse back together with their other halves. This stands now, 2500 years later, as not only one of the most striking metaphors on the topic, but also as a bountiful source of pickup lines at Rick’s. 

The mystery was not solved by Xenophon’s response to Plato (also titled “Symposium”), nor in the many Symposia since. Heaven knows that in the Symposium held at my house last year featuring History Prof. David Halperin’s students in togas, the love/sex mystery was hopelessly compounded and shrouded in a dense enigmatic fog that, for many of us, has yet to lift.

A little later, Aristotle maintains in his “Prior Analytics” that erotic desire is actually more a desire for love than it is a desire for sexual intercourse. If Aristotle’s on to something and love is actually the aim of sex, why is it often so detached and void of emotion or commitment? And if it’s not for love, what is it for? That’s the question Halperin will take up in a forthcoming article “What is Sex For?” in which he will attempt to tie this Aristotelian paradox into the no-less-mysterious topics of gay bathhouses and Adele.

Since figuring out what sex is for seems doomed, do we have a better chance with love? We turn to essayist Susan Sontag, who managed to demystify the art of photography and then took on the question what is love for. “We ask everything of love. We ask it to be anarchic. We ask it to be the glue that holds the family together, that allows society to be orderly and allows all kinds of material processes to be transmitted from one generation to another. But I think that the connection between love and sex is very mysterious.” Thanks a lot. Sontag continues: “Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.” Well, Lovelorn, at least you’re in good company.

But let’s move up from philosophy and intellectualism to the arts, which, I believe, are better at eternal mysteries. There’s a film from 1971 called “Carnal Knowledge,” from the Jules Feiffer novel, in which Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel meet as freshmen roommates at Amherst. In terms of your letter, LL, Nicholson’s character can be said to be sex and Garfunkel’s, love. The film follows them through their lives, and although there are many lovely insights and some great lines, by the end, the question of which one fared better is … you guessed it, a mystery.

Some have weighed in on the relative merits of love and sex, elevating one above the other.  Plato and Aristotle saw love as the higher pursuit. Freud saw sex is primary, driving virtually everything we do, and love as just one of many constructs we use to get more sex. In her novel “Love,” Toni Morrison explored infatuation, a kind of half-sex-half-love minotaur:

“Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty ... People with no imagination feed it with sex — the clown of love. They don't know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that — softly, without props.”

Looking at history, I don’t think our world of dating sites, apps and i-things has yielded an era of more sex and less love. But I do think they have made finding and losing sex and love more impersonal and reduced our accountability for how we carry ourselves in doing so. This may be pushing sex and romantic love further from each other and I think this is what you are sensing, Lovelorn.

Yet there’s no correct recipe for finding genuine love, as Stendahl illustrates in his novel “The Red and the Black,” which locates love in the spontaneity of the moment and not the strategic love games of jealousy, drama and roles.

So with no formula or equation for solving for love with the variable of sex, I hope I’ve been able to prove you are not alone in feeling your way through the complicated maze of yours. No, the two pursuits are not mutually exclusive, but no one’s been able to calculate a correlation coefficient.

Send an email to deargillian@michigandaily.com or anonymously here describing a quandary about love, relationships, existence or their opposites. Gillian will attempt to summon the wisdom of the arts (literary, visual, performing) to soothe your troubled soul. We may publish your letter in the biweekly column with your first name (or penname). Submissions should be 250 words or fewer and may be edited prior to publication.