If we viewed intimacy as a need and sex as a mere want, would we still approach relationships the same way?
Variable and difficult to describe, intimacy is always life-affirming while sex can be hit and miss. You can want one without needing the other, and vice versa.
When we conflate sex with intimacy and intercourse fails to translate into something more, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Inserting body part A into body part B is easy enough, but intimacy is a matter of mental chemistry. And you can’t force it. It’s a concerted effort in honoring our shared humanity by allowing another human to see us exactly as we are, something that isn’t without risk.
Dropping the mask is a lot harder than dropping your trousers and it’s always a commitment to truth.
Sex is cheap, but intimacy is priceless.
Although sex and intimacy have become interchangeable terms, you don’t have to get naked to be intimate with someone.
If we’re technical about it, body parts Lego isn’t required. You can develop a close relationship with another human and let them into your heart and head without shedding your clothes.
Not that sex isn’t desirable. Or enjoyable. Or the highest possible level of communication between two humans as long as they are on the same wavelength.
Alas, this isn’t always the case, see one-night stands.
Sometimes sex is about scratching the itch and surrendering to our most basic animal instinct. To have sex with another mammal you don’t have to care about them; you just have to share the willingness to make each other feel good for a while.
But for intimacy to happen, caring for the other person is a pre-requisite. You are intellectually and emotionally invested in getting to know them better.
Intimacy is contingent on curiosity; for sex, you just have to be horny.
So why do we equate intimacy with sex?
When intimacy doesn’t result in sex, it is often labelled as dysfunctional, lacking in some way. And yet, the need to hold and be held by another human is one of the purest forms of intimacy there is.
Sometimes, life is too complicated to allow for anything other than human warmth. When exhaustion, a broken mind or body, and adverse circumstances all conspire to wear you down, a hug can work wonders and help you regenerate.
No matter how fond you might be of someone, sex isn’t always the appropriate choice.
As a sexual abuse survivor, it’s more important to me to get close to someone before sex becomes part of the equation. Whenever I’ve chosen to disregard this rule in the past, things often turned sour. Some predators are quick to sniff out exposed vulnerabilities and take advantage of them. Cue more abuse and more trauma.
But when another human is curious about you, chances are it’s about more than the contents of your pants. Although attraction can be part of the mix, it’s only one of the many components of intimacy.
Without mutual respect, intimacy is impossible.
Therein lies the fundamental difference between how sex and intimacy work. Two apes in their birthday suits needn’t respect each other to have sex, they just have to be consenting adults as evidenced by hookup culture.
Intimacy can lead to sex and sex can lead to intimacy. While the two are often complementary, they also exist as standalone pursuits.
A night of chaste cuddles under a blanket can mean so much more than a fuck because the ability to share your unredacted self with another person is a rare gift. There is no pressure with intimacy while sex often comes with expectations on both sides, much to the detriment of all involved.
And if you could have just the one, which would you choose?
The answer alone could help you navigate the nebulous yet wondrous world of human relationships.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.