Romance Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Very Private
Last week, I wrote a post wondering why women my age seemed reluctant to discuss sex. I cloaked my questions by talking about “romance,” but when you’re headed toward menopause (or andropause), the two get conflated with one another. In avoiding the topic of sex, people steer away from romance, not wanting to think about it long enough to consider the difference.
I got some really interesting replies that I’ve been thinking over (when I wasn’t worried about the overthrow of our government). One woman reached out to note that the issue is particularly complicated when you are a single woman, or in her case, a divorced single mom. She didn’t elaborate on all the ways it’s complicated except to note that it can especially hard to discuss romance and sex with married friends who may not understand her experience or may not be comfortable with it.
If it’s hard to talk about it with people you assume are cis-, hetero-, and coupled, how much harder it is to talk about sex when you are operating from explicitly different places in the world. And that’s just among straight women! Imagining the difficulty of coming out later in life or of realizing that asexuality is your orientation — these added complications reinforce the idea that sex and romance are private topics better avoided when talking with friends.
Another friend wondered whether the issue of sex and privacy was unique to Gen X. I don’t think it is. I can’t imagine the women of the Greatest Generation sharing sex tips, although maybe that’s just prudishness on my part. I do think there is a generational factor in how we approach sex though. Our parents were part of the 60s cultural revolution and we were conceived during a time when Free Love and second-wave feminism were pushing sex to the forefront of people’s conversations. That changed when we were young.
Gen Xers came up in the AIDS era. Sex was associated with sickness and death. In the book Generation X, Douglas Copeland writes about how we had become burdened by the consequences of seemingly simple gestures. You could get AIDS from kissing was a message we grew up with. Sex was terrifying, doubly so if you were raised in a religious family. It was easier not to do it, frankly, than suffer the obvious downfall associated with an act that wasn’t even sure to bring you pleasure.
Finally, my friend who had triggered the original discussion by raising it as a topic for consideration in our New Year’s resolution chat weighed in. She thought that our unwillingness to talk about sex “comes down to how we learn to treat these primary relationships.” She means our spouses. “We are generally protective of them, and hesitate to talk about what is not going well (beyond basic nagging).” She added:
There’s a concern that if you lay out the difficult terrain of your relationship to your friends, then they see your partner in a certain way you can’t take back.
I share this protective instinct about my spouse. Sharing difficult information with my friends feels disrespectful to him and sharing delightful information feels weird, too. Like bragging? Not sure. But at the root of her remarks is the idea that romance and sex are not only tied to each other but that they are tied to your significant other, as opposed to something you are entitled to regardless of your significant other. Being protective of one’s partner is a good instinct but it can be separate from sharing information about your own needs for the purpose of finding love and support (philia and storge) outside of that partnership.
There are ways to talk about romance and sex that don’t relate directly to your partner. In fact, discussing New Year’s resolutions is probably one of the easiest ways to talk about this difficult topic, because you are framing it in a way that relates to your own needs and desires, as opposed to what happens between you and another person. For example, “I want more romance in my life this year so I’m going to ask for ____.” Or maybe we make resolutions to reframe our desires, like, “I’m going to try to stop bringing my anxiety into bed with me.” In my case, I’ve resolved to continue “date night” twice a month and in what is probably the sexiest move he’s ever made, my husband has committed to doing the grocery shopping this year.
Finally, some good news from one last commenter: my uncle. My uncle and aunt have been empty nesters for more than ten years. In response to my question, “Is romance dead?” he responded, “Not in my world!” Here’s hoping that the hand-wringing over this conversation is moot when the kids move out.