Beauty & Poetry of Sex

"What sex is, we don't know, but it must be some sort of fire. For it always communicates a sense of warmth, of glow. And when the glow becomes a pure shine, then we feel the sense of beauty."  -- D. H. LAWRENCE

As a sex therapist, I've made a profession of understanding and explaining sex. As a young child, I remember repeatedly harassing my parents with question after question about sex.

Their answers changed over time, becoming more specific and elaborate as I grew more mature and inquisitive. By the time I was eleven, budding with my own sexual feelings, curious about true love, and frustrated with technical sounding sperm and egg explanations, I pressed them for more information about the act itself.

"The woman lies on her back with her legs in the air and arms open, and the man lies on top of her..."

Although my parents continued talking, I heard only an occasional word after this opening line. I was stunned. The image that formed in my mind was of dead bugs on the sidewalk -- lying with their feet in the air, tangled together, and parched by the sun. My first explicit sexual image was a major disappointment. Why would anyone want to share an experience like that with someone they love?

For each of us, our concept of sexual love has been shaped over many years by the sexual images permitted and promoted in our culture. Today, it's hard not to find images of sex in our society. Since the dawn of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, we have stripped away the old, puritanical restrictions that once made sex a taboo subject. Erotic images are woven so extensively into every aspect of our culture that they leap out at us when we open a magazine, turn on the television set, settle back in a movie theater, or pass a billboard on the freeway. It is sad and ironic that while our sexually obsessed culture feeds us a steady stream of arousing sexual images, many of us feel starved when it comes to understanding or sharing sexual love.

Very few of the unabashedly graphic images we see daily depict adults engaged in what we would describe as healthy sexual intimacy. Though many of us desire meaningful, intimate connection with a lover, most of the sexual images we are exposed to condition us to be aroused to sex without love. Like someone who has eaten only junk food, we wind up feeling malnourished. No amount of binges on "junk sex" can satisfy our hunger for real connection. In our enthusiasm to overcome puritanical constraints, perhaps we overlooked the importance of promoting certain kinds of sex over others.

Sexual interaction based on mutual caring and respect is very different from sex in which people are objectified or exploited. Loving, intimate sex can be far more enjoyable and satisfying than impersonal sex. But to enjoy these pleasures of sexual love we need to know more.


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Although we are naturally wired with a strong sexual drive, we are not born knowing all the information we need to fully understand it. Most of us have questions about sex. But in our culture, the answers are not always accessible or complete. To explore our potential as sexual beings, we need to understand not only the mechanics of sex, but also the interpersonal context for enjoying sexual love. We need more images that give us models for healthy relating. With exposure to these images we can learn that healthy intimacy is arousing and intensely pleasurable. Instead of a cultural diet of "junk sex" that leaves us titillated, but starved, we need lasting, nourishing ways to satisfy our hunger for sexual connection.

My quest for understanding sexual intimacy took a more serious turn when I began treating adult survivors of sexual abuse. Many of these people suffered from crippling sexual fears and dangerous sexual compulsions. For them, sex was often unpleasant at best. Their sexual relations left them feeling emotionally isolated, or out of control. Healthy sexual intimacy was an oxymoron. They could not conceptualize it, even when I explained that it was defined by concrete conditions: Consent. Equality. Respect. Trust. Safety.

About five years ago, my long quest for understanding sexual love became more focused. I began an ardent search to find positive sexual images. I wanted healthy alternatives to the negative images that surround us in our culture, so that I could show those who have felt confused about or hurt by sex that it can be very different, that it can even inspire moments of beauty.

This is a message all of us need to hear, throughout our lives. As a parent, I want my children to have healthy sexual models to learn from as they grow older. All of our children deserve to know about the importance of sexual health and the possibilities for joy and pleasure that sex affords. As an intimate partner, I want to be reminded of the infinite dimensions my husband and I can explore in heart-connected sex. All of us who are in long-term relationships need more resources to draw inspiration from, whether we are just setting out as a young couple or growing older with a partner.

To begin, I scoured films, video selections, popular books, and magazines for images that portrayed sex as mutually enjoyable, socially responsible, and physically safe. I was shocked at how few sexually explicit examples of healthy sex I could find. The images I found -- perfume ads, greeting cards, and modern love stories -- were pretty weak stuff compared to the latest issue of Penthouse magazine. Although there were some passages in erotica and romance novels that conveyed healthy sex dynamics, many of the themes in these stories still centered on impersonal, irresponsible, or secretive sex.

Next, my search took me to the library. Perhaps the joys of mutually satisfying sexual love had been celebrated by writers years ago. I began sifting through classic works of literature and poetry. But these works, by and large, let me down. I found an occasional gem, but more often I was reminded of the long history of sexual inequality between men and women from which we are still evolving. Older poems too often lacked the mutually intimate love that a healthy, mature relationship demands.

Until quite recently, male poets have dominated this genre. Too many of the erotic poems I found in the classic texts tended to repeat themes of objectifying, adoring, or controlling females. The Kama Sutra, one of the classic Eastern love texts, speaks repeatedly of intimate relations between "the girl" and "the man". In a chapter entitled "Creating Confidence in the Girl", the text advises the man whose young lover is reluctant:

"...if she would not yield to him he should frighten her by saying 'I shall impress marks of my teeth and nails on your lips and breasts...'"

Classic Western love poems are generally less graphically direct, but often just as offensive to my ethic of healthy intimacy. They perpetuated the cultural norms of their day, especially the belief that a woman's personal sexual experience was irrelevant; her pleasure would come in being a submissive vehicle for satisfying a man's sexual desires. In "The Jewels," the French poet Charles Baudelaire writes:

My well-beloved was stripped. Knowing my whim
She wore her tinkling gems, but naught besides;
And showed such pride as, while her luck betides,
A sultan's favoured slave may show to him.

Sometimes I found a poem that seemed to honor the importance of mutuality in intimacy. But then I would hear something in it that echoed back to an imbalance of power. In "Invitation to the Voyage," Baudelaire begins to weave more appropriate imagery about making time to savor sexual pleasure:

Imagine the magic
of living together
there, with all the time in the world
for loving each other,...

But within a few lines, he refers to his lover as "my sister, my child". I shuddered to think how survivors of incest and rape would respond to the specific images I was finding, and how all of us would hear the wrong message reinforced, if I were to return to these poets for inspiration. I felt disillusioned that the traditional "love" poets whose works I had enjoyed 25 years ago, when I studied poetry in college, were reinforcing relationship dynamics that prevent mutually rewarding sexual love and intimacy. However lyrical or sensuous the language sounds, love poetry of the past lacks a foundation of equality between two partners. Without this framework, even the most beautiful poem fails to evoke relationships built on mutual caring, with both partners active participants in loving.

Even though my initial efforts to find sex-positive imagery uncovered only a handful of appropriate works, this step in my search was important. It got me reading and appreciating poetry.

Poetry speaks a universal language

Unlike longer prose, which tends to relate more specifically to a character, poems evoke images that resonate for each of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. With a few spare lines of text, they capture a world of experience. We don't need an advanced degree in literature to appreciate the meaning of a well-written poem. The words speak right to our heart. The poet's metaphors connect our actions as humans with the larger life forces in nature. And they focus on the momentary glimpses we gain through experience. Because sex itself is a momentary but profound experience, poetry is a perfect medium for exploring the meaning, mystery, and beauty of sex.

My search into contemporary poetry brought personal satisfaction and rich rewards. I began to discover that today's poets are very interested in helping to explain and explore sexual love. For the general reader, the words are understandable. For the reader with a deeper background in literature, the poems bring together some well-known contemporary poets, and some newer voices. Together, their combined perspectives deeply penetrate the mystery of sex.

Listen to Molly Peacock, in "The Purr," searching for new words to describe the same mystery that D. H. Lawrence could not solve:

. . . The mysterious thrum
that science can't yet explain awakes a hum
in me, the sound something numb come alive makes.

And poet Sharon Olds gives new meaning to familiar words as she describes "making love" in her poem, "The Knowing":

. . . For an hour
we wake and doze, and slowly I know
that though we are sated, though we are hardly
touching, this is the coming the other
brought us to the edge of -- we are entering,
deeper and deeper, gaze by gaze,
this place beyond the other places,
beyond the body itself, we are making
love.

Sex: Momentary & Transcendent

Sex is momentary, and sex is transcendent. That's the paradox. The most intense physical sharing we experience with another person is gone in a matter of minutes. And yet, it connects us with a larger energy, a life force. Real, authentic intimacy leaves behind an inner glow that warms every aspect of our lives. Sex reminds us of our limitations and our expansiveness as humans. We are alone, and we are together.

Terra Hunter captures this duality beautifully in her poem "Wanting You," as she writes:

How is it that our two bodies
made only of flesh and bone
ignite with this fire
yet do not burn?

How is it that this cannot last
will disappear into the ether
as our bones will turn to dust
and disappear into the earth?

Sexual love is connection, not only with one's partner, but with the elemental beauty of life on earth. Often, when the poets in this collection (Passionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love) describe the sensual and transcendental aspects of sex, they use metaphors from nature. A lover's touch becomes the summer heat moving through a canyon. A climax becomes the deepening red colors in a sunset. An embrace becomes the soft inside petals of a flower.

The poets reminded me that some of the best images to represent the experience of sexual love are to be found in the natural world. Healthy sexual expression is a natural aspect of life. Tuning into life's natural beauty can stimulate our senses and enhance sexual awareness and eoyment.

Article Source:

Passionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love by Wendy MaltzPassionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love
by Wendy Maltz.

This article was excerpted with permission from the introduction of the book Passionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love, ©1996, compiled and edited by Wendy Maltz, published by New World Library, Novato, California, USA. http://www.nwlib.com

Click here for more info and/or to order this book

About the Author 

WENDY MALTZ, M.S.W.WENDY MALTZ, M.S.W., a well-known sex therapist and marriage counselor, is the author of The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and the co-author of In the Garden of Desire: The Intimate World of Women's Sexual Fantasies. She is co-director, with her husband Larry, of Maltz Counseling Associates in Eugene, Oregon, USA. Her website is www.healthysex.com

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