At the Heart of It All Was Longing
(Or, The Crux of Sexual Habit)   

Written by Lei, sometime in January

***Content Summary***
This is a reflective piece exploring the author’s relationship with sexual intercourse.
This piece is written by a cis-gender, bisexual woman, but with a focus on her heterosexual relationships.
Includes poetic depictions of sexual intercourse.
The piece also briefly touches upon mental ill-health.

Scene: a random college dorm room, 3 A.M. or so on a chilly Saturday night

Plot: two 20-something year olds, belligerently drunk from another night of irresponsible binge drinking, shoving their tongues and genitalia together with no regard for the bitter aftertaste that drunken fucks leave the morning after

My sex life started with six cans of Coors Light, a few drags from a cigarette that was passed around one too many times and a string of unintelligible drunken texts. It sounded like slurred words, tasted like cheap beer and looked exactly what you’d think sex between two drunk college kids would look like: legs flayling around awkwardly, necks painted with a constellation of hickies, the pillow stained muddy from makeup-infused sweat. Overall, it was an incredibly underwhelming experience-the hangover the night after left a deeper imprint on my memory than the sex itself.

Although I was naively proud of my escapades, this first-time subconsciously came to define the headspace under which I engaged in sex thereafter. Sex became a mere byproduct of a night out. It almost always happened while both parties were under the influence of a substance, or two, or three. And rarely did it result in meaningful connections between the people involved. If I was lucky enough to not be ghosted, these inebriated fucks gave birth to poorly managed “non-exclusive” relationships where awkward, anxious young hearts attempted to access the benefits of a well-thought-out adult relationship without the conversation, vulnerability or commitment. It either left me guilty (from being a proper asshole), heartbroken (from being screwed over) or confused (of “what this meant”).

In “Fidelity,” Thich Nhat Hanh explores intimacy, sexual relationships and romance through the persepctive of Buddhist thought. Hanh points to the concept of “habit energy,” connecting it to patterns of thought and behaviour that manifest in our day to day relationships. He writes, “habit energy is there in all of us in the form of seeds transmitted from our ancestors, our grandparents, and our parents, as well as seeds created by the difficulties we ourselves have experienced. Often we’re unaware of these energies operating in us. We may want to be in a committed relationship but our habit energies can color our perceptions, direct our behaviors, and make our lives difficult. With mindfulness, we can become aware of the habit energy that has been passed down to us.”

(I picked up this book during my time as a receptionist and program assistant at a retreat center. At the time, I was deeply nestled in what seemed like an inescapable depressive cave. Waking up each day felt as harsh and sharp as the New England winter. I was dangerously exhausted, but I seemed to have enough energy left to explore new ideas. Or perhaps, that was a healing mechanism--in a time where all seemed to be lost, I found comfort when drenched in perspectives that were unfamiliar. As Marie-Louise von Franz once said [thank you, to my dear friend who shared this with me], it is often in states of extreme fatigue where one can connect to absolute knowledge. You can’t bullshit yourself when you’re tired, when you’re so run down that even your ego melts away. Those are the moments when clarity, or to be accurate, the pursuit for clarity, takes the forefront of our mind.)

I often don’t realise (or perhaps realise, but refuse/fail to acknowledge) that habits are at the basis of who I am. Actions and thoughts, when repeated frequently enough, mould the emotional, psychological and cognitive frameworks through which we make sense of ourselves and each other. It’s not rocket science, but we forget that, I think. The way we learn to be physically and emotionally intimate is the same. If you repeatedly engage in intimate behavior in certain contexts and become accustomed to particular outcomes, your perception of intimacy-and all the complex social and emotional baggage that comes with it-solidifies at the root, like cakey dried soil. And like any unhealthy habit or toxic pattern, mindless, haphazard sex erodes our wellbeing, one fuck at a time.

With time, my understanding of intimacy became limited to one night stands and three week flings. I felt lucky if I could get anything to last for more than a couple of weeks. People turned into bodies. Bodies turned into outlets. Feelings became inconveniences, and mutual pleasure an unattainable luxury. But what for? Why did I cast aside values that I prioritize in other relationships-warmth, vulnerability, communication, loyalty, joy-in intimate relationships? I mean, what was the purpose of sex for me to begin with?

It took a lot of hurting others and being hurt myself to force me to examine my relationship with...well, sexual relationships. I realised that each sexual encounter, regardless of its significance or lack thereof, had left its residue. This is because sex is a physically and psychologically intimate (i.e. proximal) activity. On a purely physical level, bodies become intertwined, inserted, overlapped. Heat is transmitted and fluids are exchanged. One person’s exhale becomes the other’s inhale. But on a more pyschological level, sex is an emotional, cultural and occassionally, political and social interaction. Desires, secrets, needs, egos, fantasies, fetishes, pains, hopes, anger, grief, power, violence...a myriad of non-physical elements fuel the why and how of sex.

bell hooks writes in “All About Love,” that when one is led and seduced by erotic desire, “they often end up in relationships with partners with whom they share no common interests or values.” It took me some time to understand that the catalytic energy of desire in and of itself does not suffice as a measure of whether I should be intimate with someone or not. Of course, it is not possible to constantly be in conversation with our hearts, questioning every single urge, craving or impulse that is awakened in us. However, cultivating the habit of dialogue, of questioning WHAT we desire and WHY we desire that thing, is a critical part of nurturing healthy boundaries around our bodies, hearts and souls. Asking ourselves, “what’s at the heart of it all?”


(Whew. That was quite the thought dump.)

I want to end this rollercoaster of a reflective piece with some ideas that have been central in helping me recaliberate my relationship with sexual intercourse/sexual relationships over the years. For me, it was important to recognise and challenge the ideas I have been carrying surrounding sex and sexuality. No value or belief, is benign. There is always a history, a story, breadcrumbs that can be traced to somewhere other than ourselves. To stand on uninterrogated beliefs is to live a veiled life. So we must question. Dig, dig and dig somemore. Look underneath, look above, dust off the corners of our paradigms that have not been accessed for some time.

This process has looked like coming to terms with harmful, exclusionary and oppressive sociocultural ideas that I have adopted over the years. It has looked like recognising how omnipresent sexual subtexts have become in my life and how there was little to no interrogation surrounding socially normalised sexual habits/sexual practices that I myself took part in.

Step by step, I am peeling back the layers, getting closer to what ever is at the heart of it.

For those who choose to have sex, it is paramount that we actively look at what lies at the heart of our relationship with sex, not only because it can bring us closer to embodying our unique identities, but also because it allows us to be more responsible, compassionate and conscious to those we choose to share sexual intimacy with. The deeper we go in understanding the motivations behind our individual desires, longings and yearnings, the kinder and truer we can be to ourselves and to each other. It allows us to better respect one another, and practice authenticity in the face of what can often be a divisive, oppressive culture that thrives on fear, stifles vulnerability and attmepts to eradicate sexual difference and possibility.

In moving towards the heart of our own truths,
we learn to let go and let in, 
when to dive in and,
when to walk away,
how to be present,
how to be authentic,
how to hold the truths of others in loving kindess.

Cargo Collective COMMU 2021 (USA, JAPAN)