Wait a minute, you had conversations about what it would be like to have sex?
Yeah. Would we actually have sex on our wedding night? Would we do the deed? And what were our expectations? Some of Griff’s friends would say to him, “Well, you know, Lauren’s had sex with other people. Aren’t you worried that she’ll be comparing you to these other people?” And he wasn’t worried about that at all. I found that I was actually more worried, because he had never really seen a real woman’s body, with cellulite. He had only seen, like, movie stars and the cover of Cosmo. And you know, I have love handles. I don’t look like Julia Roberts.
I was also worried that Griff would have a lot of hang-ups. I mean, here he’d steeled himself against sexual desire for 15 years. And there’s a story I tell in the book of a friend who had been chaste for her whole life, and she just had a really hard time flipping the switch once she was married. In fact, Griff’s been raring to go. Having had this premarital sexual history, though, I had really trained myself to think that what is exciting and erotic about sex is the newness and instability. And married sex, while great and erotic and exciting, is not exciting because it’s unstable. It’s exciting and good precisely because it’s stable and even routine and habitual.
So, ironically, if we’ve had challenges in our first year and a half of marriage, they’re not coming from Griff’s “lack of experience.” They’re coming from certain lessons that I learned about what I think is sexy.
If sex isn’t part of the equation, do you think you get to know each other better?
Dating people, more than married people, can use sex in lieu of communication. It’s easy to say, “I don’t feel like pressing into this hard emotional terrain.” When I was dating Griff, we weren’t simply not having sex. We never spent the night together. We would have dinner and then I would go home. There were times when that was frustrating. There were times when I wanted to spend the night with him, or whatever. But there was something very authentic and true in that slower choreography.And it was interesting to be in a relationship of significant emotional import where I didn’t have the sense I was playing house. And I did find that very freeing. Back in my sexually active days, my spending-the-night days, my having-two-toothbrush days, I think that kind of house-playing/domesticity was putting me in situations that the relationship wasn’t ready for. I was play-acting a script for what I really wanted. I wanted to get married.
You got engaged after nine months of dating, and married six months after that.
Do you think it would have happened so quickly if you both hadn’t been abstinent? I definitely think that if you’re committed to not having sex before marriage, it does get marriage on the table much earlier. And I do think that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to marry someone who said that having sex was the only reason they were getting married, but desire is really important. And it’s actually a recognition that desire matters and our bodies matter to say, “Of course this is one reason I’m getting married.”
Can you talk more about your assertion that, as a culture, we find instability and newness more erotic than stability and comfort?
If you pick up any magazine with the sort of “Spice Up Your Married Sex Life!” articles, they often encourage people to try to re-create dating sex, unmarried sex. OK, it’s occasionally fine—send your kids to the grandparents and go to a B&B, or whatever—but it’s impractical and makes us all feel like failures if we’re supposed to be having sex like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball night after night after night. We have so distanced what we consider good sex from anything to do with domesticity. So households and homes and, God forbid, children, do violence to desire, according to our popular culture. This has a lot to do with that annual article we read in Time or Newsweek about how there’s a crisis in married sex lives. I think we really need to reconceive what married sexuality and desire can and should look like.
How do you do that?
I’m still working on it! There are a couple of things we can do. One is to recognize that though sex is personal, it doesn’t have to be private. And that opening up our sex lives and, really, our marriages to our communities can be scary but very helpful. That doesn’t mean you have to talk about what you did with your spouse to random strangers. But we live in this culture of individuality, and we think that we’re not supposed to be truthful and honest with people who feel close to us. And I find that sort of terrifying. It’s actually much easier to talk with an anonymous interviewer about this stuff. It is scary even for me—the weird, voyeuristic memoirist—to talk with people in my real life about what’s going on in my marriage.
I think marriage is really hard, but it’s something we think we can do without help. We take cello lessons. We take yoga. We are open to having instruction in all sorts of endeavors, and yet marriage—the melding of your life into someone else’s life, and learning to see your story through someone else’s story—is something that we’ve come to think happens behind closed doors. And it seems to me that that’s absurd and backwards. Marriage tells a story to a wider community. In my community, the story marriage tells is something to do with God’s fidelity to us. Not only does community life support marriage, but part of marriage’s purpose is communal.
Lauren Winner was interviewed by Kristine Kern, founding managing editor of Tango.