We don’t often think of sex as a form of communication, even though it carries many of the elements and possibilities of conversation. We can use our bodies to convey something to another. We can lie with them or deceive. We can “say” something with sex that we don’t really mean, or we can use sex to say something that we later take back. We can be misunderstood in the way that we give ourselves physically to others, as if there are differences of language or words with multiple meanings. We can be more or less open with others.
The vulnerability of sex provides an image for other forms of communication. We all long for relationships where we can be totally and truly honest and vulnerable with others. We all long to have “naked” conversations, where we uncover our interior lives and can be seen underneath the various costumes we lay out for everyday interactions.
Of course, it would be irresponsible and strange and dangerous to simply be “naked” in our conversations all the time. We have to speak carefully, because not all of our colloquialisms and comical references will be understood by strangers. It’s easy to offend others with whom we have no underlying relationships. Like a body, there are contours to conversations, and you come to understand the fitting conversations as you come to understand others. I don’t talk about bridges, because her uncle jumped off one when she was a teenager. I don’t make abortion jokes, because he’s really pro-life. I don’t discuss apophatic theology, because he has no idea what it is.
I’ve thought that it’s easiest to be completely honest with two kinds of people: people who know you extremely well or complete strangers. With the former, vulnerability carries less risk because of the enduring and deep relationship. With the latter, vulnerability is easy, because you don’t risk losing a relationship upon which you rely. But the latter can’t achieve true honesty, because a truly honest conversation requires a multitude of connecting points – shared history, experiences, ideas, commitments. The honesty with a stranger is a carefully framed honesty, a self-disclosure that the stranger can’t connect to contradictory or complex parts of your life, to which proven friends will be privy. The framed honesty also cannot connect to the parts of our lives that, in some odd way, only our longtime friends and not ourselves can see.
Thus, the honesty with a stranger isn’t so much a sharing of an “honest me” as it is a sharing of a succinct part of myself, divorced from the complex reality of me which is only available to my true friends. Honesty of the person requires time and commitment. It requires relationship, while honesty without relationship always involves some form of objectification, albeit an objectification that can be turned into relationship.
In a similar framework, sex with a stranger can involve a double dishonesty. It’s a dishonesty of vulnerability. We think we make our bodies vulnerable to another, when in reality, without relationship, vulnerability can only appear as a facade. We can only be vulnerable to the things that can break us, the things with which we are in relationship. On the other hand, we think we are letting ourselves be “seen” by another with sex, when in reality that sight is limited to the excited passion of a moment, divorced from the more complex reality of a committed loving relationship, where I might annoy you with how I never do my dishes or have a snotty crying session on your sweater.