Thursday, April 28, 2016

On Sexual Fluidity

The New York Times published an op-ed over the weekend from Harris Wofford, someone I never heard of, but who has apparently lived a long and prominent life in public service. He's 90 years old. His wife died 20 years ago. He's about to get married to a man 50 years his junior.

When we hear stories like this, we tend to fall back on a set narrative. The Christopher Plummer character in Beginners. Sal in Mad Men. Joel Grey, the gayest gay who ever emceed in Cabaret, who came out last year at the age of 83. We imagine a long, cold marriage, and decades of longing for a certain kind of love. We imagine an unhappy wife who gave up on sexual pleasure around the time her youngest child was conceived and a husband who quietly found solace in secretive liaisons.

Wofford tells a different story. His marriage to his wife was long and happy. She was a companion, confidante, co-parent and a supporter throughout a fascinating career, which had its successes and failures. He loved her. He loved her unconditionally. Five years after her death, when he was in his 70s, he met a man in his 20s, who was athletic and charming. They fell in love. There was a bit of awkwardness and a little tension when he introduced his lover to his children. But he was happy. Happy happy happy happy happy.

You never really know what goes on in anyone else's marriage. People are different and no two people look for exactly the same thing in any given relationship. You also never really know what someone else desires until you have sex with them. Sex lives evolve. What gives someone pleasure at 14 doesn't give the same pleasure at 42. People develop fetishes. They indulge desires that were always latent. They indulge those desires and then discover that those desires were better left to their imagination.

"After five years, marriage is not about sex at all." -- Every Bad Comedian Ever. I can imagine several different scenarios in Harris Wofford's life. He may have had an intense sex life with his wife when they were in their '20s, coupled with a deep friendship. Age and familiarity diminished that passion, but passion might have flared up for a few months here and there for the next few decades. By their late '60s they were still intimate physically, even if they hadn't performed the act in a few years. By the time he met his new lover, he found someone he could continue that intimacy with. They had sex, but only so much. He may have tried anal sex and not liked it, but found oral sex more enjoyable. His lover was a gerontophile who liked the feel of his skin and his friendship. They might have had an open relationship. His lover might have satisfied a physical rambunctiousness elsewhere and then come home late in the evenings.

Or his sex life with his wife was never that intense, a fact which never bothered him or her. Maybe he found in his new lover someone who reminded him of his wife in her youth. Maybe his lover had found a mentor figure that provided him support. Maybe a monetary interest was involved, but 15 years is a long time to be in it for the money.

When we talk about sexual fluidity, we don't just mean a fluidity between desires for different genders. I don't know how happy Harris Wofford is or ever was. No one ever gets everything he wants in life. Sex has brought human beings as much pain as pleasure. Whatever his claims to happiness, I'm guessing that he was probably not as happy as he claims -- very few people are -- and probably, like most of us, a lot more interesting.

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