A friend asked if he could sleep naked in bed with me.
A few days before, I lay naked in the arms of another man—a friend too, perhaps my best, but a lover first, I thought.
My lover and I argued afterwards. Though monogamous, we hadn’t had sex that night or for a few weeks by that point. He said he wanted to make sure we didn’t “center our relationship on sex,” but having a thing and centering a thing are two different things.
The friend (who made the request) and I have only ever been “just friends.” I find him attractive in the way I find my siblings attractive, and our bond has never been sexual—if by sexual you mean evidenced by a desire to have sex.
I didn’t know what made him ask if I would be uncomfortable with him sleeping in my bed naked. I still don’t know, but at this very moment what seems to be a more important uncertainty is “why not?”
That’s not to say there aren’t several legitimate answers to that question. Naked bodies touching against each other is generally reserved for sexual activity, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for making that connection and rejecting nakedness with a person solely as a way to reject unwanted sexuality. But I’d slept with my lover naked and sexless many times, and though it sometimes ate at me to do so, it didn’t always.
Most of the time, it was just a thing we did. I like sleeping naked. Anyone who knows me will tell you clothes aren’t really my thing and that I belong in a nudist colony. The restrictions of clothes make me uncomfortable and undoing layers stresses me out. To me, nakedness is a natural state, and one that feels most human. Intimate and vulnerable, yes, but isn’t that humanity?
I won’t lie and say I didn’t hesitate upon hearing the request. Like most people, I’m a product of a society that emphasizes the connection between nakedness and intimacy, intimacy with sexuality, sexuality with only those things that exist outside of friendships. The nakedness and intimacy with my friend were welcome, but anything sexual with him was definitely unwanted.
My friend is a lot like me in that he is noticeably willing to challenge those connections. When we are out together dancing, we often grind on each other and have done other consensual (and certainly not sexual—in my perspective, at least) physical acts. That in mind, I trusted his inquiry to be an honest one. “Is it okay to sleep naked?” did not mean, “do you want to have sex?”
And what if it did?
I insist that these questions, too, come from a place of honesty. They are not rhetorical, and I don’t know the answers to them, although I know some possible answers to them. If my friend meant to ask me to have sex, I would have respectfully declined. I was, at the time, involved, and though I’m not one to think monogamy is the way to go for every relationship, it was the way I was committed at the time.
If I wasn’t involved, I’d still probably say no. Like I mentioned earlier, I do not want to have sex with my “just friend” and never have. I have, however, had other friendships in which sex was a thing. Friends with benefits with no other emotional attachment to the concept of partnering. Yes, it can work. Yes, it can work well (unless I’ve been lied to and it’s only worked well for me and not the other person involved).
“I don’t want to center our relationship on sex.” I think about that statement often, not only because it became such a heavy weight on our relationship that it helped to break it, but because I still don’t know what it means. What is supposed to be centered in a partnership? What is centered in my partnerships? Or what do I want centered?
How was it that I’d had sex with friends and sexlessness with partners? How was I here, now, holding my friend, comfortable, human, the same way I’d held my lover, still wondering whether or not our nakedness meant we were supposed to have sex? In the back of my mind, fighting hard not to think we had to?
One day, in our journey to decolonize our understandings of love and relationships, we’ll finally decouple sex and intimacy.
— Zoé S. (@ztsamudzi) November 21, 2015
Sex can be intimate—certainly intimidating—but sex can also simply be fun and free. It has amplified connections between me and another person, but it has just as many times brought me no closer to them. Other times, it has driven them away. What is a sexless intimacy or an intimacy-less sex?
I held my friend, naked, and felt closer to knowing. Here we are, literally nothing between us, a friendship that could be changed forever with any little misunderstanding, trusting. Sexless. Naked. Intimate.
“I don’t want to center our relationship on sex,” my lover said, and I realized I didn’t either. I’ve written before how my queerness is not simply about the sexual connection I feel with men, but the need for a denied intimacy. Was I really ignoring that need and thinking I was fulfilling it with sex? What did he notice that I didn’t that made him hesitate to cross sexual boundaries with me so often? Or what did I notice that he didn’t that made me feel so unfulfilled sexually at the same time?
No doubt I have sexual needs. No doubt his were distinct and no doubt there was probably a better way to find balance between our differences. Maybe our sexual needs were incompatible and we should have considered that prior to committing to one another. But what weight do I put onto my sexual needs in my relationships and to the detriment of what else? Was I centering our relationship on sex and didn’t know it? Do I do this in all of my romantic relationships?
My lovers have a tendency to become my best friends at the expense of the time I give my closest platonic friends. I always thought that this deep friendship I shared with my partners was radical and good, and maybe it is. But what keeps that intense level of intimacy from my friends? Is that why when I break up with a lover I always feel so hopelessly alone?
Is it just sex? Is it just nakedness? Is it just touch?
I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I do know that the line I draw between loving friendships and loving partnerships and loving fuckingships needs more careful consideration than what I have been giving. I do know what society says is a friendship, or is a partnership, isn’t meant to be the standard model for everyone. I do know that the intimacy I had with my lover was beautiful without the sex. And so it was with my friend that night.