For Six Months, We Had to Find Other Ways to Connect
I first saw it while giving my boyfriend oral sex: a taut red spot on the shaft of his penis. Conversation and action ground to a halt, as we took out our phones to Google image search the unwelcome spot. It wasn’t noxious-looking enough to be a wart. Herpes, described as a painful lesion, was also unlikely. And though I know I have HPV, that sly, secretive virus would never do me the honor of making its presence known.
The dermatologist finally confirmed molluscum contagiosum. This was the best possible bad news. Unlike HPV, warts, or herpes, molluscum is completely benign. Gross, to be sure, but it carries no dangerous or painful long-term symptoms. The biggest threat is that it could spread to other, more visible parts of the body and cause scarring. But the bad news is it can take six months to two years to shake.
Learning that you have an STD is horrifying for the question it raises. Who gave this to me? Did they know? Why didn’t they tell me? What happened to the condom? (Or, conversely: Why the hell didn’t I use one? Do I think I’m Supergirl?) Is my partner sleeping with someone else? Why is my OB/Gyn giving me the side-eye?
Once these questions are answered, a new and more practical problem begins. When sex is a serious part of your relationship, how do learn to relate without it? Is it possible to be intimate when you can’t have sex?
Yes, it feels dumb to ask this. I hear generations of purity zealots crowing in triumphant victory. And of course there are many other times in your life when sex is impossible, impractical, or unlikely. Post-surgery, for instance, or postpartum. When you’ve been married too long (ha!). Or when “performance” is an issue. Entire industries feed off the personal hell of performance-related issues. Would we become just two more drug-dependent statistics?
At the time my boyfriend and I had been dating for nine months in Manhattan, which translates to about three months in the real world. We were still buzzing with New Relationship Energy (NRE). We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. And yet, we were also a little leery of affirming commitment. To be honest, we both nursed some major misgivings. He was more than a little uncomfortable with my history of non-monogamy, and I was still troubled by the fact that, well into his 30s, he’d never been in a long-term relationship. So this diagnosis was a lightening bolt, illuminating all our darkest fears. It felt like it just might prove a death sentence.
In bi-weekly installments over the next few months, we lay in all kinds of exotic positions not on one another’s beds, but on the dermatologist’s table. Our new relationship was pulled apart, moisturized, doused in creams, and zapped with cryo-freeze. It’s crazy how much modern medicine can do these days. Yet when we asked for medical advice on how to be intimate, we were met with blank stares.
We had to trust each other now. Here’s what we learned:
Step 1: Communication
Each of us internalized the news in different ways. True to stereotype, he got quiet, irritable, and distant and I got needy. Both of us suspected the worst, of each other, and of the relationship. The longer we didn’t talk about it, the worse it got.
Disappointed by ourselves and angry at each other, we stewed for a while. When the eruption came, it was a toxic mess of scalding accusations: He was a disappointment, pathetic, not man enough to deal with reality. I was a basket case, contorting myself into ridiculous shapes to please him. Why couldn’t he step up to the plate? Why couldn’t I leave him alone?
Then, from the darkest depth of the argument, I turned to him and said the scariest thing I could think of: “I don’t want to lose you.” It was the most intimate conversation we had ever had as a couple. Now, instead of him versus me, it was us against the beast.
Step 2: Quality Time Rituals
We used to soften each others’ bad moods with sex. When we were distant, distracted by work, or had an argument, sex brought us back together. Going about the day in the afterglow of morning sex was all the reassurance I needed that our relationship was functional.
When we couldn’t have sex, the silent, secret cord of our intimate rapport was suddenly broken. All our busyness and routines continued in parallel. We ate breakfast, went to separate jobs, socialized for the most part separately, then came home to stare at our devices. We were alone, together. We were “that couple.”
Then, one sunny Sunday afternoon we biked from Manhattan to the Pelham Bay Beach. Halfway through the 50-mile round trip, our phones died. Now we were together alone. Between the horror of traveling without GPS, and the suspense of choosing a restaurant without Yelp, we rediscovered our rapport—that first date rapid-fire back and forth, where every shared observation and finished sentence felt like fateful harmony.
This gave us an idea. It’s easy to fall into autopilot, to get inert and comfortable. To combat the descent into taking one another for granted, we laid some ground rules. Now, if I come home after he’s arrived, I ring the doorbell instead of keying in so we can greet each other at the threshold. We have code words for when to peel our eyes away from the phone. The newfound romance was quite stimulating.
Step 3: Massage
While I like hard pressure during a massage, he winces at anything more forceful than a touchscreen swipe. So neither of us felt pleasure at the massages we gave or received. Then one night in bed while I read and he played video games, he mindlessly began to stroke my back. There are few things as loving or arousing as gentle, constant touch, so we started to experiment. What else was there to do?
Where I had been bored by giving massages that felt like I was doing nothing, I learned to read cues from his reactions. My technique had been two-dimensional: pressure or no pressure. Now it became about patterns, rhythm, teasing, and texture.
Because my boyfriend is large and athletic, he’d always been afraid of hurting me, but with time to practice, he developed a sense for how much pressure to apply, when and where. It was fun to warm each other up and wind each other down, and also totally fine to fall asleep. We got to know the language of each other’s bodies like never before.
Step 4: Dry Humping
There’s something illicit and dangerous about dry-humping. Perhaps it’s the teenage flashback that at any moment, parents could burst in. Maybe it’s the anticipation, like shaking a wrapped Christmas present to try to guess what’s inside. When hidden or wrapped, every bulge, curve and protrusion carries the thrill of possibility.
Dry-humping was the last step we took on the road back to sex. It started one morning, when we were too sleepy to remember our predicament. By the time we did, we were marching up to the top of the cliff.
It wasn’t so easy the next time we did it. Our minds kept coming back to the issue of why we couldn’t have sex, which would kill the buzz. But we persisted, and over time there was more pleasure and less resistance. Then, like Stella, we got the groove back.
I realized that the more “grown up” I got, the more penetrative sex was expected, and the less thrilling and magical it seemed. By making out on the couch and dry humping like teenagers, we were creating our own anticipation. We started to get excited about each other in ways we had taken for granted.
All in all, the time we spent not having sex was a huge pain in the neck, yet who knows when else we would have had the patience, discipline, or foresight to learn these lessons? And as uncomfortable as it is to struggle through the learning process, the thrill of fluency is incredible. As a result of going through this situation, we know so much more about one another’s needs, habits, and turn-ons. And I’m so much more in love with him for having had to find deeper forms of pleasure.
Lucy Gillespie is an Anglo-American screenwriter, producer, and essayist based in NYC. She is the managing editor of Frenchly. Her original short series Unicornland, about a woman who explores her sexuality by dating couples, is due for release in January 2017. Follow Unicornland on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook @unicornwithus.
How to connect when you don’t have access to each other’s naughty bits? Check out Gordon Inkeles’ best-selling The New Sensual Massage, now on its third edition, to learn all the ways you can give each other pleasure, relaxation, and intimacy.