Chapter 13 Learning Objectives

Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

  • Recognize that the conventional view that sex as a form of communication is false and misleading.

Watch this video or scan the QR code to learn more about sexual communication in relationships.

“The Impossibility of Sexual Communication” does not mean communication about sex or about feelings is impossible; and I will address that at the end. I am simply claiming at the beginning that communication by means of sex is impossible.

Regardless of almost all the most recent popular beliefs and articles1 on the topic, sex (or any touching) is not a form of communication! It does not communicate love, care, concern, tender feelings, or anything. (One can imagine a Bert Reynolds or Richard Pryor movie scene where either of them meets some beautiful, but insecure, woman who very soon asks him to show her he cares about her — by making love to her. Surely Reynolds or Pryor would be able to give the camera one of their most devilish, gleaming smirks. I would claim that the absurdity of the request as a demonstration of caring or love is not diminished by occurring instead on the third or eighth date or on a wedding night or thereafter.) Neither is bad sex or no sex a communication of lack of love, lack of concern, lack of tender feelings, or whatever. Sex is not an expression of anything, let alone of love. Further, I think it is risky and potentially harmful to believe that it is.

How one touches another is probably a matter of both inborn and early personality and early learning that continues to develop to some extent through one’s lifetime. How you are touched as a child and how your parents teach you to touch pets and other people will probably have a great deal of bearing on how you touch others, both sexually and non-sexually as an adult. In regard specifically to sex, what you learn about style or technique and in some cases even your goals, point of view, or intentions for sex will depend a lot on what you read and hear and on what your partner(s) teaches you — perhaps in direct verbal teaching, but possibly even more so by response to your efforts. If one has the proper curiosity, if one has the proper sensitivity to different ways of touching and being touched, caressed, and massaged, if one has the proper attitude of at least wanting to please the other person, and the sensitivity or sense to look for clues to their response, if one learns by being with someone who is demonstrably (and therefore educationally) responsive and positively reinforcing to your touching them in pleasing ways, then one is likely to learn more pleasing “technique” — that is, personal style. With the wrong inborn personality, bad early training, lack of knowledge, and/or not particularly instructive or responsive partner(s), one’s natural touch is not likely to be or appear particularly loving, regardless of how one feels about their partner or what one intends. And various combinations of inborn and developed personality and training will help cause someone to be that much “better” or “worse” a lover, along with whatever their feelings or intentions are at any given time with any given partner. It is not just your feelings or intentions alone that determine what sort of lover you are or what sort of touch you have.

This is not to say there is a standard set of directions for how to make love to every person or to any given person each time. Different people like different things; some people like different things at different times. But also, different people learn different things and have different instincts about touching. Some people will be more gentle, others more rough; some more responsive to their partner’s needs than others; some more responding to their partner’s actions, some more communicative or demonstrative about what they enjoy; some will be more open to change; others, more desirous of certain patterns; some will have a lighter touch, others will be more forcefully massaging, others able to vary their touch; some will be clumsy and fumbling, others very smooth; some will be comfortable and comforting. And this is apart from what they are thinking and how they feel about their partner.

Whatever one’s ability to please or displease one’s partner probably says too little in general to signal communication either of love or of the lack of it. Selfish playboy seducers or selfish playgirl seductresses —with only the moment and their own desires on their minds may have little love for their partner, but their actions might be quite gentle and stimulating. And on the other hand, there are certainly plenty of people who love others but who have little idea of how to please their loved one sexually, and who therefore may appear in bed either to be rough, unloving, insensitive, or stupid, though none of those may be the case.

A tender kiss is not necessarily a sign of tender feelings. It may be just the way, for whatever reason, that person kisses. Some people kiss better than others. They might be able to send a shiver down the spine of almost anyone they kiss; more people who kiss them might enjoy it better. At a charity kissing booth they might make lots more money than anyone else. But that is not a sign in any way that they are feeling particularly loving toward, or in love with, whom they kiss. And it does not mean that in general they are more loving than anyone who does not kiss as well. Kissing and touching are arts. They depend on knowledge, sensitivity to the moment and to one’s own and the other person’s textures and pressures, positioning, timing, etc.

How one touches, kisses, manipulates, or has intercourse is not necessarily any sort of sign of any inner feeling. It is simply a sign of how that person makes love to you at that moment, given the way you kiss, play with, caress, respond to, and have intercourse with him or her. And since there is no guarantee or even a social convention that kissing, touching, or making love in a certain way is a sign of loving feelings, it does not have to be. A person might kiss you (in a certain way) for any number of reasons. The reason they have might not be that they are intending to tell you they love you.  You’re taking it that way would be your misunderstanding, not their lying or even (intentionally) deceiving you.  Someone might kiss you out of gratitude, lust, loneliness, friendly affection, simple fondness, pity, experimentation, a test of how you will react, to say good night, because they think you expect or want them to, or whatever.

Taking tender (or however), pleasant, “loving” gestures as a sign of loving feelings and being correct about it is still not understanding a communication. Communications are messages a communicator tries to send, not just anything someone thinks they perceive is being said or sent, even if the content, of what they infer or mistakenly think is being said, is true. Even reading body language or signs correctly is not being communicated to; it is being a detective or sensitive student of human nature. When you are right it is because you are perceptive, not because the other person has (intentionally) told you anything; and when you are wrong, it is because you made an error, not because they made an error or lied to you.  If someone tries to hide pain from you, for example, but you can tell anyway that they are in pain, it is not because they have told you about their pain, but because you were perceptive enough to discover it for yourself. Communication involves some sort of intention, by the teller, to convey a meaning in some sort of conventional manner. Communication involves both an intention (to make something known) and convention (as a means of expressing it). Any action can be a sign of things — babies can signify pain by crying — but such non-conventional signs can often signify almost anything (in the baby’s case, hunger, thirst, pain, over tiredness, gas, wet diapers, being too hot or too cold, loneliness, boredom…), and therefore they are not communication in the normal sense. The meteorologist can forecast the weather from certain signs, but that is not because nature is communicating with him. A baseball batter may guess what pitch a pitcher with bad telegraphing habits is about to pitch to him, but the pitcher is certainly not trying to tell, nor in the normal sense telling, the batter what pitch he is going to throw as if they had met beforehand and fixed the game. One cannot tell whether his or her partner has cooked one’s favorite meal because he or she has wrecked the car or has some other bad news, has no other food in the house, wants that meal themself, has good news, is feeling loving, or just thought it was time to have it again. Actions like those can be a sign of anything or nothing and therefore are not a communication at all.

A person who would rely only on such non-conventional signs is very likely to end up in trouble. For example, a person who assumes his spouse no longer loves him because she no longer often kisses him might not find out until he has made damaging accusations (or actions) that something outside the relationship is simply troubling her or that she does not feel well. Likewise, a girl who thinks she is loved because she is kissed or gently touched or made love to in a nice way may be quite drastically mistaken. There are an abundant number of short stories and television and movie plots where mistaken or misinterpreted “communications” cause harm. Many of these are simply reflections of the kinds of mistakes that occur in real life.

One more argument that “loving” body language is not communication is the following one: Consider the baseball pitcher who telegraphs his pitches. Suppose he, either purposely or unintentionally, telegraphs the pitch that he does not throw.  Say, he telegraphs fast ball but throws the slider. If the batter has read the telegraphed signal and sets for the wrong pitch and strikes out, he may have been fooled or deceived, or he may have deceived himself — but he was not lied to. He could have no grounds and would appear crazy or a fool, to claim to the press later that he had struck out because the pitcher had lied to him about what he was going to throw. But if reading such signals is communication, he would have been lied to if the pitcher had intentionally telegraphed the wrong pitch. But even in reality, if a pitcher intentionally telegraphs a wrong pitch to a batter, the pitcher is only trying to trick or deceive the batter, not lie to him. (All lies may be tricks or deceptions, but not all tricks or deceptions are lies.) Hence, reading such signals or making them is not communicating.

Regarding “loving” body language: if a person tells someone he loves them when he knows he does not, this is lying. But kissing a person one does not love (such as out of sympathy or pity, as a very polite way of saying good night, just out of lust or loneliness or appreciation, or simple fondness) is not lying, nor is it even necessarily deceiving them. In this day and age of so much casual sex, one who reads love into every kiss might even be guilty of self-deception. Now it would be self-contradictory to tell someone you love them but you do not love them.

But there is no contradiction in tenderly kissing someone and then telling them you do not love them and you want them to understand you did it because you just wanted to kiss them, because you feel affection but not love for them, because you were drunk, because you felt lustful, because you meant it as a good night gesture, or because you just wanted to be friends. Since this would not be a contradiction, a kiss cannot mean love.

It seems to me that it is terribly important that people understand what sex means both to themself and to the other person, preferably before engaging in it, if they want to have a better chance of avoiding harmful misunderstandings. And the best way to find out what it means to each other is to discuss it in words. Then you are actually communicating what sex means to you — how you feel about it, why you want to have it, why you think it is right to have it with that person now, how you think you are likely to respond tomorrow to having it today, how you feel about the person, what you expect, want, or think about the relationship, etc. Such a discussion might give a better understanding than guessing about body language, particularly guessing in the dark. Sexual intimacy for most people, even in this day and age, is still a very important kind of experience, and it can be devastating if one later finds out it did not have the kind of meaning or importance for the other person that it did for you and that you thought it had and wanted it to have for him or her.

When I taught classes and discussed love as a philosophy topic, I often said that I thought there was nothing wrong in asking someone after a kiss why they kissed you, particularly the first time or on a first date. Two students in the past have objected to the idea. One, a former sailor said, “hell, you don’t need to ask and spoil the mood. When you came off the ship in a port and all those girls were standing around saying ‘hey, sailor, you want to have a good time?’ you knew there was no love involved on either side. The only point is you are also trying not to get money involved either, though that is what she wants.” Maybe so, but such a case is hardly the normal circumstances for a first kiss, caress, or passion with someone you are going out with; I had not exactly been (nor am I now) talking about dates between sailors and wharf- walkers. The other student said that asking for the reason for a kiss even on a date would spoil the mood, ruin the romance, be embarrassing, and cost you any further kisses, sex, or loving responses. I replied that happened sometimes but was rarer than the times it helped you gain an understanding of each other and made it even more desirable and nice. He just shook his head and said he could not imagine his ever asking anything like that at such a time. Then it happened to him.  He came into class one day and said a girl he went out with over the weekend kissed him and asked him why he had kissed her, what it had meant to him. I and the rest of the class were very interested in his reply and what happened. But he said he was so flabbergasted by the fact she had asked him that the only thing he could think to say was to ask whether she had taken my course. She hadn’t. (Had never kissed me either.)

At any rate, kissing or holding hands or even more intimate sex can be for any number of motives and can mean almost anything. If you care about why a person wants to hold your hand or kiss you or go to bed with you, you might be better off asking them. And hopefully, they will not lie to you.  But whether they do or not, at least you will not be deceiving yourself into thinking it has a meaning that is in no way intended. And you will avoid any accidental misunderstandings. There may not be anything wrong with two particular, mature people making love with each other with both knowing they are doing so simply because they want to and have had a nice time together and are in the mood and that it portends nothing in terms of commitment for either in the future (assuming also there is nothing else in their circumstances, such as one of them having venereal disease or being married to someone who does not deserve being cheated on, etc., that would make the act wrong). But there is something wrong (all other things being equal) with it when one thinks it means much more to the other than it actually does. And it may be easily prevented if they discuss the matter ahead of time, particularly if both are honest.

Of course, a perceptive person takes more than the other person’s word into account, since perhaps they are lying or perhaps (and this can be quite likely with less experienced people) deceiving themselves about what it means to them. A naive, innocent young person may be more vulnerable to, and later hurt by, being loved and left than they honestly think they will be. Discussion is still better than no discussion; at least it can help prevent unintentional misunderstanding, and it may help uncover deception or self-deception before (more) harm is done.

Sometimes people think sex is the only way they can show concern or loving feelings, but this is false. You can always tell someone you love them and how you feel about them, even in difficult or complicated cases. At the very least, even if you are not good at describing your feelings, you could describe to them how you would like to act, rather than acting that way without talking. Saying you would like to kiss or cuddle or make love to someone tells as much (or more) than does trying to kiss them, hug them, or actually kissing them or hugging them. Suppose you have certain desires for another, but desires you feel would best not be acted upon or fulfilled. It seems to me that rather than simply stifling or ignoring such desires and saying nothing to the other person, one might, at an appropriate time, simply verbally express the desire by saying something like: “gee, I really would like to (go to the dance with you, kiss you, play tennis with you, discuss politics with you, make love to you, etc.) but I don’t think I ought to (or cannot now) because ….” This way the other person can at least know that you care about them in certain ways.  Sometimes that is important. They may thank you for your comments or say they feel the same way, or they may disagree about the correctness of abstinence. They may even say that they do not feel the same way, at least not at this time. They could also, if they are not nice or understanding, get angry or hostile, but this probably will not usually happen; if it did, it might show you they were not “made in heaven” for you anyway.

Of course, talking is not necessarily romantic even if you are telling someone how much you love them (especially if you do not say it very well), but romance is not always (or perhaps ever) communication. The two are different and may be appropriate at different times. Sometimes, it is more appropriate to communicate, and sometimes it is more important to be romantic, to touch, and/or to be passionate. The point is not to confuse romance, touching, or passion with communication.

There have been a number of girls I have loved in the sense of having passionate, romantic attractions toward, and with whom I got along very well and satisfyingly in many ways, but with whom sexual activity of varying degree would have been a bad idea for various reasons, even though desired. It was often very important to talk about this with them or at least to talk around the subject in such a way as to make each others’ feelings and intentions known.  This often added much to the relationship. If you love someone or miss someone or want someone, but know having them would not be for the best for each other, there is nothing wrong, and there can be something beautiful, in telling them that, rather than in just ignoring the desires or pretending to the other that those desires are non-existent.

One of my closest and fondest loves was a girl who was already engaged to someone when I met her.  We never kissed. But we spent hours talking and walking. We knew how we felt about each other because of the things we said to each other. That knowledge enriched our relationship and our lives. We probably would have married each other, had she not already been committed to another, whom she also loved; and he and she were very good for each other. Our relationship took nothing away from their commitment and their relationship. Her other love and marriage to him took nothing away from our friendship or our feelings for each other.

Some of the closest people are those who have grown old loving each other but behaving simply as loving friends because they were committed (at least to be faithful sexually) to others or because sexual activity of whatever sort might not have been right for some other reason. Still, they could communicate (verbally – by telling or writing) to each other their feelings without trying to do it by making a pass, kissing, or having any degree of sex. Just as sex is not a form of communication about feelings and concerns, words about those feelings and concerns can be a communication without sex. And it can be an important and enriching communication.

One example is Stephen Thayer’s “Close Encounters”: “…touch is the most powerful of all the communication channels — and the most carefully guarded and regulated” (Thayer, 1988). Thayer then goes on to point out five categories of touching: functional-professional (where “touch must be devoid of personal messages”), social- polite (e.g., handshake), friendship- warmth, love-intimacy, sexual-arousal. However, I believe it is not the kind of touch that communicates or carries a message, but the social, verbal, and/or logical aspects of the circumstances in which the touch occurs. A woman patient of a male gynecologist, during a breast examination, for example, would, of course generally be upset and draw back if the doctor, while touching her, said “You know I find you very exciting.” But it would be just as shocking and upsetting if he said it before he touched her. It is not the manner of his touch, but the inappropriateness of his remarks and the uncertainty of what his actions and intentions will be in that kind of vulnerable situation that is upsetting. Or suppose after a normal, professional breast examination, a doctor thinks he may have missed or ignored something. The appropriate action would be to schedule another appointment, not to mention it to the woman at a party they both happen to attend and suggest she let him check her breasts again in a back bedroom. Not because his touch might be any different but because the circumstances or social/emotional “logic” of the situation is meaningful. Or consider a neck massage; it could be given by a professional masseuse, a physical therapist, a nurse, a fellow co-worker (or even a stranger) who sees someone in obvious discomfort huddled over a computer, a lover, one’s mother, or whatever. The massage itself may be indistinguishable whether given by one person or by another; it is the circumstances in which it is given, and the understood relationship between the people, that contributes to the emotional “feeling”, or non-feeling accompanying the massage. A husband might give a purely chiropractic neck massage to his wife in a crowded office or after they have had all the sex either wants. Yet his touch (of her neck) may be the same as when he hopes to sexually arouse her. And the way she responds to the massage will have to do with the context in which it occurs, and with how she feels at the time. Even in the bedroom, if she is angry with him about something, or feeling particularly dispassionate, she may not even be relaxed by his neck massage, let alone aroused. It is not the way someone touches you that means anything in the way communication does; it is the appropriateness of touch in the context of a given situation and in the context of the relationship (at that moment) between the touchers that is important. Even being hit by someone does not, by itself without a context or an accompanying verbal message, tell you why they hit you or what it means. They could even have mistaken you for someone else or assumed incorrectly that you did something terrible.

Of course, touch can be meaningful in a given context; but it is meaningful in the sense of “significant” or “important” or just “highly irregular or unusual”, or “terribly inappropriate”, not in the sense of conveying any specific message. If a stranger were to try to feel a woman’s breasts for lumps or if her doctor were to caress her breasts rather than medically examine them, it would be meaningful in the former sense, not the latter. If she says “What is the meaning of this!” or “What are you doing!”, she is expressing indignation or moral outrage at what he is doing, not at how he is doing it. And she is certainly not simply asking a literal question. But such a sense or use of meaning is not peculiar to touching. If a teacher were to be intentionally teaching French in the class he is supposed to be teaching geometry, that would be meaningful and questionable in the same way. Similarly if his students were having a food fight in the classroom or if you caught someone telling your child lies about you or if a reporter turned in to his editor a story written backwards.

Touch can also be beneficial, right, reassuring, or otherwise appropriate — it can be meaningful in a good way. Thayer’s article points out a number of such possible situations. But whether touch is right or beneficial or not depends on the circumstances and the consequences. It depends on a number of factors, but communication — what the touch means, which by itself is nothing — is not one of them. (Return to text.)

Key Takeaways

  • Since sex is neither necessary nor sufficient for love, sex cannot communicate love.  Insofar as one thinks that sex is a sign of love, one is inferring it, and might be right or wrong.  Incorrect inferences are not miscommunications nor signs of lies.
  • There is nothing inconsistent about having sex with someone and telling him or her you are not in love with them.  Although disappointing, it is not a sign of lying nor necessarily even a sign of deceit.
  • While some people may never be willing to have sex with someone they do not love, that is not guaranteed, and at best shows that sex for them implies they love their partner, but it is not the same as a communicated pronouncement or declaration of love.

Key Terms

  • Communication involves a conventional mutually understood (even if imperfectly on various occasions) means of trying to convey ideas or information from one person to another, through some kind of language or symbolism or gestures that have common meaning.  Communication is a complex concept, which distinguishes it from sex.

Chapter Review Questions

  • Question: What about kissing and touching are arts?
  • Question Why is communication by means of sex impossible?  What are the reasons sex is not a form of communication?


Chapter 13 A Kiss Is Just a Kiss — The Impossibility of Sexual Communication Copyright © 2017 by jhill5 and Richard Garlikov. All Rights Reserved.

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