Sex Without Love By Sharon Olds Sharon Olds poem, Sex without Love, quite passionately expresses the poet’s attitude toward loveless sex as a cold and hurtful act. She accomplishes this through her use of various poetic techniques which evoke clear images in the reader. Her opening words, How do they do it,.., do not simply offer question, but carry a negative connotation of the speaker shaking her head and throwing up her hands in a disgusted manner. Reminiscent of a mother looking at her errant teenager and exclaiming, How could you do such a thing?! She then throws us off the path by referring to her characters as beautiful as dancers…maybe the initial impression was wrong? After all, that implied grace, and the same beauty we see in ice skaters, could lead us to think that this act might be quite lovely. Then Olds returns us to her reality offering the coolness of ice and the slight detachment that professional ice skaters exhibit as they glide almost without seeming to touch the surface.
The image of fingers hooked inside each other’s bodies is so clinical and conveys that detached feeling once again. There is no implication of gentle touch, as she continues to describe the participants. The similes used to describe the overheated lovers, faces red as steaks and wet as the children at birth also carry the same theme. By comparing a lover’s face to a piece of cold, raw beef she leaves us with the image of these people using each other like pieces of meat..weren’t many pick-up places referred to as ‘meat markets’? The reference to mothers giving their children away expresses the speaker’s attitude that these people are likely being irresponsible and without consideration for the consequences of their actions. The paradox contained in the image fingers hooked inside (continuing through)give them away is difficult to determine. Perhaps the representation of fingers hooked inside each others bodies is equating parts of the sex act to the way that an infant is inside a mothers womb.
Line 8 stops us in our tracks – I found that the spacing made me feel an almost physcial halt in my reading. Her use of the pun, come to the combined with the reptition could express exasperation again, that kind of shoulder sagging, breath expelling, God help me type of exasperation when you just can’t understand something at all. It also leads you to think that the speaker is describing the lover’s climax, the repitition building to a peak which leads to the still waters, or the quiet aftermath. The spacing around the word God causes it to stand out from the rest of the words and brings us, again, back to Olds belief that sex and spiritual connection are important. She again returns us (in line 10) to her original premise by questioning how these two could travel this route together without love. It is common theory that men can participate in sexual activity with more removed emotion than women, pehaps our speaker/poet had experiences which were emotionally hurtful.
She write this not long after the free love attitude of the 1970’s, but clearly was never a believer! The reference to light rising, again evokes an image of cool brightness but then brings back the seemingly contradictory reference to the heat of steam rising. She talks of the true religious..the pros..ones who will not accept a false Messiah. This reference reminds us of her view of the lovemaking act as something spiritual, that should not be shared by those without love for each other. Line 16 continues with the reference to loving the priest instead of the God, implying her belief that sex and God are intertwined. She expresses the feeling that these lovers are hypocrites, professing to the truly religious but by using sex purely for their own pleasure are accepting a false God and behaving immorally. The reference to not mistaking the Priest for God could represent Olds believe that these people are, perhaps, not confusing their partner in the act (the Priest) for what Olds would consider the spiritual act (the God) of making love, as one should not confuse the spiritual leader for the God or religion they represent.
By stating that these lovers do not mistake each other for their own pleasure, we are again reminded that these people are not together in this act but each in it by themselves. They do not have that spiritual connection that our poet believes is so important, nor the connected relationship that a person would feel when making love with someone within an emotional relationship. She continues to compare them to great runners who, like the ice skaters at the begnning, are performers and professionals who are somewhat removed from their activity. She states that the runners are alone in their pursuit of the end of the race, as are the lovers without love alone. Line 19, the cold, the wind again gives us that feeling being uncomfortable and in unpleasant conditions.
The lovers are described as more concerned about their shoes fitting, or finding the partner that fits for the day’s run, and more concerned about their sexual desires as expressed by the runners’ concern for their health. As the poem ends, our poet again drives home the lack of partnership in this act, the single body alone. She expresses the emotional removal of these partners in the bed who are only concerned about factors which will create the right situation for their pleasure and their sexual perfomance of the moment. Her final line reinforces this thought, as she reminds us that the truth remains each is alone in the universe and competing against its own best time. Upon initial reading of this poem, one could see it initially as a favorable story of casual sex, but the irony is driven home by second half of Olds poem and her continued reference to the cold and aloneness, revealing her opinions quite clearly. Through this poem, Sharon Olds, has expressed her complete disrespect for those who would participate in casual sex.