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Are You Making Love Or Just Having Sex?

by Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D: Find out what making love really is and how you can do it…


It is often said that “making love” is just a euphemism for “having sex.” To be sure, these terms are frequently used interchangeably. Unfortunately, this common use (or misuse) can mask the important distinction between these two activities. Indeed, many people who have “good sex” mistake it for love only to find out that their apparent lover was not the person with whom they cared to spend their life.

This is not to proclaim the moral, or prudential, superiority of making love. Indeed some would prefer to just have sex. “Sex alleviates tension,” said Woody Allen, “Love causes it.” Still, it is important that one gets what one bargains for.

Of course, making love (as distinct from being in love) necessarily involves having sex. But having sex, even great sex, is not necessarily making love—just as a nice cool beer is not a glass of wine. Truly, some may prefer the taste of the one to the other, and a beer may be the drink of choice on a given occasion (say, at a Knicks game); but it would indeed be unfortunate if one ordered a glass of Merlot in an intimate setting and was served a Budd.

So are you making love or just having sex? Are you getting what you really want? And if not, how can you get it?

The first of these three questions can be answered only if one knows the difference between having sex versus making love. But this, in turn, requires pinning down the meanings of each.

According to philosopher Alan Goldman, sexual desire is desire for contact with another person’s body and for the pleasure which such contact produces; sexual activity is activity which tends to fulfill such desire of the agent.

Goldman claims that sexual activity is not necessarily a means to any further end. For example, procreation is not the essential purpose of having sex; so you are not doing anything wrong (that is, misusing your body) if you are having sex without trying to get pregnant. Indeed, according to Goldman, there is no essential purpose to sex beyond fulfilling your desire for contact with another person’s body.

I think we can take Goldman’s account of sexual activity as a working definition for developing and contrasting the idea of love-making. Inasmuch as sex is a desire for physical contact with someone else’s body, it is a mechanical activity. Rubbing, touching, caressing, kissing, sucking, biting, and, of course, intercourse, as fulfillments of a desire for physical contact, are all sexual activities in this sense. Here, a key word is “mechanical” because these activities are essentially ways of mechanically stimulating or arousing oneself. Per se, they are self-regarding. They seek self-gratification—fulfillment of a purely self-interested desire. As philosopher Immanuel Kant stated, “Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry.” Here the idea that “sexual love” is self-regarding is clearly articulated by Kant. However, for Kant, it is in the transformation from self-regarding to other-regarding sexual activity that sex partners begin to see each other as persons rather than as mere objects or things. Thus he says, “under the one condition, that as the one person is acquired by the other as a thing, that same person also equally acquires the other reciprocally, and thus regains and reestablishes the rational personality.”

Such reciprocal sexual activity is, for Kant, possible only in the context of monogamous marriage where each sex partner gives the other a contractual right to the other’s body. In this case, mutual desires for physical contact with one another’s bodies are gratified by each sex partner. But while this mutual sexual agreement (whether inside or outside the context of marriage) may be a precursor to love-making, the latter takes more than mutual consent to let each other satisfy a sexual desire. This is because such mutuality is still mechanical and focused on one’s own state of arousal as distinct from that of the other and therefore fails to capture the intimate character of love-making. So Kant’s idea of “sexual love,” even in its mutual sense, is not truly that of love-making.

So what else besides mutuality is involved in love-making?

As distinct from mere sex, love-making dissolves the chasm between “you” and “me.” The resolution, however, is not “us” because “we” can still be divided. Instead, in love-making there is the mutual consciousness of unbounded unity without partition. “Love,” says psychologist Eric Fromm, is “in the experience of solidarity with our fellow creatures.” It is, explains Aristotle, “composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” In making love, your loins are mine, and mine yours. The titillations of mine are yours also, and conversely. My past, present, and future; my hopes, dreams, and expectation; and yours, coalesce as one–not two–persons. There is resignation of separateness to inclusion of the other. It is an ecstatic resonance that defies any breach in Oneness.

It takes two to Tango, and so too does it take (at least) two to make love. Unreciprocated love-making is unsuccessful love-making. The flames of love-making are quick to die when one gives oneself, body and soul, only to be turned away. Where the other seeks only a body, wanting only sex, love-making is squandered even if it is not (at least at first) apparent to the one attempting to make love. It is a counterfeit if based on pretense because there is duality, not unity, and there is manipulation and objectification, not authentic, mutual respect.

As philosopher Martin Buber would express it, the intimacy of love-making is at the level of “I-Thou” as distinct from “I-It.” Thus, you cease to be an object or thing and instead become “Thou.” I am bound up with you as Thou and you with me. Of course, as Buber reminds us, the unity of the “I-Thou” is not permanent and I must at some point begin to see you as an “It.” For example, in touching each other’s body, each does what he or she knows is most erotically felt by the other. Here there is a sort of delicate, momentary analysis and deliberate targeting of a body part. But instantaneously each becomes Thou again with co-mingling of not just body but soul. In making love, there is thus a virtually seamless reciprocity between I-It and I-Thou.

There is also powerful symbolism in love-making as depicted. Foreplay gradually builds to climax as in the unfolding of a life of two living as one. As such, making love is inspirational, for it signifies and embodies two mutually living as one.

Erich Fromm maintains that there is separateness as well as unity in love; “In the act of loving, I am one with all, yet, I am myself, a separate, unique, limited mortal human being.” Here, Fromm is careful to stress that love (in all of its manifestations and not just in romantic love) is not bondage and subjection to another human being or denial of one’s autonomy. However, the mutuality of love-making as depicted here guards again domination, for the goal is not to control the other but instead to lose oneself in the other as the other in oneself.

This has implications for the cognitive, perceptual, and symbolic aspects of love-making. When one merely has sex, one perceives the other as an object of pleasure, as Kant describes. In mere sexual activity one may seek to dominate, control, and even humiliate in order to elicit sexual pleasure. Indeed, there are as many ways to cognize and treat one’s sex partner as there are ways the human animal can satisfy a sexual desire. But, love-making is unifying whereas these cognitions are relational and assume logically distinct beings. For example, masochistic sex—thinking of oneself as lowly and servile relegates oneself to something less than and therefore distinct fromone’s sex partner.

In contrast, the language of love-making involves thoughts (and perceptions) that unite rather than separate, divide, or alienate. “Two hearts beating as one” expresses a unifying metaphor, although it is not very sensual; while “I want to feel you all over” can be very erotic but still objectifying. “I want to get lost inside of you” can be both erotic and unifying. Unifying thoughts can be deeply personal and can replay in the mind’s eye moments of intimacy and solidarity. They can reflect tenderness; an adoring (or adorable) look; or the instant when you knew you wanted to be together for an eternity. They can be ineffable and unspoken; simply expressed; or set into poetic verse. “One half of me is yours,” speaks Shakespeare’s Portia ( in his Merchant of Venice), “and the other half—my own half, I’d call it—belongs to you too. If it’s mine, then it’s yours, and so I’m all yours.” In its diverse nuanced forms, from Shakespeare to the average Joe, the language of love-making symbolizes, and invites, the coalescence of two into one. In contrast, compare the dis-unifying, objectifying nature of the four-letter language of just having sex.

Adapting a metaphor gleaned from the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus, the unity experienced in love-making may be compared to an axiomatic system. Each axiom is essential to the system and cannot be understood apart from it; but the system itself is over and above and distinct from any of its axioms. Similarly, the unity of love-making is not possible without the two lovers, but it is over and above and distinct from them. So, in this sense, there is still distinctness in unity. But it is the Oneness of love-making that itself admits of no division.

Accordingly, it is essentially this unifying aspect of the activity of love-making that largely distinguishes it from mere sex. And here is a central “how” of love-making that follows from it: Surrender yourself to the other; sensually coalesce; and trust that the other reciprocates. For, like religious experience, love-making has an element of faith. If you attempt to have sex without such faith, then you will only have sex.

Transcend the self-interested desire for sexual satisfaction so that your sexual partner’s self becomes yours, and conversely, making the goal of other-regarding sex moot.

So, do you have to be in love in order to make love? To get a handle on an answer to this question you might consider what I have had to say in my blog on How good are you at making love? In any event, my considered judgment is that it can help to be in love. But this doesn’t mean that one must be in love. For I suspect that many people make love well before (if ever) they are actually in love.

Given its powerful symbolism, building a loving sexual relationship, as here described, may even pave the way to a more loving relationship beyond the bedroom. Try it out. The taste of wine is what you may crave. But sometimes one may also want a tall, cold one. So it doesn’t mean you can’t, when the mood is right, just have sex.


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