[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Sutton analyzes thematic and stylistic contrasts in the poem "Sex Without Love."]
Sharon Olds's frequently anthologized poem "Sex Without Love" gains power through three contrasts: a contrast between surface approval and deeper criticism of "the ones who make love / without love"; a contrast between emotional coldness and physical heat; and a contrast between the poem's solemn, philosophical tone and its reliance on sexually graphic puns.
Many images within the poem appear to suggest that the speaker admires people who partake of sex without love. They are almost immediately described as being "beautiful as dancers," and later are compared with ice-skaters, "the true religious / the purists, the pros," and "great runners." All of these comparisons seem, at first glance, favorable.
Those whose sex is loveless seem to be favorably portrayed in another respect as well: They are described as purer and more profound than ordinary lovers. We are told that they are "the ones who will not / accept a false Messiah, love the / priest instead of the God." Here, ordinary lovers seem at best unenlightened, at worst heretical, while those whose sex does not involve love seem holier, more theologically insightful because their highest urges are not grounded in the physical. And after comparing the loveless sex partners to "great runners," the speaker points out that these runners do not, finally, race against other runners but against their "own best time"--an approach which seems deeper and more refined than that of the typical runner.
But when the images are examined more closely within the context of the poem, the speaker's attitude emerges as far less approving. As Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz point out [in their Instructor's Manual to Accompany Literature: The Human Experience, 1996], "while [the images] do express admiration, it is the admiration for a virtually nonhuman . . . obsession with self." There is, after all, something narcissistic in the performance of fine dancers and ice skaters; the runners, in their concern with their "own best time," ignore their fellow humans in the race; and "the ones who will not / . . . love the / priest instead of the God," their surface purity notwithstanding, choose the abstract and reject the human. Thus, Olds suggests that the loveless sexual partners lack human warmth: They are "gliding over each other like ice-skaters / over the ice," and like great runners, they are "alone / with . . . the cold."
To underscore the partners' emotional coldness, Olds contrasts it with the physical heat they generate during sex. They are described as having "faces red as / steak"--an image which emphasizes the heat of the moment and yet, paradoxically, reduces the sexual partner to the status of a piece of raw meat. Later, there is an image of "light / rising slowly as steam off their joined / skin." Yet remarkably, the sexual techniques which have created all this heat are portrayed implicitly as impersonal if not downright hostile: The partners are described as having "fingers hooked / inside each other's bodies."
Even more jarring is the image used to portray the partners' sweat in the heat of passion: They are "wet as the / children at birth whose mothers are going to / give them away." This image dramatizes the ultimate refusal to acknowledge emotional attachment as a consequence of sexual intercourse. Moreover, as Abcarian and Klotz note, since the partners are compared not to the rejecting mother but to the rejected children, they are portrayed as "people [who] have been cut off from a profound source of our humanity."
But perhaps the strongest implicit condemnation of the loveless sexual partners is expressed in lines 8 through 11:
The jagged, insistent rhythm of line 9, with each repetition of "come to the" set off by extra spaces, surely mimics the rhythmic thrusting and heavy breathing of the sexual partners (the heavy breathing being another link to the runners, dancers, and ice skaters). The word "God," also set off by extra spaces, is further isolated and emphasized because it breaks the rhythm of the repeated dactylic phrase "come to the" with a spondee. Thus, "God" not only is the grammatical object of "come to the," but also stands alone as the loveless sex partners' orgasmic moan. Given the imagery of these lines, and especially the fact that the partners will "not love / the one who came there with them," the statement two lines later that these partners "will not love / the priest instead of the God" seems much more negative. For just as the priest helps people to reach God, so the unloved sexual partner has helped the person who engages in sex without love to reach orgasm. Thus, implicitly, the "God" that the sexual partners love, and seek to reach, is orgasm itself.
Besides exemplifying the contrast of emotional coolness with physical heat and the contrast of surface approval with deeper condemnation, lines 8 through 11 also exemplify the third contrast: that between the poem's solemn philosophical questions and its reliance on sexual puns. In these lines, of course, the pun involves the word "come," as the speaker questions how the sex partners can come to God/orgasm and to the "still waters" (suggesting not only the Twenty-third Psalm but also the calm after the wetness leading to and climaxing in orgasm) without loving "the one who came there with them."
The poem also begins and ends with sexual puns. When the poem begins "How do they do it, the ones who make love / without love?" the question has to do not only with the separation of sexual intimacy from emotional commitment, but also with sexual methods. The poem's later description of impersonal sexual techniques tells exactly how they "do it," in both senses of those words. And in the final lines, where the loveless sex partners are compared with great runners, those runners are concerned not with other human beings but with "the fit" (of their shoes, admittedly), as well as with "the truth, which is the / single body alone in the universe / against its own best time." The final line echoes thousands of messages on bathroom walls about phone numbers to call "for a good time."
But even if the persons described in Olds's poem do call others "for a good time," emotionally they are always alone, even when engaging in sex with someone else; their partners, priestlike, may have helped them to reach their orgasmic God, but their focus is entirely on their solitary enjoyment of that God.