"They slipped briskly into an intimacy
from which they never recovered."
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
So, what is intimacy exactly? The answer depends on who you ask. Many of us use the word as a softer, more discreet way of describing sexual activity. Like, “we were intimate last night” or “how long has it been since you’ve been intimate?”. But the definition goes well beyond the bedroom.
Intimacy is more emotional than physical and sometimes it has nothing to do with sex. That’s why couples can become closer and more connected as they age, even when they have sex less frequently. It’s also why we can form intimate relationships with people who aren't our lovers, like friends and members of our family.
There are longer lists out there, but these are the four types of intimacy according to Michael Krychman, M.D. (he’s a coauthor of The Sexual Spark-20 Essential Exercises to Reignite Passion):
– same place at the same time –
and you’re spending quality time together
You’re connecting around shared
thoughts and emotions
You’re enjoying physical touch without sex –
like hugging and kissing
You’re engaging in some form of sexual activity
The Elements of Intimacy
Intimate relationships share some key characteristics.
Knowledge – both sharing your deepest and darkest
Interdependence – you're making decisions together – influencing each other
Care – each of you show concern for the others wellbeing
Trust – you both believe that your partner will not cause you harm
Responsiveness – to each other’s needs
Commitment – both of you want the relationship to continue indefinitely
Are There Benefits to Intimacy?
According to the experts, stress reduction tops the list of benefits we get when we’re involved in an intimate relationship. It also cures loneliness and reduces the risk of mortality. And intimacy can increase the level of oxytocin in our brains. It happens when we engage in intimate acts like touching, being touched, or even making decisions together. And, according to Dr. Krychman, “if you are connected in a loving relationship, you have more of the happy hormones like dopamine.”
When it comes to our sexual relationships, intimacy can heighten pleasure because of its effect on inhibition. However, the benefits can transcend the physical and intensify the emotional side of sex when couples share mutual history, love, and trust.
Can You Have Sex Without Intimacy?
The quick answer is yes, absolutely. But, of course, it's not that simple. While some of us can enjoy sex without the emotional and romantic components of love, others think of sex only in the context of an intimate relationship. Neither is right and neither is wrong - the point is to know ourselves so that we can make our own best decisions when it comes to sex.
Studies looking at casual versus committed sex have been conducted, but so far they're not conclusive. Results of some have found that women experience a negative impact after engaging in casual sex like anxiety, regret, and depression. Other research has shown positive outcomes when women have sex without intimacy, like increased self-esteem, sexual pleasure, and self-awareness. These mixed results make sense, because our attitudes and beliefs about sex are informed by our individuality: our history, beliefs about sexuality, identity, religion, and romantic expectations.
Proceed With Caution, Ladies
When the question is casual versus committed, the important thing is to be honest with yourself about your ability to carry on a non-intimate sexual relationship without walking away hurt or with a bruised sexual self-esteem. So, ask yourself these questions, if this is something you’re contemplating.
- What am I looking for – sexual gratification or do I need something deeper?
- Can I handle sex without an emotional connection?
- Will my expectations be met if I never hear from them again?
- Do I feel free from negative attitudes about casual sex?
- When I think about casual sex, I do/don't have feelings of guilt or shame.
- Am I able to surrender myself to sexual pleasure without an intimate connection with my partner?
- Can I envision myself feeling empowered afterwards?
The point is to be clear about what you want and deliberate about the way your sexual self-esteem will be impacted.
I hope it goes without saying that there is no right or wrong here and no matter what you decide, you'll be swimming in a large pool of normal. Just remember that there are some real-life risks associated with having sex with someone who is not well known to you. So, take the proper security precautions, make sure you’re clear on your likes, dislikes and boundaries, and always use protection that's appropriate for your circumstance.
As in all things, the way you choose to be intimate (or not) comes down to personal choice. What you feel good about and what makes you happy.
Intimacy, at its core, is feeling close and connected to another person. Sometimes intimate relationships are sexual and sometimes they are not. But they're always good for our physical and mental health, our longevity, and for the way they connect us with someone outside of ourselves.