Originally published in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
When I was first starting to have sex as a teenager in the mid-90s, Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” was like a generational anthem. I have vivid memories of having sex in a car in a park-and-ride, the bass of that song reverberating throughout the vehicle.
I have since learned that Trent Reznor wrote the song largely about his own mental health struggles, and not as a prescription for animalistic sexuality. Nevertheless, for many of us who were first learning about our own sexuality when that song was at the height of its popularity, the chorus was aspirational, what we thought sex should be, if only we were any good at it.
I say aspirational because, looking back, the experience of having sex as a young person to this song is an odd juxtaposition. And perhaps I should only speak for myself; my peers may have been having wild, uninhibited sex. But what I remember is being turned on by the idea of sex that felt as intense and carnal as this song was, but not yet being able to realize it.
My early experiences of sex, while sweet, were largely awkward and fumbling; they were an expression of two people who didn’t yet know their own bodies or understand their own desires. This, I believe, raises a couple of important questions. What is it that makes good sex? Is this something that is innate or animalistic, as this song and others like it suggest, or is it something that we need to learn?
“Fucking like animals,” as a trope, suggests that sex is better when you somehow free yourself of all the of the cultural programming and overthinking that often accompanies sex. Or it is what happens when you get out of your head and experience your body and the body of another person in some sort of unmediated way, the way that animals do (or rather, the way we assume animals do, I honestly don’t know anything about animal sexuality).
And in some ways, this seems right to me. I’m a fairly analytical person who is prone to spending more time analyzing sex than actually experiencing it, and so the standout sexual experiences in my life were the ones that pulled me out of my head, the ones that felt the way “Closer” sounds.
However, I think it is a mistake to assume that these experiences are somehow natural, or, in other words, that we don’t need to put a tremendous amount of work in learning about our bodies, our desires, and our sexuality in order to have them. And importantly, into building relationships that have enough trust that we can truly let go and give into these experiences.
As a young person, I did aspire to have the sort of sex that I thought Reznor was singing about, sex that was so raw that it neared transcendence, bringing me closer to God. And I have certainly had really incredible sexual experiences that I would describe this way. But I was only able to do so once I knew enough about how pleasure worked in my own body, how to be confident enough to assert my desires, and how to meaningfully relate to my partners. Good sex came with time, patience, and communication. It wasn’t necessarily natural, but it was worth it.