The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Part of the Precipitate

People who know me will know how much I miss the Dux de Lux, and in particular the long conversations we used to have there. We would explore ideas, particularly about sex, in a way it’s often hard to do on line, where people are so intent on fighting their corner and only speaking from an already made-up mind.

So as an experiment, I want to try to do this here. It will involve people feeling safe about sharing their own experiences, and teasing out ideas they’re perhaps not sure of yet, so it will require patient reading.

What I want to talk about is sexual chemistry: the mythology we have around it as a society, and the way it’s actually played out in our lives. Because I know I have some experiences that don’t fit the narrative, and I’m thinking some of you do, too.

So let’s establish the story first. Chemistry (sexual or otherwise, actually) is immediate and instinctive. That obvious smack to the crotch is either there or it isn’t, straight away. You both feel it, and there’s nothing you can do about it, either its presence or its lack. Chemistry will lead, if you let it, to Sexual Awesomeness.

But chemistry is a function of newness. If you continue a relationship, then the chemistry will eventually fade away, it’s just a matter of time. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.

(Things worth noting about that article. Note the title in the tab: “Sexual Ignition ALWAYS Fails”. The headline, “Monogamy RARELY Works” is not what the column says, nor was it, obviously, the original headline. And that’s where Liz Conor falls down, because “monogamy always fails” is no less prescriptive, erasive and unhelpful than “monogamy always works”. Also I don’t think she realises that she’s describing an experience some people have simply never had. Although here we call that “Thumper Rabbit Foot”.)

So. Back to the Sexual Chemistry Mythology. Some anecdata.

Just before I got married, in my early twenties (alright, I was 21), I re-met the boyfriend I’d had between 13 and 15. And we still had some cracking sexual chemistry, despite (or because of) not having seen each other in years. He was my first experience of being completely out of control with desire. I’m still having conversations with people in their thirties or forties who are just having this happen for the first time, who are saying, “None of my other relationships were like this.” And I kind of wonder why, if you don’t have that, you bother having relationships. So that’s where I’m coming from, basically.

And the one time I decided to pursue a relationship with someone I felt no chemistry with, it was a complete disaster. (Here, also, Clarisse Thorn talks about having a chemistry-less sexual relationship.) My “decision” (and I use the word loosely) to pursue a relationship with someone I had nothing in common with BUT chemistry is still going pretty well.

And I’ve had chemistry fade in relationships, and it’s sad and awful. I’ve felt repelled by the touch of a hand that used to thrill me. Though generally, not for long.


Chemistry is mutual, right? It’s a sparking between two people. Except sometimes it’s obviously not. I’ve been the subject of genuinely unrequited desire, and my lack of enthusiasm met with total shock.

I’ve had chemistry slowly fade, and then suddenly return. “Time” is one of the list of things that are supposed to put me off sex that has simply failed to, and that list includes “childbirth”. In Outrageous Fortune, Cheryl describes having this experience with Wolf, that their chemistry simply never faded. Because, if as Liz Conor says it can take years, or a decade, then surely for some people it can take two decades, or three…

It did fade in my “first” marriage, and I accepted that this was just the way things went, that this always happened over time. There was nothing wrong with the relationship, that was just as good as things got. That took two years. I’ve been in my current relationship for eighteen.

I’ve had amazing sexual chemistry with someone, and when we’ve finally made it to bed, the sex has been awful, just awful. What gives? Fuck knows.

Also, sometimes chemistry isn’t immediate. There was a guy I’d known for seven years whom I quite suddenly one day found compellingly attractive. It was mutual, instant, and strong enough to be a problem for both of us. Yet surely, if that was going to happen, it’d had plenty of opportunity. So what gives? Fuck knows.

I also wonder what happens with “chemistry” and different levels of sex drive. If you’re genuinely just not that bothered, do you ever get that gut-punch feeling? Has anyone ever only experienced that feeling with just one person?

So. Pull up a chair, pick the smoking or non-smoking end of the table, get a Bookbinder or Three Boys in you, and let’s talk. What, from your experiences, fits the myth? What doesn’t? Can we re-make the theory so it fits the reality?

29 responses to “Part of the Precipitate

  1. tallulahspankhead November 2, 2011 at 10:36 am

    “Get a Three Boys in you”. Well, if you insist.

    Ok. You and I have talked about this, and how….this is hard to talk about. Always, but especially currently.

    My most serious long term relationship (shut up! I’ve had them!) was with someone I had instant chemistry with. On both a sexual and…intellectual (for want of a better word) level. We sparked. The first time he touched me, my skin tingled. The first time he kissed me….well, by then we’d known each other for 3 years, and he was cheating on his wife, and it was illicit, and I was drunk on tequila and lust, and it was ammmaaaazzzing. And I was hooked. We lost the personal connection, but we never lost that physical spark. it’s one of the reasons (along with his immense twatcockery) that I don’t see him now. That immense attraction is dangerous.

    I’ve had sex with people I’ve had no chemistry with, and while it hasn’t been uniformly bad, it hasn’t been mind-blowing either. I’ve had immense sexual attraction to someone I can’t stand personally. I’ve had it fade, and ebb, and one day suddenly grasp me by the throat all “oh hai! bet you’ve been wondering where I was.”

    Still. As an “incorrigible flirt” (it’s like breathing), I often misread attraction. Sometimes, I think it is there, because someone flirts back, and is cheeky and funny and makes me smile, only to kiss them, and feel nothing. That’s the most disappointing thing.

    Well. Except to have someone say “It would help if I could look at you without wanting to touch you” and then do everything they can to _not_ touch you. That sucks beyond the the telling.

    • Emma November 2, 2011 at 11:11 am

      Heh, for length I left out a diversion into non-sexual chemistry, because that “intellectual” spark you talk about is certainly a thing. It’s when that combines with the physical one that I’m really seriously in trouble.

      I have also had chemistry (and a three month relationship followed by six months of boinking) with someone I couldn’t stand and had no respect for. But that’s part of the myth of chemistry, yes? That it makes us (and by “us” I mean “women”) do (and by “do” I mean “fuck”) really stupid things.

      Battling chemistry when it’s inappropriate (which I’ve had to do with one of the guys I’ve talked about here, and also with one of my best friends) is just the hardest thing. I’ve known the friend I fell in love with for twenty years, and sometimes it still sparks up. The best I’ve managed to do sometimes is squish it down so hard it pops up in my dreams just when I think I’ve got it beaten.

      • tallulahspankhead November 2, 2011 at 11:29 am

        But that’s part of the myth of chemistry, yes? That it makes us (and by “us” I mean “women”) do (and by “do” I mean “fuck”) really stupid things.

        Well, in fairness, it _has_ made me do some fairly stupid things. (and by “things” I mean “people”).

        But then, so has alcohol, and I have no intention of giving that up, either.

        • Emma November 2, 2011 at 11:33 am

          Oh, yeah, I think that’s a part that holds true. But it’s also true for men, yet you don’t get that equivalent of “nice guys” thing grow up around it.

  2. Rebecca November 2, 2011 at 11:05 am

    The first time I met my current man 3 and a half years ago,we had that heady sexual attraction where we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. it was illicit and all consuming and he described me as ‘addictive’ and hard to keep his hands off. That relationship ended rather abruptly due to his personal circumstances but earlier this year we reconnected after my previous relationship had ended. That old chemistry is still there,he still can’t keep his hands off me and this time things are easier because we have a friendship as well.

    “It would help if I could look at you without wanting to touch you”

    I know that phrase oh so well and then to have them say “You’re very hard to stay away from” that sucks as well,because you know what that means.

    My relationship history is littered with burnt out sexual chemistry,mainly because that was all that was there,and once that’s gone,I got bored and moved on. I always wondered what was wrong with me,then I realised I was missing the intellectual side of chemistry as well and for a smart girl that was kind of “D’Oh” moment!

    Who knows what will happen with my current man,but we can talk and have great sex and its the easiest thing ever… who wouldn’t want that?

    • tallulahspankhead November 2, 2011 at 11:17 am

      Who knows what will happen with my current man, but we can talk and have great sex and its the easiest thing ever… who wouldn’t want that?

      I think that’s what we all want, isn’t it? It certainly is what I want.

  3. Bart Janssen November 2, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Because I doubt there is a definitive right answer to any of this, I’ll pass on my anecdota. So I’m a scientist, and very much a science geek, I read outside my field because some of this stuff is just way cool. I know about pheromones and major histocompatability complexes and sexual cycles and testosterone in saliva etc etc.

    But I’ve also failed in a marriage. Yes I mean failed. I failed to pay attention to my partner and failed to do the daily things that restore and reinvigorate the chemistry that used to exist with my first wife. And I know that it’s possible to maintain that stuff because my current relationship, formed in a rush of chemistry that overwhelmed me, is still strong and while the chemistry is not there all the time it can and does come back regularly enough to be exciting.

    So from my personal experience that chemistry stuff is amazing and left to it’s own devices it does fade, for good sound biological reasons. But it is also possible to maintain it. For me that means consciously paying attention. Actually looking at my partner, actually talking with my partner and listening. When I do those things the chemistry comes back and I get, as she puts it, … frisky.

    And the science geek in me wants to know how that works because it’s pretty clear to me that my attitude and attention is changing the way I respond to her pheromones.

    Could that approach work with someone with whom I never had any chemistry, I just don’t know. The geek in me doubts it because I suspect the initial lack of chemistry really is all about pheromones and MHC similarity, but I don’t know because I haven’t experienced that and experience trumps theory. Also that’s not an experiment I am interested in trying.

    • Emma November 2, 2011 at 11:17 am

      And I know that it’s possible to maintain that stuff because my current relationship, formed in a rush of chemistry that overwhelmed me, is still strong and while the chemistry is not there all the time it can and does come back regularly enough to be exciting.

      This, yes. Though I don’t think that means my first marriage could have succeeded if I’d tried harder, you need something more than will. But Conor’s column is very much “when it’s gone, it’s gone, just accept it”, and that’s totally not my experience. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

      I’m also of the opinion that good sex enhances pair-bonding, ergo it becomes a sort of feedback loop. Making the effort makes it easier to make the effort. (That sounds dreary and mechanistic, but I think you know what I mean.)

      • Bart Janssen November 2, 2011 at 11:28 am

        “Making the effort makes it easier to make the effort. (That sounds dreary and mechanistic, but I think you know what I mean.)”

        Sorry it’s Wednesday and I have to go home early to have sex before Masterchef starts :).

      • Moz November 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm

        I’m definitely in the “work at it” camp. I suspect for the possibly unusual reason that I find chemistry with lots of people. I’m a flirt rather than a slut, honest, but I just find a lot of people attractive. So for me the chemistry is neither here nor there. Chemistry makes it easier to do the work at it stuff, and without it I can’t imagine bothering with a relationship. (have I just made all the memes about bisexuals and polyamorous people worse by saying that?)

        I read an interesting blog post the other day that was about the difference between “doing it because you love her”, “doing it because she’s a bitch and you’ll never hear the end of it if you don’t”, and “doing it because they’re a Dom and they demand it”. The point was that the actual actions can be the same, it’s the emotional content that’s different.

        That resonated for me because a chunk of what I do in my relationship is all about loving and caring, but it would only take a few bitch moments for me to stop wanting to do it.

        • Emma November 2, 2011 at 2:07 pm

          Pff, yeah, you and me, all exploding myths about bisexuals, all the time. Because yeah, I have often had the opportunity of choosing chemistry, which I’m thinking is a kind of privilege. I feel it, and I have it felt for me.

          One of the things that boggles me about Conor’s column is that she seems to be saying that people have affairs because the sexual chemistry in their existing relationship has faded. And the two people I know who’ve had affairs recently? So not the reason. In both cases, the trigger appeared to be stress in an area of their life unrelated to their relationship. Adultery is one of the things, like smoking, drinking and violence, that’s become more common in Christchurch since the February earthquake. That sounds a great deal more like a stress response than a boredom one.

          • Moz November 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm

            That sounds a great deal more like a stress response than a boredom one.

            A hearty “well, duh” from me on that.

            I still laugh when I see the word adultery. In my head it’s “adult-ary” instead of “a-dul-tree” and my instinctive response is “that’s not adult, that’s naughty-child-time-out-for-you”. Aren’t adults supposed to be all responsible and serious and stuff? “Act like an adult” is working hard and going to church, not getting shitfaced and shagging strangers (stop laughing!)

          • Emma November 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm

            Ha, yes, me too. The word Adultery always cracks me up, it’s so pretentious and silly. “Well, I’m an adult, so…”

            Though I have recently discovered that the word “affair” is heavily-loaded for me too, and means something different from what it does to a lot of other people ie I consider it to imply some level of emotional commitment. Well, perhaps “entanglement” is a better word than “commitment”.

          • Bart Janssen November 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm

            “people have affairs because the sexual chemistry in their existing relationship has faded”

            I think there can be some truth in that, sometimes. But I also think that humans have a pretty strong drive to “be in love”. If the relationship you are in has lapsed (for want of a better word) through fading chemistry and/or lack of attention. Then I think it’s possible to end up essentially flatting with your partner and not much more.

            That someone in that situation then falls for someone else is not terribly surprising.

            Note the above is not meant as an excuse for causing someone else pain nor meant as a universal explanation.

    • Hugh November 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm

      I just wanted to chip in and say it was very brave of you to share this, Bart.

  4. Bart Janssen November 2, 2011 at 11:31 am

    “Though I don’t think that means my first marriage could have succeeded if I’d tried harder”

    And it is definitely NOT my implication that marriages fail because people don’t try hard enough.

    All I was saying was that MY case, there was a distinct failure on my part to pay attention that ultimately had a huge amount to do with the relationship ending.

    Very much an observation of MY experience and not intended to apply to all relationships.

    • Emma November 2, 2011 at 11:35 am

      Oh, no, I meant “that specific relationship”. The “chemistry just fades” myth had disguised the fact that there was something about that marriage, about the two of us, that simply fundamentally didn’t work. What scares the hell out of me is the idea that, had I not met Karl, I might have maintained that as my benchmark of “as good as it gets”, and kept living like that. Chills my soul.

  5. Isabel November 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I’ve had the kick-you-in-the-crotch chemistry at first meeting and the time it became a relationship that relationship was….tumultuous. We couldn’t keep away from each other and we couldn’t stop hurting each other either. It was heady and exhausting.

    The best sex I have had has been with people with whom the chemistry wasn’t initially there but arrived (with a bang) after years of knowing each other. Getting to share all the thrill of the new with someone you already love is pretty awesome!

    I’ve been with my partner for over 14 years and he definitely still makes my heart do that flippy, floppy thing. I love that we still have that chemistry (and its been there even in the small-baby years when we were too tired to act on it very much) but I don’t think losing it would be the death-knell for our relationship. Sex is a wonderful part of our relationship but it is only one part of the life we have built together.

    I think some of this ties into to the question of whether monogamy is something we do by default or something we actively choose. I’ve felt that chemistry with people who aren’t my partner and, if it was all about sex I might have acted on it. That I continue to choose monogamy says more about all the other aspects of our relationship than it does about the bits that happen in bed.

    • Jackie Clark November 6, 2011 at 11:41 am

      I don’t have sex with my husband, I haven’t had sex with him for the last 18 years of our almost 21 year relationship. I think I was about 30 when we stopped having sex. The people who know me know why that happened – he got leukemia, he had chemo for a year, his sexual function ceased to be. (Think Monty Python). But it shocks people who do not. Can I tell you, from long experience, that our marriage has probably survived in a much healthier way because of it? When we met, I had a high sex drive, and he did not. If, for all those years, I had been fighting with him to have sex, I can’t imagine what our marriage would look like. I don’t even know if we would still be together. Having no sex in our relationship has been, funnily enough, enormously freeing. We hug and kiss, I still get butterflies when I see him. We touch, all the time. All that stuff is still there. And yes, I get horny, but by now, I am very good at pleasing myself. I will never have sex with anyone outside the marriage, because I am fiercely loyal to him, and he to me, and neither polyamory nor extramarital affairs are something I’m interested in. Did his illness cement our care and love for each other? Most certainly. I became his mother tiger, and his protector, as well as the person who loves him best in the whole world, and he loves me the best of anyone in the world, too.
      All of this is by way of saying that I do not agree with the article. Chemistry has not only not faded, in my experience, in our long relationship. It survives without sex. Perhaps chemistry is related to touch? Who can say why it fades? Certainly not I, for in my case, it has not.

      • Isabel November 6, 2011 at 8:02 pm

        I was hoping you’d share your experience (and I really appreciate your openness). I think (though as I said previously do not wish to test the theory) that we would survive the loss of actual sex from our relationship better than we would survive losing all the non-sexual touching and kissing and butterflies which it sounds like you guys have in spades. We’ve had some sexless periods (related to pregnancy and ill-health) and got through them fine, mostly because we compensated with a lot of other forms of closeness. Not that we weren’t both delighted to get back to the boinking when the time came.

        • Jackie Clark November 6, 2011 at 8:19 pm

          Yes. I do wonder if those things are what keeps the embers alive, rather than the sex itself. Maybe it’s like in the 50’s when “good girls” didn’t have sex before marriage. That frisson. I like to think so.

  6. Emma November 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Sex is a wonderful part of our relationship but it is only one part of the life we have built together.

    I THINK my relationship could survive lack of zappy chemistry. I don’t think it could survive lack of sex, without becoming polyamorous. Sex is just too much a part of my make-up. Though I’m struggling to imagine how that could happen, anyway. I mean, we’ve been through a hell of a lot together, some really draining and terrible crap that’s gone on for years, so we have an enormous amount invested in each other. But I cannot foresee a state of being where I could live without sex.

    • Isabel November 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm

      I don’t know that I could do without the sex and I know that I couldn’t do without intimacy, both physical and emotional. Mostly I’m just really, really hoping I never need to find out.

      When I think about the times when the chemistry has fizzled out there have always been other losses in the relationship – loss of trust, loss of other intimacies, loss of communication. I suspect that, for me and beyond the initial rush, sexual chemistry is an indicator of the health of the whole relationship. I can’t imagine losing that spark in a relationship that was otherwise good.

  7. Kat November 2, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Chronicling all my relationships ever by either Sex, Dating or Friendship I notice most of them are Sex first and then Dating later. One or two were also Sex then Friendship. However, the few that were Dating first and Sex later were the bad ones!!
    To me this suggests that my sexual chemistry is immediate and instinctive and my best relationships are when we hook up from GO. We stay to together for at least a while and get along, breakups and relationship quality are from other factors I find out later.
    I always felt like I jump in deep end by extending most of my hook ups into dating but maybe my subconscious is doing all the work for me! I will note that there are plenty of hot people I could have slept with but held back from at the last moment.

  8. Clarisse Thorn November 3, 2011 at 12:11 am

    GREAT post, and thanks for the linkback to mine. My closest answer to the “WTF is chemistry ANYWAY” question is pretty much wrapped up in my own post where I’m talking about arranged marriages, and segue into:

    But couldn’t all this be a false dichotomy? Who says it’s about arrangement versus randomness — chemistry versus choice? Can we have both? Can we find the big love, and nurture that so it develops into the pearl love, too?

    My ultimate conclusion about the Art and Science of Flirting, from my “studies” of pickup artists and also my entire life, is that flirting is all about strategic ambiguity. Deliberate uncertainty. Manipulating ambiguity and uncertainty can contribute to many intense feelings.

    Some people learn this, and decide that the only way to have a relationship with chemistry is to include a constant generous dollop of uncertainty about love, loyalty, or something equally important. These people decide chemistry can only derive from little pieces of confusion: tiny mismatches that lodge underneath the similarities that bring people together, constantly unsettling, like a prickly burr. But I don’t think that’s what I want.

    And after all, S&M creates extraordinary feelings too, but plenty of people do S&M in very controlled circumstances: pre-discussed, with safewords and so on. Arguably, S&M is another form of mismatch, of contrast, of uncertainty — but it’s a form that can be managed. So I know all about creating intense uncertain feelings in controlled circumstances, and using those to contribute to stable and reliable loving relationships. Don’t I?

    But seriously. WHO KNOWS?

    • Emma November 3, 2011 at 11:07 am

      Hi Clarisse,

      I seriously cannot tell you (no, wait, looks like I can) how useful I’ve found your writing over the last year or so while I’ve been trying to work out a lot of this stuff out-loud in my head. There aren’t many people who are prepared to peel back the assumptions, and the stuff we argue about, right back to the fundamentals and say, actually this concept that’s the basis for all of this? We don’t really know what this is.

      So I know all about creating intense uncertain feelings in controlled circumstances, and using those to contribute to stable and reliable loving relationships.

      I’ve had a Dom with whom I have very difficult-to-manage chemistry, and it’s something that’s kind of nagged at me, that the BDSM aspect of the relationship could be consciously regulated, but the chemical attraction near-impossible to manage unless it’s made part of the BDSM dynamic. So, I can’t keep my hands off you unless you tell me to… which is fraught in itself. Control is a tricky beggar, and possibly a whole nother post.

  9. Ben Wilson November 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    For me, the best sex has been always quite some way into a sexual relationship. I’ve never experienced an awesome first shag. Never.

    The same goes for friendships, strangely. I’ve never met anyone who I fell into instant friendship with. Maybe there’s a connection. I make up my mind slowly, I form bonds slowly.

    Not much more to say on it from me, other than chemistry seems like a misnomer. Chemicals produce reliable interactions. Same chemicals, same reactions. A much better description from science would be “strange attractors”. Things that can rove between reliable attraction, to random attraction, to reliable repulsion, depending on some conditions, which, if changed could drastically flip the states around for quite small movements. Or, in some setups, considerable change to conditions can’t destroy the attraction.

    But chaos theory is so 90s.

  10. Sharp December 4, 2011 at 4:57 am

    Well, the word chemistry does not necessarily mean a mental comfort it also means a physical spark with a touch or a mere though of the guy or girl this is about. Ladies may find different kind of guys attractive at their certain point of ovulation periods. When the periods close in you may find manly guys attractive otherwise the cute guys. I have this feeling that a girl should try to find someone they are physically attracted to initially rather than some one they are comfortable with. A lady may always be comfortable with someone who looks or behaves a lot like his dad or brother or a highschool crush she was close to but it does not assure a physical chemistry. Figure out what u like…tall…dark…or cute.explore to find out the rest.

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