Israeli-Australian author Lee Kofman dreamed of a love that could coexist with sexual freedom. With this in mind, she decided to experiment with an open marriage. Kofman has since written a book about her experience – including the period where sex become so rare she and her partner Noah saw a sex therapist.
The longer our relationship continued, the more heavily the sex weighed on us.
Sexless doesn’t describe how we were together. Our bodies touched constantly; we’d built our love upon the sensuality of caresses, of a hand in another’s hand. At night, we slept intertwined. When Noah touched me, I often shuddered. He loved it when I covered his wide, brown face with kisses, when I held him in my arms, but my touch didn’t seem to affect his nerve ends the way his did mine.
Rather than being sexless, I’d say we were fuckless. We made love perhaps once a month, occasionally more, but we hardly ever fucked. Noah claimed to be happy, yet I found it difficult to believe he needed so little sexually. In every other way, he was a man of ardour. I loved his energy, his fierceness, the fact that his favourite mode of conversation was argument, whether about carbon reductions or the Magpies.
I loved that his decision-making was quick and his humour dark. He drove like a daredevil, danced well, and generally moved with vitality. His love for me was vital too. You would call Noah passionate if you expanded the application of the word. He phoned to say he loved me during even his most chaotic working hours.
He bought an overpriced, indecently red massage armchair just because I said I liked it. At weekends, he’d rise early to get coffee and croissants from the Starbucks downstairs while I slept. He bought me dresses that always fitted. Despite his lack of interest in poetry, Noah accompanied me whenever I did a public reading.
‘Look at my wife,’ he was in the habit of saying to anyone who cared to listen, ‘Isn’t she beautiful? I have no idea what’s she doing with me.’
Then his generous lips would pout in that particular way I loved, waiting for my kiss.
When we first met, I was struck by Noah’s smell. Unlike the meaty smells of Israeli soldier men, his embodied the civilised man - a complex bouquet of fine cologne, chewing gum, Marlboros and fresh laundry. A long way into our togetherness, I’d sniff his clothes and wear his t-shirts whenever he was away travelling for work. As time passed, though, I stopped noticing his smell. Or maybe I willed myself to stop.
In our first years together, the strangeness of our passion that was passionless - or our non-passion that was so passionate - was less in the foreground for me. Shortly after Noah and I moved in together, my Australian residency was finalised, ending my years of not being able to study and working in odd underpaid jobs. I then plunged into chasing my version of the Australian dream, acquiring degrees, local professional work experience and, most importantly, becoming a writer in English. When my work began appearing in Australian and overseas journals, this counted for almost everything.
I then plunged into chasing my version of the Australian dream...
Sex, I’d already exhausted with J; and then with him and Noah simultaneously and intermittently, during that year of madness when there were several other lovers too, when sex seemed like the most potent remedy. But once J returned to Israel, I redirected my libidinal energy into my work. During my years with Noah, I’d sometimes forget I had a body or, rather, the kind of body that could be loved.
At other times, I missed being grabbed, ravished. I had several secret crushes on the most improbable men: a chronically drunk poet with green fingernails; a much older novelist, who advised me on my writing; a much younger student at the social work faculty where I taught. I was disgusted with my desires, which were not even desires but compromises, as they were dependent on who I came across. I never acted on those desperate whims and remained technically monogamous.
One night, I dreamed I was talking to one of the lecturers from my faculty, a lovely, but quite formidable and earnest lady, as social work educators tend to be. During our conversation, which was also earnest and formidable (having something to do with my academic future), I realised I was absent-mindedly wiping my face with a penis. It wasn’t attached to anyone, but was a stand-alone fleshy, pulsating, firm entity, dripping sperm onto my face. I kept massaging the sperm, as though it were moisturiser, into my skin. The lecturer politely ignored my preoccupation, as people do when noticing someone picking their nose.
As I recorded the dream in my journal, I knew things were getting complicated, since, rather than finding this funny, I felt nauseated and deeply ashamed of something I couldn’t even name.
Eventually, sex came to colour much of our marriage. Out of sexual frustration, I began, at first jokingly, then compulsively, squeezing Noah’s nose - allegedly, to clean his pores. This ritual, of course, didn’t enhance my appeal in my husband’s eyes. At times, I spoke to him abruptly, dismissively, even in front of our friends. We began fighting over things that previously hadn’t mattered: the television not having been switched off, a joke that was too close to the bone.
‘I find it difficult to reconcile love with sex,’ Noah told me.
‘You’re too strong for me,’ he also said. The ‘too’ was particularly hard to take.
I walked around feeling muscly, massive, looming. Too strong to be made love to, but just strong enough to be loved forever, as Noah promised. The scarred body I was packaged in following childhood surgeries meant I had always been alert to the possibility of sexual rejection, but the first time I encountered it was with my husband, the man who loved me so well in every other sense. This was difficult to handle, let alone understand.
We decided to see a sex therapist.
What do you do when your husband says he loves you, but doesn't desire you? Image via istock.
Our sex therapist, a star in his field, was optimistic.
During the sessions, he liked sitting with his long legs wide apart and freezing his face in teeth-baring, lupine smiles that I found quite terrifying. He charged us a lot of money to point out what we already knew - that, actually, Noah and I rated much better than many other couples. We made each other laugh, we were affectionate, we never argued over who did the dishes. To let such a relationship go to waste would just be dumb.
He said he’d cure us but, for the first few sessions, gave no indication what the cure might be. When pressed for more information, the sex therapist lent us a book called The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, sub-titled The Path of Sacred Sexuality for Western Lovers. Although neither of us was interested in the kind of sexuality that, with its religious overtones, evoked my mother, to show our patient compliance, we got past the title page.
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Unfortunately, the next page, which contained only a dedication, ‘To the Master within and without/ to the Goddess within and without/to Gaia, our planet, our mother’, proved unsurpassable. Fearful of our sex therapist, but mostly in the hope of being cured, we agreed at least to meet a Tantra teacher he recommended, for a home consultation priced at several hundred dollars per hour.
The teacher was tall and lean; attractive in the manner of a young Germaine Greer. She folded her floor-length leather coat on our sofa and ordered Noah to take off his shirt. He looked at me, hesitant. I approved, although I felt uneasy watching this splendid woman trace with her pearly nails invisible hieroglyphs on my husband’s back. I averted my gaze to the Chagall reproduction hanging above our couch.
There, a bright-red woman wearing only a bridal veil was reclining on a daybed. Her voluptuous body was surrounded by Chagall’s usual symbols, which belonged to that uncertain realm between the magical and the comical - clocks, roosters, donkeys, crooked Hasidic villages. Chagall was my kind of artist: a rebel haunted for life by the God of his childhood. His similarly rebellious lovers always courted danger, forsaking their own tribes for foreign horizons.
This naked bride appeared dangerous, despite her languid posture - like a resting lioness. I remembered the night before my wedding when I, too, fancied myself to be sexily dangerous. What had happened since?
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‘Making love is like making art. It’s all about the process,’ the teacher whispered in a Dietrich-husky voice, summoning my attention to her demonstration of a tantric touch.
‘You need to do this slowly.’
In principle, I agreed with her, although I also liked having urgent sex, when you tear through clothes, hair, flesh. But, by now, I hardly remembered what sex felt like - I mean, when it was really good, brimming with everything. What we really needed, I thought, was what Noah called the ‘x factor’.
Although he never admitted it, I suspected he never had that mysterious ingredient with me, whereas my sense of it with him was by now lost somewhere deep inside my body. Noah had become so familiar that I could no longer look into his eyes when we did make love without feeling I was committing incest. And I, apparently, intimidated him. Speed was the least of our problems, I was about to say. But, while I considered what effect my words might have on Noah, the teacher had already moved onto another topic: ‘Tantra does miracles.’ She left my husband alone and sank into the couch, making herself very comfortable.
‘My current lover was a war prisoner. He was tortured. When we first met, he couldn’t have long erections.’ She pronounced the word erections with French flair, fluffing the ‘r’ as a peacock would fluff its tail.
‘But Noah has erections,’ I mumbled.
Our inability to get it together wasn’t physical; it was as though sex were a metaphor for something else. I just didn’t know for what.
‘Oh, does he?’
I could see the teacher was disappointed she wouldn’t get to tell the full story of her tortured lover. I also realised that it wasn’t her beauty that made everything so difficult that night, but the fact that we needed another person to show us how to love each other. That felt like defeat. The tantric arsenal, though, appeared inexhaustible.
Once the question of erections was filed away, for the next hour or so we got stuck into studying how to arouse all our senses at once, because—the teacher promised—that was the sacred (and costly) path to sexual ecstasy. After her departure, we attempted to implement what we had learned.
I put on a black bra. Noah put on a Dead Can Dance CD. As we fed each other grapes neither of us wanted, the vanilla incense smoke made Noah have a coughing fit. When he finally recovered, he said, ‘Let me Tantra you, baby …’ mimicking the teacher. I laughed till it hurt. I kissed his nose and eyes tenderly, and we went to sleep.
In the following session, upon our reporting of the Tantra experience, our sex therapist decreed that Noah’s lengthy, and quite promiscuous, single life before we met was the cause of our problems and to be the target for intervention. I suspected this diagnosis to be somewhat coloured by the fact that the therapist, who had previously told me I was just like him - too brainy, over-intellectualising everything - might have wanted Noah all to himself.
Nevertheless, I was relieved to withdraw from the sessions. Now that our problem had transmogrified into Noah’s and the sex therapist’s problem, mystery surrounded it. The occasional notes my husband brought home reassured me that he was progressing well, whatever that meant.
Soon, the sex therapist’s satisfaction with Noah had escalated so that he suggested they start a business together, utilising his professional reputation and my husband’s business talents. They’d open an online shop selling sex toys, which they’d import from Thailand, that were branded with the therapist’s name. Or maybe it was the Philippines they were going to import them from.
Whatever country it was, I finally put my foot down and our therapy came to a halt.
This is an extract from The Dangerous Bride by Lee Kofman, published by MUP, $29.99, ebook $19.99. Find Lee Kofman online at leekofman.com.au or on Twitter at @LeeKofman