“How do they do it, the ones who make love without love?” Sharon Olds asks the reader to contemplate in her poem “Sex Without Love” (561). Sharon Olds has been celebrated as one of America’s most forthright poets at chronicling familial and erotic relationships. Throughout Olds’ poetry, she illuminates a commitment to writing of the body to expose a variety of difficult subjects. Through Olds’ use of irony, free verse, and metaphor, the poet is able to affectively communicate the negligence and irresponsibility of sex without love. Furthermore, Olds’ explores physical desire, procreation of unwanted children, and the mention of religious affiliations in hopes of answering the question she poses for the audience in the first sentence of the poem.
Olds immediately directs the reader into the thought of ‘sex without love’ by posing the question in the opening line of the poem. After posing the serious question, Olds threads her poem with ironic phrases, illuminating an understated disapproving tone that remains continuous throughout the piece. Through her word choice and structure, these seemingly beautiful elements are transformed into fallacies that highlight the mistakes of partners that partake in sex without love. Olds utilizes the seemingly beautiful metaphor, “Beautiful as dancers, gliding over each other like ice-skaters over the ice” ironically to highlight the fallacies of her proposition (561). Although dancers and ice-skaters are seemingly beautiful and flawless, these performers can be visualized as creators of artistic illusions. Olds’ representation of ice-skaters in her metaphor also signifies that sex without love is cold and detached. Olds’ comparison of sexual partners without love to dancers illuminates that the act of sex without love is merely an illusion of love and happiness.
Furthermore, Olds’ suggests that the driving force of the passion is purely physical. Towards the end of the poem, Olds presents the metaphor of a great runner: “they are like great runners: they know they are alone with the road surface, the cold, the wind, the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardiovascular health–just factors, like the partner in the bed, and not the truth” (562). Olds’ exploits the irony in this metaphor to further emphasize the importance placed upon physicality in sex encounters with a loveless foundation. Olds’ insertion of the dancer and the ice-skater could also further emphasize (or exhaust, rather) the physicality of sex without love. Olds’ utilizes these physically fit types of individuals to illuminate the significance of physical fitness and attraction, and how these elements lead to desire.
Also, Olds incorporates images of undesired childbirth into her poem. Oftentimes, when couples are in love, they make love with intentions of procreation. Oftentimes, when partners engage in sexual activity without any emotional connection, they have no desire to bear children together. Furthermore, sexual partners may completely disregard the possibility of creating a child through their sexual encounters. In the sixth line of “Sex Without Love” Olds’ wrote, “wet as the children at birth whose mothers are going to give them away” (562). Olds’ criticizes the irresponsibility of creating a child neither parent desires. Olds’ utilizes detached imagery to further emphasize her disapproval. Ultimately, this line in Olds’ poem illuminates the selfishness and negligence of unintentional procreation and emphasizes the fallacies of sex without love.
Olds also incorporates religious affiliations with sex without love into her poem to further emphasize the argument she makes within her poem. Sex without marriage in religion has always been frowned upon. For instance, in Catholicism sex without marriage has been argued for years. According to Susan A. Ross, “The most highly debated controversy [the theology of marriage] centered on the adequacy of personalist criteria for marriage and the challenge to the prevailing scholastic definition, which saw procreation as primary” (Susan A. Ross). In Olds’ poem, she wrote, “How do they come to the come to the come to the God come to the still waters, and not love the one who came there with them, light rising slowly as steam off their joined skin? These are the true religious,the purists, the pros, the ones who will not accept a false Messiah, love the priest instead of the God” (562). Olds poses a similar question to her first in the opening line. Olds insinuates that those whom partake in sex without love assume that they are accepting a false love under false pretenses. She continues to insinuate that they love the body instead of the soul, as suggested above.
Olds’ peom “Sex Without Love” serves as a social criticism of partners engaging in sexual activity without any lasting emotional connection. Olds’ strongly believes that individuals should not partake in sex without feeling great amounts of love for their partner. Olds concludes the poem with, “Just factors, like the partner in the bed, and not the truth, which is the single body alone in the universe against its own best time” (562). In her poem, she highlights the fallacies of sex without love. Olds’ suggests that the driving force of their passion is purely a physical desire, and highlights the cold. Overall, Olds’ illuminates that sex without love is an immoral and artificial reconstruction of love. Although Olds’ message to the Although the message within the poem is blunt and harsh, Olds is able to use beautiful words and phrases to describe the seemingly affectionate act of sex without love.
Included are two readings of Sharon Olds’ poem “Sex Without Love,” because hearing the spoken words can transform and bring life to the poem.
And finally, here is an interview with Sharon Olds discussing the life instilled into her poetry:
DeShazer, Mary K. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. 1st Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc. , 2001. 16-72. Print.
Ross, Susan A. “The Bride of Christ and the Body Politic: Body and Gender in Pre-Vatican II Marriage Theology.” The Journal of Religion 71.3 (1991): 345-61. Print.