In her poem “Sex without Love”, Sharon Olds, as might be argued, criticizes those who engage in loveless sex. Olds uses various stylistic devices, such as enjambment and repetition, to give the poem a certain pace; similes, metaphor and irony–to endow it with additional meaning. The poem becomes ambiguous; and though at first it seems the author is fascinated with this type of relations, it can be argued that she, in fact, expresses disapproval of it.
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It appears at first that the author favors sex without love (Sutton par. 2-3). She uses rich metaphors to describe those partaking in such sex: they are compared to ice-skaters and beautiful dancers, great runners. Olds uses enjambment to quicken the pace of the poem, and employs repetition – both these stylistic devices are used to denote the rhythm of sex: “How do they come to the / come to the come to the God come to the / still waters” (Olds 8-10).
Here, the metaphor of God denotes orgasm (Sutton par. 9), and still water points to the state of calm relaxation that follows it. Sutton also points out that the lovers of this kind are, at first glance, depicted as those who show deeper understanding of things than those who love (par. 2); they are “the ones who will not / accept a false Messiah, love the / priest instead of the God” (Olds 14-16).
This religious metaphor might denote the ability to see the truth behind the appearance. The poetess also employs another stylistic device: she continuously asks questions, as if being surprised and fascinated by those participating in loveless sex: “How do they do it, the ones who make love / without love?” (Olds 1-2).
On the other hand, after closer examination, one notices that the author uses metaphors that associate with something negative, such as coldness, pain. Indeed, ice-skating might be a breathtaking art; but it is also associated with coldness. Loveless lovers are “gliding over each other like ice-skaters / over the ice” (Olds 3-4), which reminds of skates carving the ice with their blades; and though the skates “glide”, move smoothly and effortlessly, but still leave carvings on the surface of ice.
The words which follow the ice-skaters metaphor is the only hint at the connection between the lovers present in the poem: “fingers hooked / inside each other’s bodies” (Olds 4-5). This (semi?)-metaphor also seems to imply pain: fingers hooked, tearing the flesh.
Another metaphor concerning the priest and the God:
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. (Olds 13-16)
seems to be approving at first glance, but starts to appear ironic after further consideration. Indeed, we remember how Olds used the metaphor of God to denote orgasm earlier in the poem. Here, the metaphor might be the same: the God means orgasm; and the priest, thus, is the partner who engages in the loveless sex. The following lines warrant this assumption: “They do not / mistake the lover for their own pleasure” (Olds 16-17).
So, the metaphor, indeed, turns out to be ironic; the text seems to imply that the “priest”, or the sexual partner, is reduced to a mere means of getting an orgasm. And each partner is “purist” about that, and won’t turn from the course of events which only leads to the satisfaction of their vitiated desire. Here comes another metaphor of a thrown away child; the dates, after having served as a means for getting pleasure, are not needed anymore. Both of them “know they are alone / with the road surface, the cold, the wind” (Olds 18-19).
A very bright simile about the partners’ faces says that they are “red as steak”, comparing the partners with meat – again, just vulgar means to get what each of them wants. This also confirms the previous assumption about the dates instrumentalizing each other, and compares the process of having loveless sex with eating. The sexual act here turns into something completely mundane, deprived of deep feelings, and the orgasm, however strong, might be compared to eating delicious food, a purely physical pleasure, not mental; “soulless”, as some might say.
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The claim that a loveless sexual act turns into something mundane is stressed by the very form of the poem. The poem is written in free verse, with no rhyme, and the text resembles casual speech, lacking the greatness of the verse. And the questioning manner might denote not only fascination, as was mentioned before, but also a deep, unpleasant surprise.
The very first comparison Olds makes, saying that the sex mates are “”beautiful as dancers” (2), is also ambiguous. Despite speaking of beauty, it might also mean disapproval. A sexual act might be beautiful; on the other hand, partners who engage in a loveless sexual act are only interested in each other’s appearance and ability to satisfy the sexual desire. They are not interested in the person behind the appearance, but only, again, in the beautiful piece of meat.
So, it appears to us that this poem is a way to imply surprise and disapproval regarding those who have sex without love. Various stylistic devices are used to endow the poem with ambiguity, to make it look approving of this kind of relationship at first glance. But the issue of instrumentalizing seems to leave us no choice but to say that the poem rejects this kind of relationships. As McGiveron puts it, “Olds reminds us that if we fail to realize that others are not simply two-dimensional props in our own personal universes, we will miss the fact that life is made of connection, not disconnection” (par. 8).
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “Olds’s Sex Without Love.” Explicator 58.1 (1999): 60. Literary Reference Center Plus.
Olds, Sharon. Sex Without Love. n.d.
Sutton, Brian. “Olds’s Sex Without Love.” Explicator 55.3 (1997): 177. Literary Reference Center Plus.