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Love Among the Ruins

By Liz Langley | Posted 9/26/2001

As the smoke cleared from the Manhattan skyline last week, tales emerged of courage under fire, narrow escapes and a city uniting in its darkest and finest hour. This may be the greatest story of most of our lifetimes, and -- evidently -- it didn't lack for good love scenes. According to an article on Salon.com, New Yorkers were having sex during that scary week like there was no tomorrow, because a lot of them thought there wouldn't be one.

"Terror sex" is a freakish name for a trend, but it sounds like it was a grassroots kind of thing that no PR firm could put a better spin on before it hit the streets. It refers, as Cole Kazdin reported, to the way that strangers, friends and even couples found sex to provide the comfort, connection and closeness they craved after the danger, chaos and fear they experienced.

Kazdin acknowledges that it might seem "cheap" to think about sex during the crisis, but academics quoted in the article, such as Peter Salovey of Yale University, say it's not as unlikely as it seems, and that "it's not so much sexual arousal as it is wanting the security and the closeness that it represents." Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington, says sex generates feelings of "I'm alive, I'm functioning, I'm real." And when you consider the surreal, near-death mayhem of the day, they do seem like feelings you would want to recapture.

Not all New Yorkers during that week acted as looters, grabbing handfuls (in this case) of each other. Not one New Yorker I talked to had heard of the terror-sex trend, although one acknowledged it wouldn't have been a bad idea. Another even offered that she'd heard a story on the radio that went the opposite way: Someone had ended a bad relationship, having realized that life was too brief. Some Floridians said they had friends who did indeed experience "sexual esapades" that week in New York. At least one, whose friends were traveling to Manhattan, suspected upon hearing about terror sex that the trip was to get in on it.

French twists
While it might have acquired a ghastly name along its journey, terror sex is probably not a new phenomenon. Coincidental-ly, on the weekend the Salon article appeared, the History Channel broadcast a show called "The XY Factor," positing that the sexual revolution came about as a result of World War I and not those hippies in the '60s as we might have suspected.

The scene is even evoked in Kazdin's article: A young girl and a soldier embrace, perhaps for the last time, as the camera pans skyward, clearly to give them some privacy. At the outbreak of World War I, women began having relationships with men that were "unthinkable" before the war. The American soldiers, nearly a century prior to our "new war," marched into Europe to face unimagined horror. In Paris, the world's pleasuredome, the catchphrase was, "Today we live, for tomorrow we die." While on leave, the soldiers came across the French women that their commanders had warned them about. They discovered a few French twists they didn't know about back home (see: Monica) and returned with a lot of new ideas and cases of VD (having been taught how to protect themselves spiritually, but not physically). Author James R. Petersen says in the program: "War changes sex. Nothing about war assumes the long run. ... You don't have a tomorrow, so you say what you want your body to say today."

Feel your head
You can hardly blame them. In the Salon story, sociologist Schwartz is quoted as saying, "It's life-affirming to feel your body attached to your head," and sex is definitely a life-affirming -- indeed, a life-generating -- act. Certainly we've all heard it expressed that Americans have been able to remain as morally high-handed as we have because we've never experienced a land war, like the bombings the Europeans experienced regularly for years. Now that we have, it's conceivable that terror sex could exist -- so conceivable that Schwartz acknowledges a new baby boom could arise.

And if terror sex were happening, would it be so bad? Setting aside the heroics of firefighters and others, and taking the epic events down to a regular human level, this is probably the most uplifting thing I've heard come out of the whole saga. Sex, when you do it right, is a big day-brightener. So long as people are not so convinced there's no tomorrow that they throw caution -- and condoms -- to the wind. There's been enough damage already; how profoundly sad it would be to find out you got sick celebrating the fact that you didn't die.

My maternal warnings aside, I can see this developing as a trend. Try it out sometime: "Oh my god! The stock market dropped another 200 points! This is the end! Hold me!" as the camera pans up to the sky above to give you some privacy. Things have been so crazy lately, haven't we all felt like we were coming and going at the same time?

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