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True Stories: Sex After 9/11
Remembering the guilty, adrenaline-fueled gropings of late 2001.
By Marguerite Kennedy
In September 2001, I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. But only for the first ten days of that strange month. I was a week out of my first "serious" adult relationship, and still reeling from the breakup. Only a few months earlier, I would have told you with absolute certainty that Ted was The One. Then, at some point between late July and early August, the whole thing calmly and quietly unraveled. Neither Ted nor I could've told you exactly why things fizzled, or how it happened so quickly when it did. In hindsight, it would become clear that we were too young; not ready; destined for other people and adventures, blah, blah, blah. At the time, however, it felt like a very cruel mystery plot in which neither of us was the culprit.
Throughout the previous year, it was as if Ted and I had been living under some sort of magical spell. We were that couple you want to slap because they are so disgustingly happy. (Looking back on how we behaved in public, I want to slap myself, then throw up in my own lap.) Then, all of a sudden, an invisible hypnotist snapped his fingers, and the spell was lifted as instantly as it had begun. The whole thing was as unexplainable as it was sad. At first, I might've even called it devastating.
That is, until the eleventh day of September, when the word "devastating" took on a whole new meaning. Using it in the context of a "let's-stay-friends" breakup seemed crass, at best, and at worst, profoundly disrespectful. Six months earlier or later, it would've been easy to indulge the Morrissey-grade melancholy and the luxurious wallowing in self-pity that usually comes with the end of a long-term relationship. But not right then.
My personal loss, which had seemed so significant only days before, suddenly seemed very small by comparison. I knew a Belgian girl whose Japanese fiancé worked on the 101st floor of Tower 1. In the days after 9/11, she was running around the city posting those "missing" flyers that we all knew were never going to be answered. She had reason to be depressed, I thought. Not me.
Still. Even when they coincide with much larger and vastly more important historical events, our personal dramas don't lose their hold over our imaginations. Like so many New Yorkers in the weeks after 9/11, I found myself playing a losing game of whack-a-mole with thoughts and emotions that seemed entirely inappropriate. How can we continue to think of our own troubles At A Time Like This? Walking through the streets, listening to the stories of victims on the news, reading the increasingly alarming reports in the paper, wiping off that black dust that was everywhere and made you think of who or what it had been in its original form. Through all this, my stupid breakup was the only thing I could think about.
Well, maybe not the only thing. The English language doesn't have a word for "the guilt one feels for thinking about sex at an entirely inappropriate time," but I bet there's a long, hard-to-pronounce word for it in German. It's the mixed feeling of noticing the hot girl in the little black dress at your grandmother's funeral, or blushing when talking to the hunky hospital doctor discussing your father's viral pneumonia.
In late 2001, there was a briefly-popular term that came close to capturing this emotion. Not long after the attacks, New Yorkers started talking about "terror sex." This, of course, referred to the random hookups and one-night stands that took place amid the confusion and fear that followed 9/11. Danger is sexy, even though admitting it may be tacky and inappropriate. If you lived in the city at that time, and if you're willing to admit it, you may remember the pervasive undercurrent of sexual energy that seemed to hang in the air along with all that fine, black dust. It wasn't the fun, happy kind of sexual energy (again, the limitations of language!). It was more about need than desire — a distinction that, up to that point, I had never understood.
I don't mean that we all had a latent terrorism fetish. It's just that, in the midst of so much death, you realize that we're all living in fragile, mortal bodies. When confronted with death, we're affected consciously, unconsciously, and even physically. Fear speeds up the reproductive cycles of many animals — in other words, it makes them randy. For instance, when chickens are terrified, they tend to lay more eggs. To leverage this fear response, some industrial henhouses supposedly flash bright lights and pump in loud heavy-metal music (Anthrax, maybe?) so that the agitated birds will release more eggs.
I could relate to those abused chickens in the weeks after 9/11, at the height of the terror-sex phenomenon. It was October, in a bar after midnight, and I couldn't stand the idea of idea of going home alone to my tiny, empty apartment. In a misguided attempt at flirtation, I was telling a handsome male friend about the industrial henhouses and how I thought it helped explain terror sex. He paused, and looked at me sideways.
"So, you're saying... we're like chickens?"
"Something like that."
I could practically hear him debating whether or not to point out the flaws in my chicken-based argument for free love. Instead, he shrugged. "Want to go back to my place?"
Some people thought of terror sex as a biological reaction to heightened stimuli. For others, it had ideological overtones. "If I don't finish my fifth Sea Breeze and hook up with that acrobat from Cirque de Soleil," they vowed, "then the terrorists have already won!" Regardless of what you chalked it up to, there was something consoling about having the term. It made us feel like normal people having a very understandable reaction to horrific and unprecedented circumstances, instead of heartless perverts.