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.

Even when they coincide with much larger and vastly more important historical events, our personal dramas don't lose their hold over our imaginations.

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. 

Danger is sexy, even though admitting it may be tacky and inappropriate.

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. 

Tags Hookups

Commentarium (72 Comments)

Sep 08 11 - 12:54am

This is in weird taste.

Sep 08 11 - 1:06am
ohh me ohh my

i agree.

Sep 08 11 - 1:17am

I like it. It's honest.

Sep 08 11 - 7:29pm

@Charles: I agree. It's almost as bad as the post several weeks ago about how Feminism is so great because it means more sex for everybody. Ugh...

Sep 08 11 - 9:06pm

@QS: Yes, yes. Turn off your natural human urges, IMPORTANT THINGS are happening. Damn uneducated masses, can't logic away their drives.

Sep 08 11 - 9:39pm

@Alo: Um, what? Talk about a non sequitur...

Sep 08 11 - 11:02pm

@QS: My apologies. 9/11 to feminism was a pretty effortless segue. Carry on.

Sep 08 11 - 11:25pm

@Alo: Wow. You really don't get it, do you? I didn't compare 9/11 to feminism. I compared this Nerve article--about 9/11 and "terror sex"--to be in weird taste--just as the "Feminism is cool because more people have sex" article, also being in poor taste. Jesus Christ, talk about poor reading comprehension.

Sep 10 11 - 2:10pm

So, in other words, *sex* is in poor taste. Especially if it involves sexually empowered women. I really don't get how a candid story about human sexuality in the context of tragedy is in poor taste. It's a bit uncomfortable to think about, true. But I had a "I thought it was just me!" moment in reading this, and I have to say it was cathartic. This is why I read Nerve -- if I want solemn, teary-eyed schlock that takes no risks, and that I've read a thousand times before, I'll just go to virtually every other media outlet. This is at least giving voice to a perspective that I could relate to, and I'm glad they had the guts to publish it.

Sep 17 11 - 11:30pm

@David: Cute. Alo chose the "I can't read route" and you chose to distort my comments. Oh well. I didn't say sex is in poor taste, I said framing 9/11 as a mere background event to how it affects one's sex life is in poor taste. Seriously if you think using 9/11 to talk about your sex life is courageous then you're fucking hopeless...

Sep 08 11 - 1:46am

If this were some sort of fiction, I might be skeeved by it. But assuming it's real, the candidness of it is admirable. It's a nice perspective too that a west coaster like myself didn't get. The very idea of "terror sex" is something I can't even comprehend. At least not in anywhere near the same capacity.

Sep 08 11 - 1:49am

i wanted to like this, but i think this story needs some editing (do we really need the detail about not coming on the terrace? and why lead with the breakup when the story is really about desperate sex that has nothing to do with the breakup?). i wish there'd been some more anecdotes to ground the philosophizing, which i actually agreed with - "terror sex" makes a lot of sense.

Sep 09 11 - 6:16pm

I feel the same, I really wanted to like this story more. It doesn't strike me as complete, but it's a good start to an interesting premise. Well written, but maybe unfinished?

Sep 11 11 - 10:57am

I think the author lead with the break-up to show a point that peoples perspectives changed that day. They claim that after 9/11 people ran to old lovers, left their long term partners and found new love. They realized that life is short and they wanted to live it to the fullest. The authors point of view was that they no longer felt the post-break-up regret, sadness and hurt because after a terrifying tragedy, they didn't feel the need to go running back to their ex.

Sep 23 11 - 5:40pm

i thought the part about not coming on the terrace was one of the most poignant moments, personally.

Sep 08 11 - 1:52am

I lost my virginity on September 16th, 2001. Then again, I was also a 17-year-old college freshman, so that's probably a coincide.

Sep 08 11 - 3:37am

*coincidence. I should stop posting from my phone.

Sep 08 11 - 8:55am

Very honest, refreshing, and smart...

Sep 08 11 - 9:20am

This was the best written piece I've read in Nerve in possibly a year. I wouldn't change a word. Yes, ss, it does need the detail about not coming, and every other detail.

Sep 08 11 - 12:13pm


Sep 09 11 - 8:38pm

I agree too!

Sep 08 11 - 9:47am

I agree. Loved this.

Sep 08 11 - 10:37am

As a midwesterner, obviously I can't relate. As a (married) son who's spent way too much time in hospitals since my father was unexpectedly admitted this past memorial day, I can relate all too well. In three of the four wards where my father has been, I'm pretty sure the nurses were, in fact, "cast" for a porno. I've zoned out way too many times during critical updates about my father's condition, wonderings what's going on under those scrubs. I need to get home to my wife.

Sep 08 11 - 11:44am

It's September. But it's 2011.

Sep 08 11 - 12:40pm

I lost my virginity not long after September 11th and, while I didn't think of it as terror sex at the time, looking back, I'm sure that was what it was. I was 21, a senior in college, with no real reason other than shyness holding me back. Ironically, I think the attacks got me over my fear of being that close and intimate with another person. Being afraid of dying got me to stop being so afraid of living.

Sep 11 11 - 11:06am

While in practice this comment has nothing to do with this story, in theory it does. Being from Canada, and fairly young when it occurred, I never really understood the fears of 9/11. However, I think the fear that a human could do that to another human (in this case, on a much larger scale) put a strange fear into everyone. I think we all became acutely aware of our surroundings, and more importantly our expiry dates. No one is ever promised tomorrow. I live with a panic disorder. Reading your comment, SK, has put a new perspective in my mind. "Being afraid of dying, got me to stop being so afraid of living" made me stop in my tracks. Spending your life in fear is losing by default. I think with your words, and the terror of that tragic day lingering, I've just loosened up a little bit. I thank you for helping me in a way you probably never even imagined.

Sep 08 11 - 12:42pm

In fact, it was with someone I had met on Nerve. And then I met my now husband a few months later in December.

Sep 08 11 - 12:49pm

I was there too ten years ago, and while I would love to say that doesn't cloud my judgement of anything written about 9/11, that's ludicrous. But the thing that's great about reading this piece with that in mind, is that it's like a refreshing sigh of relief. I know I wasn't the only one who felt like an asshole for continuing to worry about my own seemingly insignificant b.s. in the weeks and months that followed, but it happens. And I also did things like recklessly drink and have awkward sex in a weird attempt to keep feeling alive, it's what we do in the face of tragedy.
Thanks for giving such a candid voice to this, well done.

Sep 09 11 - 8:40pm


Sep 08 11 - 1:44pm

I love how uncomfortable this has made some readers. As someone who Was There, I agree both with the writer and with the readers who find this in 'weird taste.' The central issue to this narrative is that when you're living through it, it feels like having any thoughts and feelings that aren't very profound and important is in 'weird taste.' Ordering Chinese food, buying toilet paper, having sex--it all gets this oppressive coating of Don't you have something more important to be doing with your life?

Anyway. As someone who has gotten very weary of literature, music, television, et fucking cetera about 9/11, I absolutely loved this.

Sep 08 11 - 3:25pm

This reminds me of the "grief sex" from Judy Blume's "Forever"...a natural yawp to validate that you are still alive.

Sep 08 11 - 4:13pm

Very honest, very true.

Sep 08 11 - 6:35pm
not the same, but...

I recently read an account from a woman who lost her husband on 9/11. I cried. Then, I had sex with my husband. It brought into relief the terrifying fact that, even if we did everything right, chance could take him away from me in an instant. And then I wouldn't get to touch him anymore. I don't see anything weird about that. If I had already been with my husband on 9/11, I probably wouldn't let him leave the bedroom for a week.

Sep 08 11 - 6:42pm

Being horny after experiencing a tragedy like someone else's death isn't at all unusual, it is something that most psychologists are aware of. Put simply, it is the instinctive reaction we have to bond and push back that final end that we all face.

Sep 08 11 - 7:11pm

Nice work, Marguerite!

Sep 08 11 - 7:25pm

I was there at the time and I can tell you this is spot-on - for my group of friends anyway. In fact we used to use that exact phrase "terror sex" and I remember laughing my ass off the first time I heard it. This piece is well-written, courageous, and most important, true. Loved it!

Sep 08 11 - 8:07pm

Gutsy piece. Doesn't whitewash her experience. I love this.

Sep 09 11 - 8:41pm

Well-said, I agree.

Sep 10 11 - 2:11pm


Sep 08 11 - 10:49pm

I would like to be an asshole for a moment and point out that the second sentence of the first story is a fragment. Basic grammar people!!

Sep 08 11 - 11:13pm

Dude. "Basic grammar people!" is also a fragment, however much in the imperative case it may be. I hate to be an asshole, but you should've said, "Basic grammar, [COMMA!] people!". Note that the comma indicates that you're not talking about a compound noun such as "grammar people." In your construction, you're simply invoking grammarians, without any dependent clause. Besides--language, like consciousness and culture, is fragmented. Deal with it.

Sep 09 11 - 2:57am

The phrase also needs a verb. "Use basic grammar, people!" would be more appropriate.

The comma-less version is hilarious, though.

Sep 09 11 - 11:17am

A fine point. I love it when Grammar Nazis use incorrect grammar when criticizing someone's grammar. It's freakin' hilarious.

Sep 09 11 - 11:23am

Ooops. I probably should've said, "That is a fine point that you have made," to avoid angering the above Captain of the International Sentence Fragment Police.

Sep 09 11 - 12:28pm

The position is appointed by a secret organization founded by William Strunk, Jr. and Elwyn Brooks White. Strunk and White formed the International English Grammar Police underground in 1915 for the purposes of establishing "Proper English" as a global language, controlling the way the market economy operates through expressed ideas. Their publication, "The Elements of Style," has exercised its authority in multitudes of classrooms for almost a century. Their most recent task force covers the internet. Thousands of anonymous agents infiltrate the most popular websites to enforce a culture of "Proper English" in our informal correspondences. Their goal is, of course, world domination.

Sep 10 11 - 1:01pm

Wow! Do I hear a summer blockbuster in the making?? Maybe with Jessica Alba as Prepositional Phrase Girl? [Handsome, Interchangeable Young Actor] as "Captain Whom" (that word needs a defender, after all)? Oh, please, Hollywood--make that movie!

Sep 09 11 - 1:35am

"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!"

LOL! This perfectly describes the absurd mood at the time. To those doubters posting here, I assume you were either too young at the time to relate or not in the New York City area.

Sep 10 11 - 6:28pm

Agreed! Bloomberg just raised that huge terror threat this weekend and I keep thinking to myself "I wish I had a boyfriend that I could just hole up with in my apt for a few days, act like bunnies, and forget the outside world until this whole terror thing blows over."

Sep 09 11 - 3:36am

There is a long anecdotal tradition in the mental health field that people surrounded by death engage in a lot of sex. Since sex is how you create life, it is an affirmation of life in the face of death. Or so the Conentional Wisdom attempts to explain it.

Sep 09 11 - 1:27pm

My wife and I were "stranded" in Maui on 9/11 (her bday) for 11 days, was originally a 3day 4 night trip, couldn't leave as there were no flights, so we stayed in and fucked for days, so even not being in/near NY the pheromones (pheraMOANS) were in the air there as well

Sep 09 11 - 3:39pm

like a few others here, I also lost my virginity right after 9/11. Those two events are forever linked in my mind. Odd maybe, but true. I liked this story.

Sep 09 11 - 8:43pm

Really wonderful. I hope the author keeps writing and getting published for years to come.

Sep 09 11 - 9:10pm

After the attacks my wife and I were like teenagers in bed. We needed it so bad and kept it up for weeks. Wow! Story was also spot on for those of us in DC who drove past the smoking Pentagon on the way home from work. Stayed at work late that day long after the traffic jams were over and the scene driving across the Potomac was surreal. Nearly empty roads. Cars abandoned on the side of the road. Smoke. Sex was the only thing that could calm us down.

Sep 11 11 - 2:42pm

Fantastically written, brutally honest and personal account of trying to cope with the uncomprehensible. The best 9/11 anniversary piece I've read yet.

Sep 12 11 - 4:19pm

I really enjoyed your piece Marguerite. I had just turned 21 at the time and had a plane ticket to NYC for the 12th. I had recently broken up with someone I thought I really loved and he called me that morning to tell me that I wouldn't be going. The fact that I ran to my friends instead of him for comfort was interesting. "Terror sex" is embarrassing language but it's not your term ;) It makes sense.

Sep 12 11 - 7:28pm

Having lived in NYC during the months after the attack, I can attest that it was definitely a time to reassess relationships. Sometimes a recommitment, Sometimes a moving on. And there was definitely the desire to feel like a physical being again.

Sep 12 11 - 11:54pm
unsexy ferret

nicely done.

Sep 14 11 - 6:14pm

While not living in New York or being nearly as affected as those who did, I theoretically
understood "Terror Sex", but until this piece, I didn't understand the rest of the mindset.

Fantastically engaging and well written!

Oct 21 11 - 2:27pm

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Nov 12 11 - 3:08pm
jhondo you not like

tell me darling what you like,I like you very much

Nov 12 11 - 3:09pm
jhondo you not like

please answer me

Nov 12 11 - 3:17pm
jhondo you not like

If you are on life to night only yo can tell me

Nov 12 11 - 3:21pm
jhondo you not like

I will be sure on life to night I am so sure that you are vonderfull darling only tell me what you like

Nov 12 11 - 3:24pm
jhondo you not like

are you perhaps on life to night,but tell me from where you are my derest darling

Nov 12 11 - 3:31pm
jhondo you not like

tell me now you are lovly darling

Nov 12 11 - 3:44pm
jhondo you not like

tell me where are you now an I like to see you but about you do you speak iclandick

Nov 12 11 - 3:47pm
jhondo you not like

You have avsver if you like only tell me whatt is in your mind

Nov 12 11 - 3:51pm
jhondo you not like


Nov 12 11 - 3:54pm
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Dec 01 11 - 8:34am

Ahahaha! 69 comments!! Isn't that weird??? Ah crap..

Jan 25 12 - 5:41am

Sex and death are so intertwined. I had casual sex following the separate deaths of my grandfather and a friend. I think death forces something very carnal in us to surface. For me, it was a need to forget what was going on for a while; to be engaged in a very primal act that, in some ways, can make you feel most alive. It's not disrespectful; it's how some of us react to death.

Jul 04 12 - 1:43am

Honest and well written (ignore the naysayers). "terror sex" is an apt phrase - this phenomenon isn't new, folks. Ask anyone who has lived in a war zone.