When I named this column “Love and Sensuality,” I mostly just liked the way the words sounded together—the way they complicate each other so that love either escalates or plunges into sensuality: Love could be a stepping-stone to Sensuality, or Love could be tainted by it; Love could be a crucial element of Sensuality, or Sensuality could be just another cheapened version of Love. I began to realize that Sensuality is a word that can only be understood through an intangible feeling, and soon after choosing the title, I realized I wasn’t entirely sure what constitutes a sensual feeling. Does it describe an experience beyond sexuality, like love enacted upon the senses? Or is sensuality just the receiving end of physical lust?
I knew I wanted something dramatic, maybe even exaggerated, to describe the extent of my blistering love for Lex. For that, Sensuality served me well. But the word nagged my sensibility when I thought about all the other kinds of love. In my head it was obvious, even cliché, to describe some interactions with food as sensual, but what about the experiences of friendship or familial love? Maybe a sensual feeling towards either of these things could be a form of perversion. I asked myself if I felt comfortable using this word to describe my experience of anything other than my life with Lex.
So I’ve decided to cut back on the Sensuality. I still plan to search for and discover sensuality in my life, as much as I can get; I get plenty of sensuality in my relationship with Lex. But for her sake and for mine, for the sake of our relationship, I can’t write about her and only her because I don’t want to overthink it. Nor can I write about Sensuality and only Sensuality. There is more that I want to say.
I soon found myself doing research in order to get a firmer grip on the word. As a writer, it’s not easy to admit complications in vocabulary; Hemingway would probably have chastised my repeated rendezvous with the dictionary, and perhaps a bout of self-consciousness led to my perturbation. But, consider this sentence: “I get plenty of sensuality in my relationship with Lex.” I’d be surprised if a small percentage didn’t giggle like a fifth-grader in sex-ed.
But in my search for something concrete—in definitions and sample sentences of The New Oxford American Dictionary—there was no less sense of the overtly sexual; “Sensuality, noun, (1) the enjoyment, expression, or pursuit of physical, esp. sexual, pleasure: he ate the grapes with surprising sensuality; (2) the condition of being pleasing or fulfilling to the senses: life can dazzle with its sensuality, its color.” The second definition is the one I was going for. But the memorable image from the NOAD begs the question (and for me proves the connotation of the word): Just what exactly is he doing with those grapes?
Even if I was going for sensuality as related to the senses, it was the thesaurus that really got me thinking. The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus: “noun he seemed barely aware of his own sensuality. SEXINESS, sexual attractiveness, sultriness, seductiveness; sexuality, eroticism; physicality, carnality.” Apparently the connotation of the word is (they scream it out in all caps) leaning even more towards the hip movements of Jessica Rabbit than even towards an experience with grapes.
Desperate, I looked up the word in The Random House Latin-American Spanish Dictionary and cross-referenced the Spanish words: “Sensual: adj sensual: voluptuoso:” Voluptuoso is self-explanatory (could voluptuous really be a translation of sensual?), and the Random House-approved translation of, in Spanish, “Sensual” does include “sensible” and “sensitive,” but alongside “carnal” and “voluptuous.” I learned a new word this way (sensualism), but even Latin American Spanish reduces Sensuality to a form of physical sexuality.
Before, I’d had a vague sense of Sensuality as being partly and only sometimes sexual. But that sense has started to lean a little more towards sexual (which never hurt anyone, but it’s certainly not everything). My instinctual hesitation—if I didn’t follow my instincts I would have nothing—answered the question for me: I had to partner a different word with Love.
And just how many words exist that refer to the senses! Sensual, Sensible, Sensitive, Sentimental, Sentient, etc, etc. None of which I could truly differentiate. Maybe I had just confused Sensual with Sensuous. Maybe I should just go with its root word: Sense. In the end, though, I swapped Sensuality for Sensitivity, the most straightforward of my choices, which makes the theme a little emo, or even worse, cloying, but it feels more accurate.
Not to brag, because I’m not proud of this, but I consider myself an expert in at least some forms of sensitivity—mostly those forms that border on delusion. That is to say: I am a very sensitive person. I know this because feelings infiltrate my life. Sometimes my sensitivity can be so crippling that I would rather be literally crippled than bound with self-doubt and reluctance. No offense to any actually crippled people out there, but the point is that things can get pretty overwhelming, and my senses seem to overreact.
It’s nothing dire or anything, but sometimes, when I lay still in bed at night pretending to sleep so that I will sleep, I’m overtaken by my senses. I can’t explain it in medical terms—it’s not like a stomachache or restless leg syndrome or some other acute feeling. It’s a feeling that starts with the sharpness of the audible cracks of the house and the wind outside, the dissonant crash of Lex’s soft breathing as she sleeps next to me, and the loudness of my own fingers moving beneath the pillow. When I close my eyes everything seems suddenly very far off, like I’m laying in the middle of a bed that spreads out on all sides into infinity, and, if I wanted to, I couldn’t even touch my own foot because it’s so far away. Although I know Lex is right next to me, my senses trick me into thinking she’s far away.
Part of me feels sensuality in these moments; there is the urge to touch Lex just to make sure that what I’m feeling is an impossibility. But the longing, the imagined cacophony, and the pressure of mounting stimulations released or congealed at the end of the day, all with the switching off of a light, are the greater parts of my sensitivity and of the love I experience.
So Lex has become the sometimes lucky, sometimes unlucky scapegoat of these feelings. But there is so much more to love than sensuality. I can’t write about what is essentially a subset of the root “sensus,” when I originally aimed to write about the root. That’s why I’m going with Sensitivity—at least for now.
Chris Black lives with his wife in Los Angeles. He is a former associate editor at Black Clock and wrote feature articles on rubber duck races, birds of prey, and other mountain topics for The Vail Trail weekly.