My Late Awakening

The writer leaves her husband after 20 years of marriage to pursue a sexual odyssey. What she discovers about herself—and the world—surprises her more than she expects.

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“I’m a gentleman. If you’d like to stay, I’ll keep my hands to myself. I’ve even made a bed for you upstairs,” said my date, a philosophy professor.

I put down my fork and pretended to fall for the biggest line in the book. “Why, yes…thank you,” I said fingering my wine glass and wondering what it would be like to sleep with a philosophy professor.

We finished our wine on his couch, sharing stories about his college students, our kids, and recent marital separations. I studied his bright blue eyes for signs of pretense and found none; we had a connection. I also thought about the prospect of hooking up after two decades of monogamy. Would I feel remorse? The wine anesthetized my reservations, so when the professor leaned in and put his mouth over mine, I let go and felt an unprecedented desire. I sucked his face and even put his hand between my legs, surprising myself. I wanted him to know how good my body feels.

The urge to sleep with other men didn’t manifest itself until I turned 40 and left my husband. I began to look at my spouse as the sperm donor for our three incredible children after 20 years of marriage, as much as it pains me to say, or even think it. “Making love” with him felt taciturn, detached, and worst of all—compulsory. I couldn’t even put my mouth over his. “Frigid,” an offensive throwback to Freud, flashed into my mind: Did I enjoy sex?


I grew up a classic American beauty, with intelligence, creativity, and privilege to match—I came of age during the Reagan era, the daughter of a wealthy neurosurgeon. Most of my life, I met the eyes of men with aloof curiosity. Walking into the room anywhere became a not-so-noble inquest: Could I command the attention of nearly any man? Do I wield that power?

Hell yes …

But it jars me: I see their eyes exploring, claiming me…a café can be a rush before the espresso.

What I learned in the past year is that flirtation is NOT just a nod and nothing more. “Flirtation is the promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee,” said the writer Milan Kundera. I discovered that if I’m willing, (and that’s a big “IF”), most men will do me any time, any place: the backroom of a bar, the bottom of a boat, a parking lot, a public bathroom. Men are opportunistic. They grab it and seem to sense a woman who’s willing. Is it pheromones? And some women—not all—love the power they wield over these men.

At least I do.

My father couldn’t connect with me. A cold genius with Asperger’s Syndrome, he often criticized me, and as a result, I never felt enough—never felt enough. “Kate,” he said, “if you eat that, you’ll get fat and no one will marry you.” So looking into the eyes of other men satisfied my longing to feel wanted, cherished, sometimes even loved. But I never took those flirtations further: I kept my sexual boundaries boxed in; a sacred gift tied with a bow that I thought only the man I loved would unravel (or use to tie me up).

With my spouse, sex in the bedroom revolved around him: What did he want and what could I do to get him off? Making love became a counting game. Forget taking care of my needs.

Since my marital liberation, I’ve conducted an informal survey, both by actually asking people questions, and through my own experiences, because I’ve been out of the dating world for two decades. I’ve asked the bartenders at a popular New York nightclub, for example, to estimate the percentage of people sexting versus texting—they said it depends on the time of night. “After eleven o’clock,” one female bartender said, “fifty percent.” The male bartender corrected her, “Eighty-five percent. Sexting is foreplay.”

Smartphones, I learned, are a seductive courier for lovers, thanks to their powerful camera and messaging capabilities and 24/7 access to the Internet. Remember the ’90s dating rule: No sex for 90 days? Well, welcome to the age of the Three-Day Rule. We are in the midst of a rapid-fire sex-tech revolution where hiding behind a screen makes “free love” a compelling option in record time.

Take George. We met online, went out on a couple of dates and then he sexted me a photo of his erect penis. Not that I didn’t enjoy it (Holy shit!) but I wondered, Is this dating today?

The freedom to discreetly talk dirty turned me on. That’s one of the advantages of the sex-tech revolution. Privacy. No touch, no remorse and no exchange of fluids. At least that’s what I told myself. The downside? No physical intimacy or time for reflection and contemplation.

I also discovered that men seem to collect, or at least count the number of hook-ups. I, on the other hand, try to forget them, especially in the case of a very successful CEO, who had a penchant for pinstripe suits and thick black-rimmed glasses. They made him look clever. And powerful. We talked, then, on our second date, we hooked up in his hotel room. During foreplay he poured two glasses of Champagne and complimented my face, breasts, and hair. I didn’t like him sizing me up, but the fact that he spoke four languages, poured me Champagne, and had companies and estates all over the world turned me on, so I slept with him. But to my horror, I discovered a hideous, thick scar on his stomach that ran the length of his torso: It felt too intimate to see that after the second date. I think he saw the shock in my eyes when I saw it. It blew the moment.

For anyone, perhaps, it doesn’t matter if you’re the pillar of the community, young college grad, or prestigious professional—hooking up is a real possibility with real emotional and physical risks. But Oscar Wilde said, “We all straddle the abyss…if we never look down, we will never know who we are.”

So, after 20 years of marital sex, I’m wrestling with the urge to explore multiple partners versus one or two. “One relationship at a time,” said a wise friend, scolding me. Hooking up also can leave me cold if the emotional connection drops, post-sex. “Don’t expect to hear from me again,” said another man who didn’t mention his wife until after we made passionate love. He taught me how to hold onto the headboard while he went down on me. Sigh. But soon afterwards, with a tone of feigned consternation, he stated, “I love my wife.” (When he left, I ran into the bathroom, and almost threw up). “Man whores” are quite married to wives they adore—divorce never enters their minds.

Another wise friend recommended the 48-hour rule: When that inner voice challenges the urge to hook up, listen to it. Wait. Give time for desire to meet up with logic. And find out if he’s married. Still, what’s sex when what I want is love? “A fascinating alternative,” said Woody Allen.

We’re taught that, like Don Quixote, men live their lives in sexual conquest and stories told often enough become reality. Freud said about human behavior, “Everything [men and women] do springs from two motives: the urge for sex and the desire to be great.” The truth? I think too many people make unfair judgments and shaming too often targets women, blaming them for not being virtuous. A female with a strong sex drive? A freak. A male with a strong sex drive? A stud. Human sexuality coalesces in a swamp of nature, nurture, and culture.

For most of my life, I thought a woman’s wild impetuses needed to be repressed for the betterment of all. But given my recent liberation, I feel like I’ve stepped onto an alien landscape with familiar road signs that I can no longer comprehend: Danger Ahead! Reduce Speed! Watch for Falling Rocks! I shake my head about the way I used to perceive men, women, and human sexuality. Now I’m convinced that the more we accept all aspects of who we are without judgment, self-hatred, or guilt, the sooner we can become whole, more loving and forgiving human beings.

I think seeking multiple partners is a part of finding your soul mate. One-night stands, on the other hand, trigger addictive pathways in the brain. And combined with alcohol, hooking up can be downright dangerous. I’m sorry to say that I discovered that the hard way: I made out with a man at a nightclub who strangled me against the wall until I saw stars. It turned him on. It terrified me. I found out he could only get a hard-on through the total subjugation of a woman. I reported him to the police.

When I am aroused, I’m unconscious to it all—the imposed social norms, inane bullshit, and intrusive guilt. Sex curls my toes and causes other, notable Pavlovian reactions. “What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse,” said Henry Miller.

Take “Moon.” We met online. Bearded 23-year-old, six-foot-four Moon with his trunk-like muscular legs. Oh, my Lord! Our first night together we spent on our hands and knees at the beach with the moonlight above us. I found out later he’s a national skiing champion, which explains those legs. Moon is one of those Friends with Benefits (FWB). We’ll never have a relationship though.

The world as I knew it blew up. I am a woman separating from two decades of hard-core marriage and my sexual coming of age came late—and that is the greatest aphrodisiac of all. I kept myself virginal in the years before my marriage then after marriage spent a decade pregnant and raising small children. Now that I’m “free,” every precept about who I am, what we should be, and who we are…is up in the air.

My first epiphany since my marriage broke up: Many men consider sex and love to be two distinct, indisputable rights. They may copulate with many women but “make love” only to their significant other and see no contradiction, which is baffling. Perhaps men tend to compartmentalize; women tend to see the potentialities in the act of lovemaking. Does this have something to do with a woman’s incredible capacity to create and nurture life?

The drive for sex and desire for no emotional attachment is a conundrum. Sometimes I gravitate toward FWB like Moon because they don’t complicate things. But love is a powerful yearning “often disguised as lust,” as the song by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen goes.

There’s always a seductiveness, tension and anticipation for these kinds of encounters. And I enjoy the erotic freedom. But I often fall into a remorseful depression afterwards, and when I recover, I resolve to have no drama in my life. In the end, I feel bound by my values to use restraint and make rational decisions that last over time. So, does that mean I’m a woman, or a human being?

I think that is the crux of the problem for both sexes: how to make relationship choices that stand the test of time under the compelling, (often repressed) urge to fuck. Fucking, like cheap kitsch, according to the literary critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin, “offers gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation.”

Today I know more about my ego, the dark shadow, the identical twin I wish wasn’t there. I call mine the little kate duncan versus The Real Kate Duncan. When the ego indulges in its appetites, it’s very resistant to change. It wants to stay alive at any cost; the ego isn’t tamed that easily. If I allow it, it will throw me against the wall naked with legs spread open. Liberal sex relieves tension but too often leaves me wanting more.

And more…

A few men of my past year weren’t “there,” attentive but not fully present, which I found confusing, especially after the intimacy of sex. They shut down or seemed to be somewhere else—analyzing old relationships, assessing new ones, or who knows what. A big part of me longs to be embraced by an inspiring, creative man and to feel loved and cherished again. The want is palpable. Being with men who have intellectual and emotional depth stirs that longing for a deeper connection, and reasonably, I begin to yearn: I hunger for the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy. Feeling close, forming powerful emotional bonds, and expressing feelings are essential to the human condition. Someday, I imagine that I will open my heart again, like coming to the surface after a deep-sea dive. But a steady relationship is no panacea. We must love ourselves enough to be in control of who we allow to love us physically, and when.

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