Toronto
3 min

Sex & the single-minded artist

What came first: the inspiration or the libido?

One of the first things I learned after coming out was that the best part of sex was the aftermath. After the other person had left, that is, because I was calmer then, less tense and I could read.

I don’t know whether reading qualifies as a creative act but it made me wonder: Does sex improve creativity? Would I be more creative if I got laid more often, or just more distracted?

The connection between the two energies is very old indeed. More than a decade ago, the eminent British critic and man of letters VS Pritchett remarked that sexuality “is at the heart of the creative imagination, whether in artists or in the ordinary man…. In all human beings of strong creative ability there is what may be called an overflow of vitality.”

Now there’s new evidence in support of the connection. According to a study conducted by a couple of British psychologists and published in, of all august places, the Proceedings Of The Royal Society, artists have more sex partners than the population at large (twice as many, actually) and the more dedicated they are to their art, the more partners they get. One important caveat here: “more” does not mean “more” in any sense likely to be understood by readers of this publication. More just means between four and 10 instead of a mere three.

Of course more partners does not equal more sex, but that’s the way the study was interpreted, leading to predictable bouts of envy, resentment and ribaldry. A blog run by Britain’s Guardian newspaper was filled with posts from artists who weren’t getting any, moralists who thought nobody should be getting any and sluts who wondered if getting a lot was doing them as much good as it was supposed to.

The study was instantly open to a thousand objections. For every example of an artist who has screwed around and prospered there’s some secular saint like Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson who expressed themselves quite nicely without any apparent recourse to sexual rejuvenation.

True, some artists have made the rounds and lived to rework the experience as art, so loosely speaking you might say that they’d been inspired by their sexual escapades. Novelist Edmund White, for example, has scored with thousands of guys (if you believe the autobiographical impersonations in his novels) and at times he seems to have incorporated most of them into his work. A Farewell Symphony was one long, chatty look at his 1970s love life, while his newest book, My Lives, an autobiography not yet published in North America, devotes one chapter to old loves and another to a torrid SM affair conducted when he was in his 60s.

But not everyone has the energy or the inclination to work their raw material quite so assiduously. Despite her celebrated Sapphic affairs, Virginia Woolf seems to have been relatively uninterested in sex. Her diaries are completely devoid of sexual yearning, her novels even more so.

The ethereal, asexual quality of the novels has been much remarked on and it troubled at least one of her contemporaries. “It is the lack of copulation — either actual or implied — that worries me,” fluted one of her gay friends. Yet Woolf was hardly unproductive: eight major novels, innumerable essays, six volumes of letters and five of diaries.

Clearly, sex wasn’t her muse, and even some of her more libidinous colleagues might say the same, as least while they’re working. Picasso borrowed a girlfriend’s likeness for his great painting Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon but he pretty much ignored the real woman while he was reworking her outline in oils.

If we continue to confuse sex with inspiration I suspect it’s because energy begets energy. Art is hard work and what better way to stoke the old engines than with a bout of sluttishness? Of course, there’s also the age-old human yearning for the transcendent.

Sex is so pleasurable, so intense that we’ll do almost anything to justify it. It would be too dispiriting to think that something so powerful, time-consuming and life-shaping was in itself of no further import than a walk around the block. The feelings, desires and sensations associated with sex are so intense we assume that they must also have meaning. But that is to confuse intensity with importance.

Mostly, I suspect, sex is just a side effect of creativity — not the source – the spillover of creation into action. As the wonderful US novelist James Salter remarked of a prolific but non-monogamous colleague, “The great engines of this world do not run on faithfulness.” Which means, I think, that creativity tends to overflow the bounds of convention. Where that vitality comes from in the first place remains a mystery.