While it is clear Olds, or at least the speaker she’s using in this text, feels as though love and sex should be connected, she depicts these loveless relationships in clear, striking language and through the creation of memorable imagery. The poem discusses themes of love, life, death, and religion.
The poem takes the reader through similes and metaphors that compare lovers, those who “make love” without being “in love,” to a variety of actions and objects. They are like “red steak” and gliding ice-skaters. These men and women move through life without commitment and in full knowledge of their solitary existence.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Sex Without Love’ by Sharon Olds is a twenty-four line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, although there are moments of half-rhyme within the text. Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “over-all” and “cardio-vascular,” with the similarities between the “o” vowel sound. Or, the “r” consonant sound in “factors” and “partners” in line twenty-one.
Olds makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sex Without Love’. These include simile, metaphor, alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first, simile, is seen in comparisons the poet created between two unlike things using “like” or “as”. It appears in ‘Sex Without Love’ a number of times. For example, in the second and third lines, she says that lovers are “Beautiful as dancers” and then compares them to “ice-skaters” gliding over each other “over the ice”. Several other similes follow in the next lines as she says the lover’s faces and bodies are “red as steak, wine”.
A metaphor is similar to a simile, but is a comparison that does not use “like” or “as”. It is utilized when the poet wants to say one thing is another thing. Alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “purists” and “pros” in line fourteen and “bed,” “body,” and “best” in the last three lines of ‘Sex Without Love’.
Caesura is another technique that’s quite easy to spot. It occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The second line is a great example, as is the eighth.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem, such as the transitions between lines ten, eleven, and twelve.
Analysis of Sex Without Love
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
In the first lines of ‘Sex Without Love,’ the speaker begins with a question. This is posed rhetorically, she is not expecting an answer. It is placed at the beginning of the poem to let the reader know the main topic on which she is going to be speaking. She’s interested in exploring relationships, particularly those in which there is intimacy but no emotional love. She doesn’t understand those who “make love / without love”. She doesn’t judge them though. In fact, she describes them quite beautifully.
The speaker uses a series of similes to compare the lovers to dancers, ice-skaters, steak, and wine. The “red” in the six-line is a clear symbol of passion. The fact that it is associated with rare steak alludes to something raw and immediate. The last simile, before she poses the next question, says that the lovers are:
wet as the
Children at birth whose mothers are going to
Give them away.
Through the use of enjambment in these lines, the poet is able to surprise the reader with a change in tone. Now, the simile is less favorable. It speaks to something desperate, out of control, and emotionally distressing.
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
In the next lines, she poses a longer question. It stretches from line eight all the way to line thirteen. Here, she repeats the word “come” five times, expressing her bafflement over how they “come to the God come to the / still waters” and:
[…] not love
the one who came there with them […]
The use of repetition in these lines is quite interesting, and will certainly impact each reader differently. Olds chose to jumble these lines, making them harder to read and interpret, in order to speak to the complexity of loving relationships, of one kind or another. It is clear that she, or at least the speaker she is channeling in the poem, is having a hard time coming to terms with an intimate relationship in which “steam” rises off “their joined skin” that doesn’t involve emotional love.
There is also the introduction of religion in this section of the poem. It’s clear that the speaker relates love, sex, and the climactic moments of intimacy to something spiritual. The reference to “still waters” in the tenth line likely comes from Psalm 23:2. It reads in part: “He leads me beside the still waters”. This phrase is meant to inspire confidence. It references peace and security.
The next lines are filled with a series of metaphors, mimicking the similes that appeared in the first set of lines. She says that these lovers are the “true religious”. They are the kind who will not “accept a false Messiah”. Due to their individuality and unwillingness to bond emotionally, there is an implication of some kind of clear-headedness in these lines. They are the “pros,” knowing immediately what is true and what is false.
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
In the last lines of ‘Sex Without Love,’ the speaker describes the lovers, who make love without being in love, as capable of distinguishing their lover from “their own pleasure”. The two are not tied together as they might be in a more committed relationship. They are, the speaker adds, using another simile, “like great runners”.
They are alone, and they know it. Their only company is the surface of the road and the weather’s elements. This is the path these individuals walk. It is solitary, yet they are also immersed in the forces of nature. These “forces” as well as the physical aspects of their world, “their shoes” and their health are just “factors” to them. They mean nothing more than they do on the surface. She adds,
[…] Like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth […]
Here, she is speaking on the reality of life and the emotional/spiritual connection, or lack thereof, that exists between lovers. There is nothing transcendent about these relationships. They are “not the truth” nor do they reveal any deep secret about the world the lovers did not already know. What is “the truth” and what is the reality of their lives, is the fact that they, and all those reading the poem, are “single bod[ies] alone in the universe”.
They are “against” their “own best time”. Here, it appears that the speaker is trying to depict life on a larger scale, within the confines of birth and death. All human beings are given a short span of time in which to live and love. Without that emotional connection, and that dedication to another person, the time might be wasted.