Sharon Olds starts this poem with a rhetorical question, which can be foreshadowed by the following questions. Imagine two curious, eager and vivacious lovers, passionately kissing, touching, and playing with one another in a wonderland of seduction.
What kind of couple did you imagine? Is the couple married, dating, or did they just meet for some casual sex? According to Sharon Olds, as evidenced by her poem entitled “Sex Without Love” (1942), sex without love is an abomination. Olds uses many literary techniques in order to further the symbolism and imagery in her poem, such as simile, metaphor, diction, and connotation and to a lesser extent, alliteration (consonance and assonance). Olds, in her poem, poses a intriguing age-old question and offers a subjective and stimulating response, in which the act of sex is supposed to be accompanied with the feeling of love. Olds communicates her values mainly with vivid and ironic imagery by introducing traditionally beautiful settings before adding an unattractive twist.
Olds does not waste time in letting her audience know her initial stance on the matter at hand. Olds begins the poem with a rhetorical question: “How do they do it, the ones who make love without love”, which does not exactly indicate support for this type of interaction, but rather interest. She is asking herself and the reader to help her decide. Nevertheless, the author really captures the reader’s attention by allowing the reader to ponder for a moment as he or she proceeds to the next line. The line “Beautiful as dancers, gliding over each other like ice-skaters” creates a pleasant image of an elegant pair. However, the simile takes a sharp turn for the negative in the next line. As it reads, “…over the ice, fingers hooked inside each other’s bodies, faces”, the imagery becomes less pleasant. Now we see performers instead of lovers. Olds utilizes the comparison of lovers to performers again near the end of the poem when she references runners, running all alone along a cold windy road. Here, the ice is emphasized, which is evident by its unnecessary mention, as we already know that we are speaking of ice-skaters. Ice is cold and this coincides with Olds’ interpretation of sex without love as a cold and detached act.
Olds continues to break the mood by referencing traditionally wholesome, idealistic and romantic images such as steak and wine, a child’s birth, and religion, mentioning them, however, in an unflattering way. A face as red as wine is not at all as pleasant as the heightening of senses that wine conducts. Olds turns the notch up when she refers to the two lovers in the poem as “red as steak, wine, wet as the/children at birth whose mothers are going to/give them away,” which has an underlying message that the pair uses one another for pleasure, much like a piece of meat. In the same line, she highlights the dangers of unplanned pregnancy rather boldly with negative undertone in the comparison.
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Sex without love is the utilization of diction in the sense that when one reads it, it is probable one will feel like he or she is having sex without love. The clever wording creates an emphatic yet suggestive idea that Olds is trying to represent the poem as a person problem, allowing the reader to feel empathy before coming to a decision. The brilliant sequence of “come to the/come to the come to the God come to the/still waters,” is immediately followed by a sobering truth that one can feel pleasure “…and not love the one who came there with them”. This part of the poem introduces the theme of religion and sacrilege, hinting that although Olds is not a complete stranger to the idea of sex without love, she does consider it immoral.
In the end, Olds concludes on a somber note, in that people who have sex are “…just factors in the bed …(and a) single body alone in the universe, against its own best time.” Through comparisons to art and athletic performance, an unwanted child, steak and wine, Olds creates harsh and vivid images to get this point across. Nevertheless, Olds’s poem is a beautiful piece of literature that evokes emotion, encourages an opinion, and takes one on an experience. The author leaves the reader with room for interpretation while providing both a harsh criticism on lovers of sex without love alongside a lesser emphasized empathetic point of view. The use of vivid imagery through word choice, the use of irony through diction and connotation, metaphor and simile develops the theme of the poem very effectively. Olds does a great job of getting her point across while not placing judgment on any one decision, allowing the reader to appreciate her sentiments and enjoy the “Sex Without Love” with love.
Olds, Sharon. “Sex Without Love.” The Riverside Anthology of Literature (1985)