Jul 13, 2021 Society
James, a 32-year-old living in Howick, is explaining why he loves sex with the lights off . “There’s an extra eroticism to exploring a body you can’t see,” he says. “With the lights off , I’m probably more likely to maximise [my partner’s] pleasure based on the noises she’s making. Plus, I have a real concern that my sex faces are truly ridiculous, so it helps with that, too.”
Celina, a 39-year-old based in central Auckland, shares this preference. “I prefer sex with lights off mainly because I feel I can be freer,” she explains. “If I feel like I’m being watched, I perform, and I’m not necessarily ‘getting off ’ because I’m obsessed with how I look.”
If you prefer, or even just enjoy, sex with the lights off, you might not exactly be singing it from the rafters. Historically, it’s been portrayed as a hopelessly prudish preference, and glossy magazines in the 1990s and 2000s were particularly unsparing in this assessment, dishing out endless tips on how to “build up” to lights-on sex, as though it’s self-evidently better and more liberating.
Today, digital media continues in the same vein: Google “sex with the lights off”, for example, and you’ll be presented with dozens of articles like Cosmopolitan’s “8 very convincing reasons to keep the lights on during sex” and Mashable’s “Sex is better with the lights on”. “It [lights-off sex] is certainly more often portrayed as an archaic way of fucking,” James says. “I’d associate its reputation with a lie-back-and-think-of-England kind of sex.”
There’s also a gendered assumption that lights-off sex is a “woman’s thing”, evidencing various feminine neuroses and body-image issues, and there’s a parallel assumption that this is boring for their male partners. (This whole frame is heteronormative, obviously.) Women, we’re forever being told, need to get over their silly sexual hang-ups and embrace their greatest ally, the 60-watt light bulb. “I’ve always been embarrassed about my ‘thing’,” Celina explains, “because it’s always been presented as the sad option, the option you move beyond to be truly liberated.”
But there are lots of reasons sex with the lights off can be enjoyable and even preferable, regardless of your gender. For a start, taking sight out of the question allows other senses to come to the fore, which can actually be more erotic. “When the lights are on and I can see, I suppose I feel less impetus to explore [my partner’s] body, because I can see it,” James says. “With the lights off , it almost feels like I want to ‘see’ as much of her body as possible, but through touch.”
And, yes, darkening the room can allow a person to turn down the volume on body-image issues or self-consciousness — and this doesn’t apply only to women, either. “Despite being an arrogant and vain prick, I have real body issues,” James admits. “The lights being off totally negates it as an issue for me.”
Contra the old trope, though, this doesn’t necessarily mean lights-off sex is boring for partners. In fact, the less distracted and insecure a partner is, the more playful and exploratory they can be. “I think people think sex with the lights off [is about] repression or shame, but for me it’s the opposite,” Celina explains. “It allows me to be in my body, feeling all the sensations, without worrying about my image or performance or what my body looks like.”
You can see, then, that the tacit shaming around lights-off sex is entirely self-defeating, if what you want is a more sexually liberated partner: because it’s framed as the boring option, people feel embarrassed about having this preference, which means they’re less likely to request the conditions that allow them to truly let loose. If you prefer sex to involve a visual display, lights-off sex will obviously involve a compromise, but it may mean you’re getting a much more comfortable, playful partner, which may be well worth the trade-off.
At the very least, even if lights-off sex really isn’t your thing, you could refuse to partake in the wider cultural bashing. “It’s unfairly maligned as a conservative choice,” James concludes. “It could do with a bit of a reputation boost.”