Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures

I’ve been asked once or twice why there should be a connection between sex and death and I wonder if perhaps the connection is being taken too literally by some. I’m not just talking about ‘having sex with dead things’ or saying ‘dead things are sexy’.  To illustrate, in some paragraphs I’ve mentioned that according to Freud the sex-drive and the death-drive are the same thing because Eros and Thanatos are two sides of the same coin, and in other parts I’ve mentioned simple biological processes that cause death straight after sex. They are just some of the links which exist. I didn’t create them – I’m just exploring them.

One sex and death link that some may have heard of is ‘Emergency Sex’ and I referred to it in a recent interview for the website Thinking In Practice . It’s a term not used by all members of the general populace but certainly people who have been in a disaster situation or a war-torn area either as a worker (such as a soldier) or an innocent bystander. I first heard the phrase when I read this fantastic book many years ago: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures.

Emergency Sex

Written in the early 2000s by three UN relief workers, the book caused a bit of outrage at the time for its honest account of how the UN actually worked during the many 1990s conflicts, which shattered lots of people’s ideas of it being an upstanding dignified organisation. But interwoven through those true accounts is the story of three people and how they cut through the seclusion and desolation by falling into the arms of other people. One of the three authors, Heidi Postlewait said of the title, ”Emergency Sex is a metaphor for loneliness and loss, it’s that feeling that takes you into another person’s arms when you are scared out of your mind and wishing you were home.” It’s the type of sex which occurred just before many soldiers were deployed out to the front during WWII and all the ladies who were ‘saving themselves’ for marriage decided to sod it and wave their gravy-stained legs in the air for their fellas before they went. I could explain the reasons for this in terms of Mortality Salience and Terror Management Theory or you could just read *this paper later and instead I’ll tell you about a time when I had some really good Emergency Sex… Well, sort of.


At the time I read the book I had not long returned from working at the temporary mortuary set up in response to the London Bombings (7/7) and had experienced this phenomenon first hand. As a trainee APT during 2005 I was on a register for disaster relief work and in fact colleagues of mine had been deployed to the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, then gone straight onto London that July. Living in a hotel together and working 13/14 hour days under incredibly harrowing circumstances, the APTs were feeling the strain of the situation and we did the same as the UN relief workers were described as doing: ‘As disillusionment sets in, they attempt to keep hold of their humanity through black humour, revelry and emergency sex.’


Thus I ended up in the hotel room of a colleague I had barely even thought about previously despite meeting several times, simply because the need to validate my mortality in circumstances like that was FAR too huge. The hotel TV/Radio radio combo that you used to see in all hotels a few years back happened to choose that moment to begin playing Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. Which is actually even appropriatge than you think because the lyrics to that song include the line:

“Whenever blue tear drops are falling
And my emotional stability is leaving me
There is something I can do…”

which pretty much sums this blog post up really. Emergency Sex is something that happens when people are facing death or have looked at too much death, among other things. It’s one of the many links between sex and death – the end of life or the fear of the end of life will inspire a desire to procreate – it’s not rocket science. Some studies have even shown this awareness of death/sense of danger (known in psychological terms as Death Salience or Mortality Salience) can occur temporarily after watching horror movies or going on roller coasters and will similarly increase libido. Take this quote for example: “A classic psychological study was done on two sets of men and their attraction to one woman. The first set of men talked, one at a time, with the woman on a rickety bridge overlooking a steep rocky canyon. The other set talked with the same woman on a modern, stable bridge overlooking a short drop. The first set was measurably more attracted to the woman than the second, demonstrating that being in the fearful situation heightened sexual attraction.” Full article here. So if you’re about to take someone on a first date, do something which will scare them out of their wits – white water rafting, jump out at them in a dark alleyway etc – and you may be guaranteed some action.

Joking aside, there is a lot to be learned from Death Salience studies, and in fact one of the speakers at the upcoming Death Salon UK, Nathan Hefflick, will be discussing this issue on Day One of the event. On Day Three we have someone from the Centre for Death and Society in Bath discussing Funeral food and I’ve added this in because of an interesting paragraph I read while reading a book that my wonderful friend Lara bought me: “There’s no better way to prove you’re alive, in contrast to the body in the box you’ve just said farewell too, than by eating. (Actually, most people would claim that sex is a better way to prove this – and indeed food combined with carnal hunger can sometimes provide a double dose of post funeral vitality..)”


I don’t think this is urging you to get all 9 1/2 Weeks at your next funeral, or grab a stranger and do them in the street the next time you have a bit of a scare, but it’s just an interesting concept and another layer in the exploration of the links between sex and death.


Further reading – short NY Times article


  1. Like it. A scientific, genuine view. I have kind of a special relationship with death. I want true things and death is true. So, if death is around and you have sex in such a moment, sex should be pur a true too…

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