'Who can say where sex starts and where it ends?' (Rolf Konow/Sygma/Getty)

September 4, 2023   3 mins

In hospital, one of the things that is never mentioned, and there really is no reason for it to be, is sex. There are no jokes, double entendres, or exchanged looks. The place is antiseptic in all senses. Of the many losses I have suffered since my immobilising fall last Boxing Day, sexual feeling might be the least of it. A friend of mine who had prostate cancer, and after his recovery could never have sex again, said: “Thank God I’m alive, and every day I’m glad to be. That’s enough.”

Losing one’s sexuality overnight, in a sudden blow, is like losing a sense. Something that has guided and activated one throughout one’s life is unexpectedly missing. To have no erections, to feel no sexual excitement nor have any fantasies, is to be deprived of an orientating engine that has steered, bedevilled, and pursued one since adolescence. It is a major absence, and a puzzling one. I now look at sexuality from another point of view, that of a disinterested spectator. I wonder what all the fuss is about, and why people are risking their reputations for the sake of what seems to me now to be an unimportant, if not minor, excitement. It doesn’t follow that I feel no enthusiasm anymore; I do, just not for that. I wonder where it has gone.

For me now, trying to understand sexuality is a bit like attempting to grasp the strange fetishes of others: if someone has a wild passion for hats, donkeys, or umbrellas, this may seem inexplicable to the onlooker. Yet we know that many people do have these passions, and that they are incurable, lifelong; whole societies are often unconsciously structured around them. To me, all sexuality now feels like this: foreign, almost alien.

Many of my stories, films and novels have been ordered around the bewitching mischief of sexuality; its play and performance, of people desiring other people’s bodies. Sexuality is also seemingly irrational compared to other motivating forces such as money, vengeance, and social aspiration. It is a wonderful excuse for writers to add more than a dash of madness into their subjects. Some people really want sex, but they only want specific kinds of sex and certain kinds of people, and they will give up a lot to get it — often even their lives.

But one can live without it, a lot of people do. And when one thinks of how little time one actually spends having sex — what a tiny proportion of one’s actual life is in fact devoted to it, compared to, say, watching television — it is amazing that so many stories are devoted to its mystery and power. I am on the other side now, an observer, and I’m still curious and will continue to be, but I’ve lost something that was once important, and more than that, I’m even wondering why it was so important, and why it matters so much to so many.

I sit outside the hospital in my wheelchair looking at the strange creatures in their mad clothing or hospital gowns, with their tattoos or blue hair, with their lost limbs and mad aspect, and wonder what sort of sexuality governs them, or if it does at all. There are plenty of people about, hundreds if not thousands of them, getting on and off buses, or cycling furiously up the road. Someone, somewhere, sometime must be having sex, since the world’s population continues to increase.

I have a friend who likes to have sex every day, or at least she did before she had children, and of course we all know people who appear not to have had sex for years. We wonder if they miss it, and if they masturbate at all — and if so, how often. I have another friend, the same age as me, who is very attractive and always horny, and whose husband, due to an accident, has become unavailable. It has been a difficult thing, but she has become reconciled to the hopelessness of the situation — she loves and respects him, and will live with it.

Sex of course isn’t just genital. Who can say where it starts and where it ends? Think of kissing, caressing, and enjoying the bodies of others; think of looking and speaking, whispering, and fantasising, all are forms of sexuality, spread everywhere and are present all the time. These pleasures will never be denied me, but at the moment they do not have the same point or influence. If once sexual feeling was there very strongly, it is now gone; a strange lack, a sort of bafflement about what went on before and what it must have meant.


This piece was originally published on The Kureishi Chronicles.

Hanif Kureishi is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. His most famous works include the novel The Buddha of Suburbia and the screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette. His Substack is The Kureishi Chronicles