Is there ever such a thing as good sex music?

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze canoodled over pottery in ‘Ghost’ to ‘Unchained Melody’ by The Righteous Brothers  (Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze canoodled over pottery in ‘Ghost’ to ‘Unchained Melody’ by The Righteous Brothers (Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)

There are three songs I used to love but can no longer listen to. One is “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap (it makes me spontaneously burst into tears). The other is “Into Dust” by Mazzy Star (thank you, The OC). And the third is “Fiction” by The xx, for which I blame a 19-year-old man whose name I, rather unfortunately, can’t actually remember. Nonetheless, the impact he had was profound; to this day, hearing just the first few bars of the song elicits a physical and spiritual shudder somewhere deep within me.

Picture the scene. Thailand. Summer 2013. A regrettable amount of neon body paint. One night, after watching Andy Murray win Wimbledon in a sweaty, humid island bar with some fellow travellers, I found myself fumbling around with the nameless man in his hostel. Mid-snog, he pulled away and explained we desperately needed music. “You’ll love this song,” he insisted. And I did – The xx were then and still are one of my favourite bands – but the second it became a soundtrack to my makeout session, I recoiled. It was like everything exciting and fun about the encounter had instantly evaporated, and I had unknowingly become the star of someone’s poorly executed romantic comedy. It made me squirm so much that by the time the song had finished, I was gone.

But I’m not the only person to have had a regrettable romantic or sexual encounter to music. This week, Lily Allen revealed she can no longer listen to a particular Moby album because when she was younger, a man played it for her while they had sex. “When I went to his hotel, he put on the Moby album. And I cannot, if it comes on I’m just like... it was that period of time and he thought it was so cool,” she said to Miquita Oliver on their podcast Miss Me?, describing the experience as “very embarrassing”.

Lily, I can relate. But I also understand where the impulse to soundtrack your sex life comes from. For most of us, the first time we’re exposed to sex comes by way of pop culture. And what’s a good sex scene without the perfect musical accompaniment? There are certain songs I will forever associate with specific scenes and characters. It’s Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze canoodling over pottery in Ghost to “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers. In Top Gun, it’s Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise getting down to it with the help of “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin. And, of course, in Cruel Intentions, it’s Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe’s breathless bodies accompanied by Counting Crows’ “Colorblind”.

All this contributes to the myth that sex can be made sexier by the right song: it creates an atmosphere, primes you for seduction, and gets you in the mood. Sadly, none of this is true. Firstly, consider the practicalities here. When you’re listening to music, everything you do is accompanied by a rhythm, one that may well be wildly out of sync with that which you’re creating with your partner. What if one of you finds themselves subconsciously having sex to the beat of the music? And what if that beat is completely off? And then finds themselves unable to move at any other pace?

Then there’s the simple matter of lyrics. It’s all very well and good getting it on to “Let’s Get It On”. But what happens when you’ve accidentally put your playlist on shuffle and you’re met with an unexpected “You’re toxic I’m slippin’ under” or “Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong”? Hardly the stuff of wet dreams.

Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe as Annette and Sebastian in ‘Cruel Intentions’ (Rex Features)
Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe as Annette and Sebastian in ‘Cruel Intentions’ (Rex Features)

And let’s be honest, it’s just plain cringe. In our heads, the idea of having sex to music might seem romantic but, in reality, isn’t it just really awkward? Who actually gets turned on by pretending they’re in some sort of heightened love scene? Doesn’t it just make the whole thing feel artificial and contrived?

I believe that it does. Plus, it’s a distraction. As someone who has written a lot about sex, both good and bad, I can say quite confidently that one of the most important things that leads to great, pleasurable sex is being present. You need to be in the moment with you, your body, and your partner. It’s arguably much harder to do that when you’re joined by the sounds of someone who you probably don’t know and never will.

It might also add to the pressure of it all. By bringing music into the situation, you’re facilitating a performative environment. Suddenly, there’s a compulsion to put on your best show, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to cultivating a comfortable atmosphere that you can relax into.

For me, one of the greatest joys of music is that it takes me elsewhere. And that completely defeats the purpose of having sex. So, if you’re somebody who consistently presses play before slipping under the sheets, please take a moment to reconsider. You could be about to ruin The xx for someone else.