How Not to Talk About Sex in Relationships


Sexual compatibility in relationships is hugely important — possibly even more important than we give it credit for, because we are terrible at crediting the right things. Obviously relationships come in all stripes, but generally speaking, one of the primary factors that distinguishes romantic love from platonic love is whether or not you and your loved one touch each other on the junk. How and when we touch each other on the junk is important, and couples with mismatched junk-touching drives have a lot of complicated work to do. The idea that two people will just magically please each other’s junk for life, based solely on the power of their undying puppy love, is silly and harmful. Relationships need communication and care and selflessness and balance. Magic isn’t real.

The Wall Street Journal attemps to tackle the complexities of marital sex drives with an article called “How Often Should Married Couples Have Sex? What Happens When He Says ‘More’ and She Says ‘No.’” At last! Someone’s framing this problem from the man’s perspective—because the “long-suffering, sex-hungry husband vs. frigid, withholding wife” binary hasn’t been our narrative for sexual dysfunction for, oh, all of time. Awesome.

The piece introduces us to a seemingly happy heterosexual couple, Chris and Afton, who found themselves drifting apart thanks to differing sexual desires (or, at least, that’s what the article contends—spoiler: the lede is buried!). Afton almost never wanted to have sex, and she didn’t want to talk about it. This made Chris feel sad, because he did want to have sex. Conundrum!

Months stretched into years. Mr. Mower tracked their sex life in a notebook he kept in his nightstand. He drew a chart and filled in different-shaped dots to represent various scenarios: He initiated sex but was declined. They planned on sex but didn’t follow through. They actually had sex. Mr. Mower says he was rebuffed 95% of the time; his wife says his memory is highly subjective. He became grumpy, gained weight and stopped wanting to come home at night. “For me to feel good about myself, I needed her to have sex with me,” he says. “Otherwise I thought she didn’t love me.”

From there the article jumps into several paragraphs of odd apologetics for the male side of sexual incompatibility. Men, we learn, are extremely attached to sexy intercourse because it is their only method of expressing themselves in relationships—so denying them sex is tantamount to murdering their ability to love. (Because all women, as a group, think sex is icky and/or boring. And all relationships are heterosexual and monogamous. And all men are incommunicative emotional cripples. Science!) Also, men orgasm “more often” than women, which is clearly a product of spermology and not of the fact that our dominant cultural definition of sex is built around male ejaculation. Also also, here is the unsexiest sentence I have ever read and sorry boyfriend I am never having sex again: “When a man gets depressed because he’s not being touched, it’s just like the little boy who stands in his crib and cries to be picked up.”

Plus, they just really really liiiiike iiiiiiit!!!

Now, obviously sex is important for people of all genders, and I think men’s emotional needs are dangerously and cruelly underserved in our culture. But do generalizations like this really help anybody?

Increasingly, experts believe sex is a more emotional experience for men than for women. Men tend to express feelings with actions, not words. Unlike a lot of women, they probably don’t have heart-to-heart chats with everyone from their best friend to the bus driver, and they often limit hugs and physical affection to their immediate family.
No wonder they miss sex when it disappears. It’s a way for them to be aggressive and manly but also tender and vulnerable. “For some men, sex may be their primary way of communicating and expressing intimacy,” says Justin Lehmiller, a Harvard University social psychologist who studies sexuality. Taking away sex “takes away their primary emotional outlet.”

If men, as a group, are having this much trouble communicating and expressing intimacy, then wouldn’t it make more sense for them to address those problems specifically rather than just guilting their wives into “giving” them more sex? It seems to me that if men with intimacy problems actually worked on them instead of taking sexual shortcuts, it could actually improve intimacy and satisfaction for everyone.

Communication is vital, in both directions, and the WSJ piece does provide some interesting statistics about “sexual communal strength,” which is the willingness to address your partner’s needs even if you aren’t personally aroused by them (in general or in that specific moment). Couples who both exhibit high sexual communal strength have greater sexual satisfaction overall. That’s something I absolutely agree with. Under the right circumstances, having sex when you don’t really feel like it isn’t creepy coercion—sometimes it’s just love. And mutually prioritizing one another’s needs over one’s own can be really healthy in a relationship.

That’s what Chris and Afton credit with rekindling their “healthy sex life”: prioritizing generosity over selfishness. They both read a book called Passionate Marriage, Afton got her shit together (“I decided to raise my game”), Chris apparently didn’t need to do anything because his job is just to sit around and wait for sex, and now they’re banging like a coupla virgins on their wedding night.

Oh. Did I mention that they were both virgins on their wedding night? Because the WSJ article doesn’t bother mentioning it until about 1,000 words in.

Chris and Afton Mower, who have been married almost 10 years, were raised in the Mormon church and had sex for the first time on their wedding night. Each was excited and stressed. “We expected sparks and it didn’t happen,” says Mr. Mower.
Early in the marriage, Ms. Mower became pregnant and lost the baby. Her libido was diminished, and she was uncomfortable discussing sex with her husband. The couple went months, and once a whole year, without having sex. “I knew that he felt deprived of intimacy that he really wanted and needed, but all the pressure I felt made me want it less,” recalls Ms. Mower, now 31 and a stay-at-home mom.

Why on earth are those paragraphs buried? The fact that Chris and Afton got married with zero understanding of each other’s sexual proclivities and needs (and, most likely, their own) seems more than a little relevant to their subsequent sexual incompatibility. And the fact that Afton’s traumatic, libido-destroying miscarriage receives a scant six words, buried at the very bottom of a 1,200-word jeremiad about the emotional pain of sex-starved husbands, is horrifying.

Communication is important. Mutual generosity is important. Men’s inner emotional lives are important. Women’s sexual boundaries are important. And vice versa on all counts, of course. But when talking about sex, female trauma is not subordinate to male frustration. Men not “getting” enough sex from their chilly wives (as though wives couldn’t possibly want sex, or be justified in not wanting it) has been our oversimplified narrative for generations. Prioritizing men’s sexual issues over women’s is not a revolutionary, maverick stance—it is the status quo dressed up as progressive pablum. And exploiting one couple’s very specific emotional trauma and dysfunction in order to support sweeping, regressive generalizations about the sexual function of entire genders is utterly fucked up.

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