In conservative Christianity’s ongoing campaign to convince women they’re primarily sex objects, we’ve all heard that a husband needs on-demand sex, and it’s a Christian wife’s duty to give it to him — even when she doesn’t feel like it.
Someone gave me this advice when I was a newlywed. It rubbed me the wrong way then, when I knew nothing about married sex, and it rubs me the wrong way now, as I know a little bit more than nothing about married sex.
It threw more guilt and pressure on the already overwhelming amount of baggage I was carrying in regards to sex. The times I felt chastened enough to follow this advice ended in an unsexy mess of tears and anxiety.
I could write a whole post on the damage this teaching does and/or can do to women, but I also oppose this teaching because on-demand sex that ignores the wife’s feelings isn’t even the best way to meet a husband’s deepest needs.
The premise of on-demand sexual gratification for hubby is two-fold: (1) men need sex (at least in a way women do not), and (2) there are no real, legitimate reasons for a wife to decline satisfying his needs.
In all the time I spent in purity culture, the focus of sex was intimacy, the physical uniting of two souls into one flesh. That’s why we didn’t sleep around. Sex wasn’t just a biological function. It helped facilitate something deeper, something spiritual, even.
But then you read the advice for married ladies, and that beautiful vision of intimacy turns out to be a crass hoax. In reality, sex is about keeping your husband’s animal drives at bay so he doesn’t get frustrated and cheat on you.
It’s put more delicately than that, of course — something about sex being the primary way men experience intimacy, etc. — but the practical advice boils down to about as much:
Wear make-up every day so that you’re just as pretty as all the other women he meets out in the world.
Keep up your figure — you wouldn’t want his eyes wandering to thinner women.
Never say no to sex, or he’ll start looking elsewhere.
We can debate whether sex is all men’s or some men’s primary way of experiencing intimacy. It’s fine if it is. And even if it isn’t, sex should be a priority in marriage.
But this way of talking about sex and men’s needs ignores the ultimate need of everybody, male or female, husband or wife — we all need intimacy, oneness, and connection with another.
Sex should be a priority in marriage because intimacy is the goal.
Since intimacy is the goal, there is more to it than a man releasing his sexual appetite whenever he wants to at the wife’s expense.
When sex becomes the main goal, other aspects of intimacy will suffer (like emotional connection with a wife who doesn’t want sex that night — for starters). When sex is the main goal, it is completely possible for a husband to end up treating his wife like a sex object. When sex is the main goal, it is completely possible for the husband to be oblivious to what’s going on in his wife’s heart and mind, wrecking their marital intimacy.
When sex is the main goal, what a wife feels, wants, or needs mean nothing as long as she pleasures her husband.
But when intimacy is the main goal, what a wife feels, wants, or needs is just as critical as what her husband feels, wants, and needs. The process of understanding and reconciling those wants and needs when they’re at odds brings about a measure of intimacy needed for a healthy marriage to function.
Newsflash: there are real, legitimate reasons why a woman might not want to have sex. Always. Whether she says no one night or whether she says no frequently, there is a reason.
The problem with the marriage is not that she won’t have sex but why she won’t have sex.*
Even on a purely pragmatic level, the best sex happens when a wife wants to have sex, enjoys having sex, and knows how have good sex. Doesn’t that sound a million times better than on-demand sex with a wife grinning through her gritted teeth? Why doesn’t it ever occur to these older married women pushing this idea of on-demand sex to tell women to pay attention to and work through their reservations, rather than stuffing it all down night after night?
I think it never occurs to them, because it’s almost assumed that women don’t really want sex — at least not as much as men do. (Lies! And tragedy.) And I think they assume that women don’t really want sex, because they don’t understand how women’s sexuality often works.
Emily Nagoski, in her book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, discusses how misleading the idea of the “sex drive” is. Men (stereo)typically are ready for sex at the drop of a hat (or likely before), so we label their sex drive as “high.” Women (stereo)typically aren’t rarin’ to go for sex 24/7, so we label their sex drive as “low.” Because men’s high sex drive was used almost a baseline for desirable sexuality, women’s sexuality was misunderstood or outright dismissed as unimportant.
Research now explodes the idea of a “sex drive.” Instead, every individual has a sexual accelerator and a sexual brake that work in tandem to produce individuals with traditionally understood “high” or “low” sex drive tendencies.
Some people have extremely sensitive accelerators — all kinds of things turn them on with little encouragement necessary — while some people have more stubborn accelerators that need lots of coaxing to get started. Some people have extremely sensitive brakes — almost anything can screech their sexual inclinations to a halt — while some people’s brakes hardly ever engage.
As Nagoski emphasizes, absolutely nothing is wrong with any combination of sensitivities or lack thereof. They’re all “normal.” If you’re dissatisfied with your sex life, however, there are ways to work with your natural proclivities — to ease up on the brakes and tap those accelerators. And that’s through changing the context.
This is the key to great, frequent sex — not trying to force your sexuality to happen on call, but to understand what sort of context you need for your combination of brake and accelerator.
A brake can be anything — stress, housework, trauma, lack of emotional intimacy, exhaustion, even negative experiences with sex like feeling forced to perform on-demand. Husband and wife need to work together to create a context that eliminates those things — the husband takes on more housework, the wife drops that extra commitment, the husband gives his wife the freedom to say, “no, not tonight,” the wife goes to therapy.
An accelerator is something like a scent, a place, a time of day, the light levels — anything that consistently turns you on. Husband and wife need to work together to create that environment.
This is intimacy. Not the free reign of the husband’s sex drive, but the mutual understanding of what makes the other person tick, the deep involvement in each other’s lives, the connection so tight that it easily leads to the physical level as well.
That’s what’s going to make a satisfying sex life. And even if a satisfying sex life is your husband’s deepest need, paying attention to and meeting your own needs is what’s ultimately going to meet his.
*I’m aware that sexless marriages exist, sometimes even after the problem has been diagnosed. I don’t presume to speak for those severe cases, and I grieve with those trapped in such a marriage.