Should We Have Sex Just Because Our Partner Wants To?

The Telegraph recently reported that a man in France has been fined $14,000 for refusing to have sex with his wife…for 21 years. The man said he was tired and hadn’t been feeling that well. For twenty-one years. I’m not kidding. The judge didn’t buy it either. He said: “By getting married, couples agree to sharing their life and this clearly implies they will have sex with each other.”

Maybe you have to be French to think that being denied sex is a reason to actually take your partner to court, but the case brings up a profound moral question: Do we have an obligation to try to satisfy our partners when it comes to sex?

Bill Hayward (Gallery 4)

What the experts call “desire discrepancy” – when one partner wants sex a lot more than the other one does – is something that a very large number of couples face. Therapists say it is the most common sexual problem they deal with, and while we don’t have good statistics on it, some experts have estimated that as many as one in three couples will confront it at some point.

There is even a medical term, “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” (HSDD), for people, mostly women, who experience low levels of sexual desire. Twenty percent of people are thought to be suffering from HSDD. And someone can be diagnosed with HSDD if they have normal levels of desire overall, but are just not attracted to their current partner. Of course, the quest is under way for a drug, as Daniel Bergner chronicled in a fascinating piece for the New York Times.

Luckily, there’s a non-pharmaceutical solution to the problem of desire discrepancy that’s also cheap and available without a prescription, and that works immediately.

Here it is: Have sex.

Like everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to this treatment. On the down side, it means you have to clear some time in your schedule, put off that “House of Cards” marathon, and let that stack of unread New Yorkers get that much higher. (Those things never stop coming!)

On the upside, you get to have more sex. And at least one study has suggested that you’ll be happier overall. According to a 2012 paper in The Journal of Sex Research, which Debby Herbenick wrote about for Salon, “Women and men reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction when their partners said they’d made more ‘sexual transformations,’” – including more frequent sex.

In other words, relationship sex is a bit like going out dancing on a Saturday night in February. It’s easy to think you’d rather just spend the night lying on the couch watching TV, but once you actually do it, you’re usually happy you did.

Although the “have sex” solution to not having enough sex is, in my professional opinion, both effective and fun, a lot of people seem very worried about it. There is a SubReddit for everything (the best beer to drink in the shower, for instance), and so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that there is one for “Dead Bedrooms.” It features a thread devoted to “sympathy sex.” The thread provoked Kate Hakala, a writer for Nerve, to pen a polemic on why we should just stop having “sympathy sex” altogether. Her piece was impassioned, eloquent, and, I think, misguided.

Hakala says: “With the implication of pity sex comes the very troubling and incredibly dangerous implication that, sometimes, sex is owed to us.” Why is this troubling and dangerous? Remember, we expect our partners to do something they may not want to do: Be faithful to us. Monogamy is a two-way street. Some people don’t mind if their partner just finds sex with someone besides us. But most of us do care. We think monogamy is owed to us. I would propose a rule of thumb: You should care as much about making sure your partner is sexually satisfied as you care that he or she gets that satisfaction from you. It doesn’t mean you have to say yes every time. It just means you should make a genuine, good-faith effort to meet your partner’s needs as best you can. Now if you don’t mind your partner going out and sleeping with someone else, fine. You’re off the hook. But you should at least make that clear.

Hakala also claims that “treating sex as an errand raises a major gray area when it comes to questions of consent.” I disagree – or at least I think that if there is a “major gray area” here, then we live much of our lives in that gray area. Imagine your partner says to you: “I sometimes find having dinner with your friends to be kind of an errand. Some nights I do it not because I enjoy it but because I want to please you.” Um, okay. So what? “Well,” he says, “I think this raises a major gray area when it comes to consent. I’m not sure I’m really consenting to having dinner. Isn’t it kind of like you’re kidnapping me? And kidnapping is, you know, a crime.” Your partner’s mistake here is that he’s failed to distinguish between being forced to do something against his will, and not getting to do exactly what he wants to do all the time. Having dinner with your partner’s friends is kind of like being kidnapped. It’s also kind of like being a mature adult who occasionally has to do things that aren’t the exact things you most want to do at that exact moment.

Why might we think sex is different from going out for dinner? I can see two possibilities. One is that, at least for some people, sex is something inherently special. They think it should always be a magical act of soul-joining love. But I’m pretty sure Hakala doesn’t think this, and I suspect most of my readers don’t either. Another is linked to the troubling idea that men are somehow entitled to sexual access to women. This appallingly misogynistic idea has been promoted by so-called “pick up artists” and other self-pitying men, and it was for centuries embodied in law in the marital rape exception. A woman was long presumed, on marriage, to grant her spouse free access to her body. Rape was defined as, in the words of Canada’s 1892 criminal code, “the act of a man having carnal knowledge of a woman who is not his wife without her consent.” (Emphasis added.) As this makes clear, so long as the couple were married, consent was not required. Feminist legal reformers are right to be proud of having gotten rid of this heinous idea, and you can’t blame anyone for wanting to make sure we don’t go back. And we must fight with all our energy the idea that sex is something women should provide men as a gender entitlement. But we are talking here about something different: the role sex plays in building a relationship, and in contributing to the happiness of the partners within that relationship. And I doubt even the craziest war-on-women conservative would be willing to stand up and say: “You know, I was listening to Debby Herbenick talk about how we should all be game for what our partners want in the bedroom, and I found it very convincing. So maybe it’s time to put the marriage exception back into rape law!”

There is one final argument that Hakala raises that I think deserves consideration. She asks: “If there is such a discrepancy in desire, why are you in the relationship?” But you could say this about any difference in preferences. Your partner likes “Supernatural,” and wants you to watch it with her every Tuesday night. End the relationship! Your partner loves sushi. You’re not crazy about it, but he wants you to take him to a Japanese restaurant every week or two. End the relationship! Ideally, both partners should want sex at the same time. But ideally, both partners should, I guess, also like the same movies, want to hang out with the same people, and end up simultaneously eating the same piece of spaghetti from opposite ends of the plate, leading to constant, adorable, mid-noodle smooches. If that happens, great. But, if it doesn’t, we need to be prepared to cope.

We need to stop kidding ourselves that relationships are anything like we see in romantic comedies. They’re work and negotiation– and negotiating about sex is always going to be a big part of that.

When the Wall Street Journal published a profile of a couple suffering from desire discrepancy, which emphasized the psychological costs to the low-desire partner (the husband), there was a flurry of reaction, much of it strongly negative.

The couple profiled by the Journal were both conservative Mormons, who married as virgins and may not have been highly skilled at expressing their needs and desires. And the woman’s low libido was clearly connected to the trauma of a miscarriage she had suffered early in the marriage. Commentators like Amanda Hess were certainly right to point out that partners need to work to understand each other, and that desire discrepancy is a complex problem that requires sensitivity on both sides.

There are often deep issues, both personal and relational, that need to be worked through before a couple can connect with one another, and no amount of sex is going to do that on its own.

I am certainly not suggesting that couples ignore those issues, or that they avoid honest discussion about what they both want. My point is that, when you enter into a monogamous relationship with someone, they are, by definition, placing their sexual happiness in your hands. That’s a trust we should all treat with the respect it deserves.

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