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On Sex & Compromise

July 20, 2010

(note: I’m guest blogging at Feministe for the next two weeks, and will be cross-posting relevant posts here. Here’s one now!)

I’m a huge advocate for the principle and practice of enthusiastic consent. In fact, it’s one of the main things I talk about whenever I open my mouth. For a whole range of reasons, I firmly believe that some baseline “willingness” is not enough: you should only interact with someone sexually if they’re actively psyched about what’s happening.

Which is why this new post on AlterNet by Greta Christina is giving me pause. She’s writing about libidinally mismatched couples – you know, when you’re in a long-term relationship and either you or your partner wants sex waaaaaaaaayyyyy more than the other partner does. It’s a tough spot when you love someone, as I know from first-hand experience. You don’t want to break up over it, because there’s so much other good stuff happening in the relationship. But it can get pretty awful for both parties. In the relationship I’m thinking of, I felt constantly rejected, like I wasn’t sexually desirable (which played into a lot of body image and performance issues for me), and like my desire was a problem. Like every time I felt sexual want, I felt an immediate internal response: oh, no! Please go away. It’s not the most healthy way to relate to your sexuality, let me tell you.

On the other hand, my partner told me he felt constantly pressured, which made him want sex even less. Which? I totally get. If you don’t feel like you can freely decide, if you feel like someone else’s desire is more important or more overwhelming than your own, it’s not a very sexy feeling, is it?

Needless to say, I felt terrible. Given all my activism for healthy sexuality, the last thing I wanted to do was make my own partner feel pressured and bad. It was a vicious downward spiral.

So, I totally appreciate where Christina is coming from in writing the piece. Couples with this problem are desperate for help. And some of her suggestions are good: Re-defining sex. Re-thinking the circumstances in which you have sex. Considering non-monogamy. Trying couples counseling. These are all great, creative approaches that could, depending on the individuals involved, release some of the pressure that builds up in sexually mismatched pairs and make room for a healthier, happier sex life for everyone involved.

It’s these two that worry me:

1. Scheduling sex. I’ve written about this before. Many, many, many times, in fact. But I’m not sure I’ve ever written about it as a solution to this particular problem. So here goes: Scheduling sex isn’t just a solution for tired or stressed or over-scheduled couples. It can also be a solution for couples with mis-matched libidos. Oftentimes, in mis-matched- libido couples, the partner who wants sex more frequently will feel rejected and unwanted: if you’re the one who always makes the first move, and if you’re getting shot down more often than not, it can be very demoralizing. And the partner who wants sex less frequently can often feel pressured and inadequate. (All of which can lead to some nasty vicious circles/ self-fulfilling prophecies: nothing kills a libido faster than feeling like sex is an obligation.) But if you schedule at least some of your sex life ahead of time, instead of relying on spur- of- the- moment impulses and advances, it can cut through a lot of these unfortunate dynamics. Sex becomes something you’re planning together, something you’re partnering in… rather than something one person is always asking for and the other is either accepting or shooting down. (It also makes some of the other solutions I’m proposing — like compromising, and re-thinking the circumstances under which you have sex — a whole lot more feasible.)

4. Compromising. If you like sex twice a week, and your partner likes twice a month… maybe you can compromise. Have sex every week so. It won’t be perfect for either of you… but being involved with someone who’s unhappy about sex is pretty darned far from perfect, too. Having sex somewhat less often than you’d really like — or somewhat more often — may not be what you’d pick if you could pick your perfect sex life. But presumably, if you love someone, you want them to be happy too, and you want them to have a sex life that’s good for them. Almost as much as you want a sex life that’s good for you. And even from a purely selfish perspective, being involved with a sad, disgruntled, sexually frustrated partner is ten pounds of suck in a five pound bag. So while a compromise, by definition, isn’t going to be perfect, it may well be a whole better than a dissatisfying sex life. For both of you.

Do you see what I see? I just… where is the enthusiasm here? How does it ever help for the partner who wants it less to have it more anyhow? What if you schedule it and one or more person isn’t in the mood when the time comes? How is hitting a quota sexy? And how does this approach not create a situation in which the less-libidinous partner is “doing it” out of obligation, not enthusiasm? Over time, won’t this cause resentment and send both partners dangerous messages about sex: that it’s owed?

Relationships are hard and complex and, being single in my late 30’s, I certainly don’t claim to have mastered them. Maybe I’m missing something here. But I can’t let go of feeling this advice flies in the face of the principle of enthusiastic consent, and therefore can only lead to dangerous sexual dynamics. What do you think?

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 12:02 pm

    I completely get what you’re saying. So here we are back at square one with break up or be non-monogamous, right? I’m relatively new to the concept of enthusiastic consent, although it makes such perfect sense that I want to shout it from rooftops too. But it seems to me that there are other things going on when we’re talking about a long-term sexual relationship. (I don’t want to paint myself into a corner here – just thinking out loud.)

    I am in this situation as the high-libido spouse and this has led me into what I call a significant funk, if not outright depression. But I am fully committed to the marriage and we have a small child and there are other family reasons that breaking up is off the table. (It is possible I could get desperate enough one day to suggest non-monogamy, but that would emotionally destroy him, and I don’t know if I could actually do it without feeling like the most selfish asshole on the planet. Plus I’d face huge consequences if it got out. )
    And I love him! I do, although the longer it goes without sex the harder it is to feel.

    On the one hand, I feel just as you are saying above, that if he doesn’t *really* want it, then I don’t want it from him either, and that is the reason we have sex very rarely. On the other hand, he *says* he wants us to be having sex, feels like a bad husband about this, etc, but for whatever reason, at any given time, he rarely is moved to do it. So, if in a long term relationship, if the low-libido partner generally wants the sexual relationship, enjoys the sex when it happens, but just never gets inspired to have sex, much less explore sexually the way the other partner wishes, what does that mean for enthusiastic consent? If someone is gritting their teeth to get through something that is unpleasant or painful or just plain unwanted, that seems pretty clear, but when it’s not that clear, what then?

    I guess what I’m asking is, is there such a thing as “general” enthusiastic consent? Otherwise, where does that leave us but on the road to bitterness or divorce? Is enthusiastic consent an ideal (in the context of an otherwise healthy relationship) or a standard that cannot be compromised?

  2. July 20, 2010 12:23 pm

    While I think that, if taken a certain way, these two points (especially) of Greta Christina’s original post could lead to non-consensual places. But I don’t think that lack of enthusiasm and mutual consent is fundamental to either.

    When it comes to scheduling, I don’t think that setting aside a certain time for being sexual/sensual with one’s partner has to be about the person with the higher sex drive requiring the person with the lower libido to perform on cue. It can just be (as people have pointed out on the Feministe thread) about purposefully setting aside time to be sexual together. Not all mismatches in sexual energy come from some sort of set-in-cement difference in level of desire — it can be physical stress, emotional stress, external demands, etc. Saying to each other that time to be together bodily and making space for sexual/sensual things to happen can open the door to exploring what you are both interested in, in that protected space, rather than having sex be something that gets constantly deferred because of other obligations.

    I think compromise is the more dangerous one, in terms of making sure consent isn’t coerced but is actually freely given. But I think if one approaches partnered sex as something with a wide range of possible activities associated with it, and as something which is actively discussed, communicated, and negotiated, then compromising over frequency of sexual encounters is only the beginning of a conversation about what is going to happen for each person involved.

    Let’s say a couple has decided together — in a space and at a moment that doesn’t involve coercion (say, in discussion with their therapist rather than naked in bed!) — that they’re going to set aside two evenings a week when they’ll put aside other distractions and focus on being together. Maybe one person wants to get naked and have orgasms, maybe the other person doesn’t — but does want their feet rubbed, or to do some cuddling and kissing. It’s possible to figure out an evening’s activities that could satisfy both peoples’ desires without either person doing something that feels like a violation (assuming that the person with the lower interest in sex for themselves doesn’t feel violated by either being present and/or engaged in some fashion while the other person comes).

    Particularly if the lesser interest in sex is something that is environmentally determined rather than constitutional (precipitated by stress or anxiety) then making the space to explore ways of being sensual and sexual with a partner but not feel pressured to perform in any one particular way — just to be present — seems like it might be a positive thing.

    And even if the person has come to a place where they realize they have more or less permanent less interest in sex than their partner, perhaps they’ll be able to find ways for that person to be present and enjoy the pleasure of their partner without doing specific acts that they don’t desire.

    Again, I agree with you that both of these ways of negotiating sexuality in a relationship (scheduling and compromising) create the potential for exploitation and nonconsent, but I believe that if you have two people who were using these tools within the framework of enthusiastic consent then they could be a valuable way to disrupt a problematic cycle in the relationship and find some common (and enthusiastic!) ground.

  3. July 20, 2010 12:25 pm

    I tried this at feministe and it isn’t showing up, so I’ll put the gist here
    I actually think that scheduling sex makes for more and better consent-you have to actually sit down and think about when and how you’d like to have sex. Without the pressure of needing a decision about right now. Yes, you have to go into it with both partners having equal power in the scheduling, but it makes you think “when would I like to have sex? when absolutely wouldn’t I?” without the pressure of wondering-when was the last time I did it? will they be left hanging? or as the one who’s been more desiring-if I can’t do it right now, will I get a chance again?
    I also feel like making it a scheduling meeting with clothes all on, rather than a come on that must be accepted or rejected makes it less personal to say “Saturday rather than tonight” or whatever.
    can you tell I don’t like making ANY decision under pressure?

  4. July 20, 2010 12:36 pm

    eg writes

    So, if in a long term relationship, if the low-libido partner generally wants the sexual relationship, enjoys the sex when it happens, but just never gets inspired to have sex, much less explore sexually the way the other partner wishes, what does that mean for enthusiastic consent?

    I feel like you’re on to something here, eg … in differentiating lack of desire for the other person and for being a sexual person generally (so that sexual situations = unenthusiastic consent, or lack of consent) versus struggling to find, in a long-term relationship, a common ground in terms of how, when, with whom, etc., both partners want to be sexual.

    In my experience, just because one member of the couple doesn’t think of having sex, doesn’t intuitively place a priority on being sexual, doesn’t feel that as a constant part of their being-in-the-world — those things don’t necessarily mean lack of enthusiasm once sex has been initiated, or lack of desire for the other person.

  5. Hel permalink
    July 20, 2010 3:29 pm

    I think in a relationship, it IS owed to do what one can to ensure the happiness of one’s partner while not injuring one’s own happiness. This could include planning to be intimate more often than one’s ideal, but still within the range of what one finds acceptable. This can be pretty problematic tho, with all the social coding about sex we absorb.
    Personally, I’ve been on both sides of this problem (with the same partner!) and haven’t found a good solution. At a time in the past when I was pretty depressed, I was very low sex drive, and frequently found myself either rebuffing my partner’s advances, which made me feel bad, or agreeing even if I wasn’t really in the mood, knowing that I would physically enjoy it, but end up feeling like I had “given in”. So, stuck between a rock and a hard place, ending up resenting my partner and myself.
    Now, I’m much higher sex drive than my partner, and I find it very frustrating. My attempts to initiate sex pretty universally go rebuffed, which leaves me feeling rejected and unsatisfied and worrying if I’m pressuring my partner.
    Non-monogamy isn’t an ideal solution either. I’m poly, and while sex outside my current relationship does at least “scratch the itch”, I’m still left with the mismatched libido problem within my relationship, which manifests in more ways than just the higher sex drive partner being constantly unsatisfied.
    Honestly, I wish there were good libido altering drugs available. When I was low libido, I would have LOVED to be able to make myself somewhat higher libido (I wanted to want sex). I dunno that I’d necessarily lower my libido now, but I might. Or just a pill my partner and I could take so we’d both be ‘on’ at the same time would be lovely. Yes, I know, there could potentially be abuse of such drugs, but I’d find them VERY beneficial, as would a lot of people, I suspect.
    Sex is just such a big part of connection for me. Sure, I can (and do) have a strong relationship without it, but its lack is still always readily evident. It’s sort of like a puzzle with a missing piece; one can still see the big picture, but it’s just not quite complete (for me).

  6. Sky permalink
    July 20, 2010 3:38 pm

    I can definitely relate to the scheduling not being sexy.

    I was in a relationship where we didn’t have a good place to have sex. Both of us enjoyed sex, but it was often necessary to schedule ahead of time in order to have a place to do it. Scheduling it was often my idea, but I always found that once we actually got to the time and place, I felt obligated. Big turn off.

    What I’ve figured out, is that I need sex to be spontaneous.

  7. Michael permalink
    July 20, 2010 7:48 pm

    One quick thought: If you are the more highly-sexed partner, you have a choice. You can either hold out for spontaneous, enthusiastic sex … or you can actually HAVE SEX. Because holding out for having sex *your* way probably isn’t going to lead to any sex at all.

    The only way to compromise in this situation is for the higher-drive person to stop pushing for sex, and for the lower-drive person consent to occasional planned sex when s/he doesn’t feel like it. The alternative to this is The Chase, which inevitable spells Relationship Doom. (See Emily Nagoski’s blog for more details.)

    In my opinion, a lot depends on why the more reluctant partner is more reluctant. If they simply have a lower sex drive than you, and they’re not showing any enthusiasm for the planned sex, I’d advise you to get out of that relationship. If, on the other hand, the lower drive is the result of trauma – well, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. If the your partner is a trauma victim but isn’t interested in getting help, I’d (again) advise you to get out of that relationship.

    By the way, I’m speaking from having been on both sides of the equation here.

  8. July 21, 2010 7:50 am

    Non-monogamy doesn’t really work here either, IMO. The bigger problem is with wanting sex with particular person, not wanting sexual activity in general.

    On a side note, i wonder how that differs from non-sexual activity. Say, when first person wants to spend more time with the second than the other way. Emotional response is pretty similar, IMO. And the situation is similarly hard to solve.

  9. July 21, 2010 7:54 am

    Also, scheduling does not necessarily mean obligation and prohibition/inability to say no when the time comes, nor is it permanent non-renegotiable agreement – everything should be negotiable and up to partners wants and needs. Same for compromise.

  10. Sam permalink
    July 21, 2010 9:05 am

    Jaclyn,

    “Over time, won’t this cause resentment and send both partners dangerous messages about sex: that it’s owed?”

    I think it is impossible to treat sexuality in a relationship as completely distinct from all other dimensions of said relationship. “Owing sex” doesn’t really cut it, here – you say that yourself in the introduction: you *don’t* want to break up about this single issue, but it’s still awful because sex is such an important dimension of a relationship. Still – if you’re in a relationship, I think it would be problematic to look at “enthusiasm” for each single dimension, and instead consider *enthusiasm* for the entire relationship complex – ie, see if there is enough *enthusiasm* to make each partner *want* to compromise. In that case,

    I think it would make sense to rephrase what you call “baseline willingness” as *derived enthusiasm*.

  11. July 21, 2010 9:30 am

    Great post. I don’t have anything in particular to add other than this post on the same topic, which I enjoyed very much:

    http://enagoski.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/differential-desire/

  12. July 21, 2010 10:40 am

    I’ve definitely been on the “wants sex more often” side of this relationship.

    (As a side-note, as a guy there’s an additional dynamic in that society already demonizes male sexuality as dominant, selfish, violent, and soiling. And a lot of guys (myself included) internalize that to greater or lesser degrees. So when I’ve been in relationships like this, it actually makes me feel like I am a bad person for wanting sex, I think in a way that most women can’t quite appreciate.)

    I’ve also been on the other side, though. And there certainly are times when I don’t want to have sex. But more often I’m just indifferent (i.e. I wouldn’t choose to have sex myself, but I’m not against it), and in those circumstances I don’t see why I oughtn’t have sex with my partner if she wants to. The sex is still enjoyable. And I’ve never experienced any harmful effects from that. It’s only when I specifically don’t want to have sex that it becomes a problem. At least in my experience.

    So although I definitely appreciate enthusiastic consent as a base-line, I don’t think it always makes sense to hold long-term monogamous relationships to that standard.

  13. July 22, 2010 4:09 am

    Sam, that idea of “enthusiasm for the entire relationship complex” is crucial, I think.
    All of these proposed solutions revolve around a “buy-in” to the relationship as a whole, IMHO.
    Without some core buy in for the relationship and an enthusiasm for finding something that will work, it’s just going to get ugly and become pressure and obligation in another form. Scheduling, which people have pointed out can seem like more or less pressure depending on context, strikes me as a good example here.

    Like so many other things, it comes down to communication, trust, and genuine respect and affection for one another. And that’s just the baseline to finding a solution, I don’t think it guarantees one can be found.

  14. Andrea permalink
    September 26, 2012 11:14 am

    A little late but…

    I think part of what needs to be considered here is that this is general. Without knowing the specific people and circumstances involved there’s really no good way to say ‘Yes, this is completely a bad idea, or a good idea’ – at least when it comes to scheduling, and compromising. It’s the same for if non-monogamy is really a ‘good’ solution for the situation since, for some people it might work great, but for others? It could be something that wouldn’t work at all.

    For example, I rarely, if ever, feel the actual need for sex, so my partners always end up having a much higher libido than I do. I don’t feel comfortable with non-monogamy [for personal reasons I'd rather not share here], but I also don’t want to completely ignore my partner’s needs. So I’m perfectly willing to compromise, and go on a ‘schedule’, as long as there’s an understanding that if *either* of us isn’t feeling it for whatever reason, we can put it off for another time that is a little more agreeable to us both. No one is forcing anyone, and while it’s not the perfect sex life for either partner, both people are generally having their needs met enough that it’s not likely to become a major issue.

    Another thing that you kind of seem to be forgetting is that this isn’t completely about sex. Yes, sex is certainly involved and plays a key role, but it’s also about, basically, finding away to make a relationship work between two people with different sets of needs. You can’t completely ignore one persons needs to focus on the other’s, so there has to be some kind of compromise – and you can make a case to argue that any of the other solutions you posted [non-monogamy, couples counseling, or even re-defining and/or re-thinking circumstances surrounding sex] are also compromises of some sort or another.

    At the end of the day, as long as both partners are okay with it, and neither feels forced into it [and, of course, both have the option to say 'No, I'm not up for it right now'] I don’t really see what the problem is.

  15. Luna permalink
    April 14, 2013 9:12 pm

    As the person with a low libido, and at the suggestion of friends, I tried a compromising technique, and it was awful! It only increased the pressure I felt and I ended up even more upset about the whole thing. My partner appreciated the fact that I wanted to make him happy, but we’re still at a loss for how to resolve the problem. I’m greatly curious to see what others have done successfully, since the Internet usually breeds suggestions along these lines.

  16. Louise permalink
    May 5, 2013 5:47 pm

    Unfortunately what complicates this issue is pride. Talking about sex is not easy, especially when it’s the man who has a low libido.
    My husband has a low sex drive and talking about it only results in arguments. I’ve only been married six months but am learning that compromise from his side is not possible. Sadly if I have the higher sex drive I have to accept we will have sex less than I would like. And whilst its suppressing and effects my self esteem, the only way our marriage can work is if I accept things they way they are. Arguing about it will destroy the marriage and pressuring my husband to have sex will no doubt do the same – and who wants to have sex with someone knowing they are doing it out of obligation? Sex should be passionate, spontaneous and with both parties up for it. Therefore, better that its less frequent and good quality rather than frequent, planned, less passionate and resented?
    It might take me months or years to stop taking it personally, but I’ll work on that… And then at least I know I tried. And if I can’t accept it, sadly I will have to end the marriage. But it will come after effort my side.
    For any of you with low sex drives who feel pressure from their other halves, trust me when I say the feeling of rejection from someone you love is equally difficult to live with.

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