On Sex & Compromise
(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?