I got some comments off-line on yesterday's post regarding Sandra Tsing-Loh's affair and subsequent divorce, which have prodded me into clarifying my position on sex within marriage. Discussions of sexual morality always seem to get people worked up – yet another clue that it's something important, and worth discussing.
I thought I was pretty safe, in terms of political correctness, because nine-tenths of my arguments were just citations of things women had written about sexuality within marriage. However, I because I said something directly about marriage partners being obligated to "put out on a regular basis," I crossed some mysterious line that men are not allowed to cross. If a woman like Sandra Tsing-Loh writes about a man who refuses to have sex with his wife for two years, she's allowed to say "that's a raw deal." If a man says it's unreasonable for a spouse to refuse to have sex for two years, then suddenly everyone thinks I'm talking about the sexual enslavement of women, the subjugation and humiliation of half the human race. In other words, I'm the Taliban.
There were multiple levels of rights and responsibilities that are involved in all sexual activity, and it's easy to get them confused:
One's legal and basic human rights
One's moral responsibilities to their spouse
Strongly recommended advice for having a happy and stable marriage
When I spoke about "putting out on a regular basis," I'm definitely not talking about #1. All human beings have a right to the sanctity and integrity of their own bodies. Everybody has a right to freely choose when and with whom to have sex. Using physical force to coerce sex from another is rape, even in marriage, and is a crime in all civilized nations. Nobody's forcin' nobody to do nothin', ok? And, to be 100% clear, everything I'm writing here applies equally to woman and men, so there's no double standard going on.
So, that being said . . . I do think a married person has a moral obligation to have sex with their spouses. There are very few conditions in the typical, traditional marriage contract that are spelled out in detail. All that "love, honor, cherish" stuff is pretty vague on the details and open to lots of interpretation. There are a couple things that are extremely explicit, though:
The couple is "forsaking all others" – and we all know what that's supposed to mean: sexual exclusivity.
This is a permanent commitment.
If an arrangement between two people lacked these principles, I don't think we would call it "marriage." (We could argue about that, but let's not. I think we can agree that this is the traditional understanding of the meaning of marriage.) Because sexual exclusivity is explicitly stipulated as a core principle of the arrangement, I think it deserves very special consideration. It wouldn't be spelled out that way unless it was important. I think it's also clear that this is something going against the grain of human nature: if it were perfectly natural and normal and expected to be monogamous for our entire lives, we wouldn't have to make solemn promises about it.
If you make a commitment to lifelong sexual exclusivity, it seems to me that the conscious, prolonged attempt to withhold sex from a spouse, contrary to their desires, is clearly breaking faith with that commitment. People don't get married to become celibate. They have a reasonable expectation to reasonable access to sex.
Ahh, but what's "reasonable"? That's where all the marriage counselors and sex therapists get involved. I'm sure the answer is dependent on lots of personal factors of health, opportunity, and desire. I've already said that "never" is not reasonable. Usually, "reasonable" is whatever the couple can mutually agree upon as reasonable, or at least acceptable.
This is the point at which I move from "moral obligation" to "strongly recommended advice." And that advice is just a rehash from a dozen pop psychologists, which is this: you should have sex whenever either spouse wants it.
Mostly, this comes out of my functional extension of the Golden Rule, strongly recommended for good working relationships of all kinds, which states: All reasonable requests made in good faith should be met in good faith. If your spouse asks you to do something, and it's reasonable, then you should do it. Or, to put it another way, the default answer to spousal requests should be Yes. If your wife asks you to move the junk off the porch because company is coming over, you should do it. Maybe you have a perfectly good reason not to move the junk right this moment, because you're busy or tired or whatever – that also is a reasonable request. Of course, this principle would be quickly subverted if it wasn't coupled with another principle, which is: Don't make unreasonable requests. Ask for what you need, with the understanding that everyone will work in good faith to meet everyone's needs.
Usually, when I spell out this philosophy, people think it's silly – either because they agree with me and think it's so obvious that it isn't worth saying, or because they totally disagree and think such an rule would result in someone, at some point, being totally taken advantage of. For my money, it is an essential part to any good working relationship. All kinds of interpersonal friction are minimized if you trust that the other person has a good reason for their requests. It restricts arguments to things that are worth arguing about. It communicates trust and respect.
If it works for putting the cap on the tube of toothpaste or taking out the trash, it also works for sex. Make your best effort to meet the needs of your spouse, and you will maximize everyone's peace and contentment. If you ignore their needs and desires, you will pay a price for it.
Here's the difference. If a girl says to a guy "I really don't feel like cooking a good dinner right now, but you want it, so I will," that can be really nice--for both of them. If she says "I really don't want to have sex, but hey, if you want to, I'll spread my legs and try to think about work, let me know when you're done," that's creepy. Not in a "violent-enslavement-of-women" way, but in a...well, just a creepy yeeeiiich way. All other things being equal, I'd rather jerk off.
So I guess I'm gonna just disagree with you here, and maybe we just disagree and let it go at that, but sex (and hugs and kisses and social conversation) all fall into the category of things I don't endorse unless both parties actually want them, feel like doing them, right here, right now.
And in case you're wondering, this is not in the category of TMI: it is hypothetical. Whatever other problems Joyce and I have, one of us saying to the other "I never want to have sex again" (possibly followed with "...but I will just because you want to") is not one of them.
In large part I am basing these recommendations on those of many psychologists, marriage counselors, and sex therapists (which are repeated in the articles I linked to in the original post), who make the following observations:
-- With great frequency, people who don't feel like having sex to begin with, find themselves enjoying themselves when they go ahead and do it anyway.
-- Given the current stresses and time pressures prevalent in our culture (especially the two-working-parent household) it is extremely difficult (almost impossible, in fact) to get two people to spontaneously want to have sex (and have the opportunity to do so) at the same time.
-- Therapists also note that there is strong corellation (and likely causative link) between couples who have sex and couples who remain happily married. Couples are generally happier when they continue to have sex.
-- Therefore, the therapists recommend couples take conscious steps to maintain their sex life, primarily managing time and energy levels so that sex is possible. That kind of conscious planning, almost by definition, means that you'll have occasions when one or the other partner is not initially "in the mood" -- but they should go ahead and do it anyway, because more often than not they will both enjoy it anyway, and the benefits of doing it outweigh the cost.
Despite the lengthy posts, I'm really not that interested in sex. I AM interested in marriage, and it grieves me to see marriages destroyed by problems that might readily be avoided.
We both agree that sexual issues should not be the grounds for a marriage to end. You asserted that sex probably isn't the real issue, anyway, but a proxy for something else. I'm just saying, "Even if sex IS the issue, it's not as intractable as you might think it is."