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Is Sex Allowed to Be Important in a Romantic Relationship?

A recent article in Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Elizabeth Bernstein, How Often Should Married Couples Have Sex? What Happens When He Says 'More' and She Says 'No', created some controversy. The article focused on Chris and Afton Mower, a heterosexual couple who share the details of their previously sexless marriage. At one point in their relationship, the couple went one year without having sex. The husband, Chris, desired more sex, whereas his wife, Afton, had no interest in sex.

Over time, after communicating and reading a self-help book together, Chris and Afton revived their sexual relationship and now both report being satisfied with their sex life. In the article, Bernstein referenced our research on sexual communal strength (discussed here) to suggest that at times a person may prioritize their romantic partner’s sexual needs over their own preferences and that this focus on a partner’s needs can be beneficial (not only for the partner whose needs are being met, but also for the partner meeting the needs).1 Bernstein's article caused quite a stir in the media; a number of news outlets, including JezebelThe Week, and New York Magazine, published responses. Critics rebuked the article for what they perceived as its focus on the “man’s perspective” and questioned the depression, weight gain and emotional distress that Chris linked to his sexual rejection. Based on some of the responses, it was also controversial to suggest that a person has some responsibility in an ongoing romantic relationship to meet their partner’s sexual needs, perhaps especially when it is the male partner who desires more sex than his wife.

After reading these responses I began to wonder whether (and for whom) we allow sex to be important in a relationship. New York Magazine’s response to the WSJ article included statements of sarcasm such as, “According to [Chris] Mower, the vagina is the source of all of a man’s self-worth,” affording little sympathy to the idea that a man might feel unloved or undesired if his wife doesn’t want to have sex with him. In fact, research shows that sex and affection are important routes to intimacy for both men and women4,5 Just as stereotypes about women’s disinterest in sex provide a narrow view of women’s sexuality, ideas that men do not attach emotional importance to sex in their relationships provide equally narrow views of male’s sexuality. In terms of the couple in the article, Afton’s feelings are certainly legitimate (she attributed her lack of desire to a miscarriage early in their marriage and an upbringing that her left uncomfortable talking about sex), but Chris’ desire for sex and intimacy with his partner is also legitimate.

A key criticism of the WSJ article is that it perpetuates stereotypes of the “horny husband” and the “frigid wife.” True, the story’s couple fit this stereotypical example. But it’s also true that in many relationships women are the ones who want more sex than their partners. Research suggests that, in general, men report higher sexual desire than women,2 but the nature of such average differences is that in many cases the woman will be the partner with greater sexual desire in a heterosexual relationship. In fact, in one study men and women were relatively equally split in terms of which partner reported lower sexual desire.3 As my friend and fellow Science of Relationships writer Justin Lehmiller aptly points out, sexual desire discrepancy (when partners differ in their level of desire for sex) is not a gender issue or something for which one partner is to blame. Instead, desire discrepancy is a relationship issue that, if resolution is the goal, requires communication and the ability of both partners to prioritize each other’s needs. The ideas in the article about the potential benefits of mutual prioritizing one another’s needs in a relationship seem to be overshadowed by negative reactions to the stereotypical example of a husband desiring more sex than his wife.

In response to the WSJ article, Tracy Clark-Flory wrote an insightful piece for Salon where she examined the scenario wherein the woman in a heterosexual relationship has higher desire than does her male partner. In this article she empathized with both partners – it is difficult to be the high desire partner because you face sexual rejection and it is difficult to be the low desire partner because you may feel guilty or in some cases pressured. Having high sexual communal strength means sometimes prioritizing your partner’s sexual needs over your own – at times, this might mean having sex with your partner when you are not entirely in the mood. Other times it might mean respectfully understanding when your partner is not in the mood for sex, even if you are. It is not meant to suggest that one partner’s (or one gender’s) needs should always be attended to while the other partner’s needs are neglected. Lindy West at Jezebel, although critical of WSJ article’s focus on the stereotypical example of the “long-suffering, sex-hungry husband vs. frigid, withholding wife,” notes the importance of sexual compatibility in a relationship and suggests that “under the right circumstances, having sex when you don't really feel like it isn't creepy coercion—sometimes it's just love. And mutually prioritizing one another's needs over one's own can be really healthy in a relationship.”

It also struck me from the responses to the WSJ article that meeting a partner’s sexual needs is perceived differently from meeting a partner’s needs in other areas of the relationship. Our research on sexual communal strength was developed from theories of communal motivation and interdependence in relationships. According to these theories, being motivated to meet a partner’s needs, and, at times, sacrificing your own self-interests for the sake of your partner or the relationship fosters commitment and satisfaction.6, 7, 8 In relationships we often do things that we may not personally want to do to make our partners happy. Sometimes these are small sacrifices such as giving our partner a back rub when we would rather go to sleep, or going to a partner’s work event when we would rather spend time with friends. Other times, we make bigger sacrifices such as moving to a new city so our partner can take his or her dream job or giving up a beloved pet because our partner is allergic. Had the WSJ article been about giving a partner a back massage when you are not in the mood or going to a partner’s work event when you would rather stay at home and relax, I doubt it would have been so controversial (regardless of which gender was meeting their partner’s needs). Perhaps this is, in part, related to the taboo nature of sex. North America is arguably a highly sexualized culture, but at the same time, sexuality is rarely talked about in an open, honest way.

Of course, my perspective is not that people should always defer to their partner’s sexual needs without consideration for their own. Being “communal” involves a desire to meet your partner’s needs, but you should also expect your partner to meet your needs in return. One of the reasons I think the WSJ article garnered such strong reactions is because any time we think about a women engaging in undesired sex, we think about rape and sexual assault. Certainly, part of this stems from the way that men’s positions of power in many societies have been leveraged to their sexual advantage, but neither the article or the research more broadly is suggesting that women (or anyone) engage in something that makes them feel violated or that men (or anyone) have the right to sexual coercion. Instead, I am suggesting that we make room for the idea that sexual needs can be important in a relationship. Given that many couples are sexually exclusive, romantic partners play a key role in meeting each other’s sexual needs. In fact, I think the reactions to this article underscore the emotionally charged nature of sex in our relationships – we may have several different people who we can lean on to meet our emotional needs, but often we rely on a more exclusive group of people to meet our sexual needs (perhaps only ourselves and our romantic partner). I agree with the critics of the WSJ article that the limited narrative about sex and gender needs to broaden. Perhaps allowing room for the idea that sex can be an important part of a romantic relationship (without judgments about whose sexuality is more “right”) is one place to start.

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1Muise, A., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., & Desmarais, S. (in press). Keeping the spark alive: Being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs sustains sexual desire in long-term romantic relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

2Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Voh, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive?Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 242-273. doi: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0503_5

3Davies, S., Katz, J., & Jackson, J. L. (1999). Sexual desire discrepancies: Effects on sexual and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual dating couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28, 553-567. doi: 10.1023/A:1018721417683

4Brezsnyak, M., & Whisman, M. A. (2004). Sexual desire and relationship functioning: The effects of marital satisfaction and power. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 30, 199-217. doi: 10.1080/00926230490262393

5Sprecher, S. (2002). Sexual satisfaction in premarital relationships: Associations with satisfaction, love, commitment, and stability. The Journal of Sex Research, 39, 190-196. doi: 10.1080/00224490209552141

6Mills, J., Clark, M. S., Ford, T. E., & Johnson, M. (2004). Measurement of communal strength. Personal Relationships, 11(2), 213-230. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2004.00079.x

7Impett, E. A., & Gordon, A. (2008). For the good of others: Toward a positive psychology of sacrifice. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people (pp 79-100)Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing.

8Van Lange, P. A., Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S., & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1373-1395. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.6.1373 

Dr. Amy Muise - Sex Musings | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.

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Reader Comments (2)

Very thoughtful piece. Congrats.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDon Tapscott

I loved the article regarding when he says more and she says no. Even though the roles are reversed in my relationship, I can still relate to Chris. We have several factors going against us though, such as a 13 year difference (me 28 he's 41) and a ton of stress that we let get in the way of what's important to us and our relationship. The article helped open up an opportunity to bring my dissatisfaction to his awareness without it creating negative/defensive responses from him. Critics are useless to me unless they have a solution for the flaws they point out.
Yes, sex is important in a relationship, it's one of the only things a couple has that no one else does because its not just a physical interaction, it's emotional as well, and a truly unified moment when the partners are in tune with one another. Furthermore, I don't believe the human race has quite evolved past the basic primal driving force that created the foundation of relationships. Sex=procreation, continuity of a species. Then marriage happened because of the sense of possession. I feel we are just now coming into the evolutionary stage of communion and mutually beneficial wholeness in relationships.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPebbles
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