After the half-hearted foreplay, but before the lousy sex—that’s when the argument happened. It was nearly midnight on a Tuesday and Jess T. was just getting home from work. “I was going for a promotion and putting in really long hours at the office,” says the 33-year-old from San Francisco, California. “I felt so exhausted, I crawled into bed without even washing off my makeup. As I laid down next to my husband, who I thought was asleep, he started rubbing my thighs, pulling up my shirt—I knew.” For the next minute she debated two things: Should she take off her mascara after all? Should she have sex? No. No.
At first, her husband of four years tried to sway her by softly whispering in her ear (“I’ll make you feel so good”), but when she reaffirmed she wasn’t in the mood, his tone hardened. “He told me that he has needs as a man and that if I didn’t fulfill them he wasn’t going to be able to concentrate at work the next day,” Jess says. “As a woman, I’ve been socialized to put other people’s happiness before my own. I guess I feel responsible for their emotional wellbeing, and so I ended up consenting. Not because I wanted to or found it enjoyable, but because I felt I had to. It’s a very unsexy threesome—me, my husband, and the guilt.”
Been there, done that, says Marni Z., 35, from Phoenix, Arizona. “If I’m tired or just not into it, my husband will sigh with disgust, grab his pillow, and sleep on the couch,” says Marni, who has been married for eight years. “Or he’ll expect things from me—like coming to bed naked—and get irritated when I don’t comply. Sometimes I just numb myself into having sex so I don’t have his cloud of anger hanging over me.”
If domestic labor is a woman’s second shift, the gray-zone, on-demand sex sessions that they feel obligated to have with their partners is the third. After interviewing couples across the country, one study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family found that many husbands expect their wives to perform sexually, and cited additional research that this causes women “to become disconnected from their own sexual desires” and experience feelings of resentment. Many participants in the study were only compliant to “reduce marital conflict…and to help a spouse feel better about himself.”
It’s something that Ian Kerner, Ph.D., a psychotherapist who specializes in sex therapy, has certainly seen play out. “When people get married, their views on sex tend to shift a bit,” he says. “Some men feel that they now have constant access to sex, while women take on an obligation that they have to be sexual even when they don’t want to be.”
It’s not that married women are docile damsels of the domestic kingdom. They’re strong enough to set boundaries—and often do—but that doesn’t prevent men from plying, prodding, and pushing them. One study out of the University of Nebraska in 2005 found that men used comments like “you would have sex if you loved me” to gain sexual access to women. While separate research found that men relied on verbal tactics of repeated requests until women gave in to sex. The pushy, supposed primal instincts of men are deeply threaded into our sheets—and our scummy sexual culture.
And that, perhaps, is the more dispiriting reason why wedded sex has such an antique flavor: Marriage may be the last frontier where the belief that sex is mandatory still somewhat rings true, and where consent has been flattened and pushed to the edge. While a single woman’s right to say no to sex is championed and society-approved (damn, right!), once you’re married, it becomes all about saying yes. In fact, in order to decline sex, women in long-term relationships have been socialized to believe that they need an excuse: I have a headache. I’m not feeling well. I’m on my period. They aren’t allowed to opt out of sex because, you know, they just don’t feel like it (damn, wrong!). “I’m lusty, I like sex,” Jess says. “I just don’t like that I always have to like sex.”
In fact, when Jess went searching online for advice on how to deal with the bang-it-out sex sessions her husband sometimes pressured her into, she found “a blog post from a psychologist that told me I should have sex anyway because I would eventually get turned on—not true, by the way, I just got mad. And then a first-person article from a woman who never said no to her husband when he asked for sex for an entire year. The author painted herself like a goddess with an 24/7 vagina. Everything I read just made me feel that, as a married woman, I was no longer the sole boss of my body.”
Muddying the situation more: Unlike when you’re just dating, when you’re married there’s no ghosting, submarining, or sending screenshots of your shitty date to your friends. There are bills to pay and a dog that needs walking. “I was in a long-term relationship where, even when I wasn’t physically responsive, my partner would continue with sex and make sure his needs were met,” says Sarah W., 38, from New York City. “I was confused about what rights I had to sexual boundaries. We lived together, were engaged, shared finances.”
Sweet sex. Hot sex. Sucky sex. It all seemed like part of the marital knot.
But then came the shift. The ‘Cat Person’ story in The New Yorker went viral, and shortly after, a piece that detailed one woman’s account of a bad date with Aziz Ansari did, too. Suddenly the #MeToo movement had ballooned beyond sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, floating the idea that women should have the right to good sex and shouldn’t feel pressured to suffer through a sexual encounter they don't want or find pleasurable. Suddenly, there was a term for bad sex: bad sex. But this time, with context.
“Women started to have these soul-searching conversations that were really important,” says Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist in Los Angeles, California, and creator of The Passion Project, an online course for couples with mismatched sex drives. “I think it’s a woman’s obligation to be respectful of her partner’s desires and to take them into consideration. It’s her obligation to have conversations about her partner’s intimate needs. But it is absolutely not a woman’s obligation to have sex with her partner when she does not want to. Every woman gets to decide what she wants to do with her own body. Any advice to the contrary is really outdated.”
And out of the good-sex revolution has come better advice. For starters, the notion that sometimes rejection is involved in the sexual process, even when you’re married. “Initiating sex does take a lot of vulnerability,” Marin says. “That’s why in addition to sexual desires and needs, couples need to talk to each other about how to turn each other down gracefully. If you aren’t in the mood for sex, explain why, making it clear it doesn’t have anything to do with your partner—it helps show that you aren’t rejecting them. Also, while it’s normal to feel sad if your partner isn’t interested in being intimate with you, it’s each partner’s responsibility to soothe their own hurt feelings.”
Kerner agrees. “Men feel rejected, women feel bullied, but what we’re missing is this emotional vulnerability that both partners feel,” he says. “Talking through those emotions and connecting to that underneath space can be really intimate and can help you get back on the same page sexually.”
In the post-Weinstein world, so much changed. And yet, so much hasn’t.
“I’m so glad that we’re having these conversations and that women feel empowered to demand good sex,” Jess says. “But I do wish the conversations around the movement didn’t just include coworkers, bosses, bad dates, and strangers on the street. Sometimes, for change to happen, these conversations need to include the people who we are most intimate with—even if those honest conversations start just with ourselves.”
So better sex for everyone? Yes to that—every time.
A former features director at Cosmopolitan, Andrea is a freelance journalist who reports on politics, people, culture, social trends, physical and mental health, and more.
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