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I am at a party, standing on the front porch with a group of friends, when an absent acquaintance’s recent pregnancy announcement comes up in the conversation.
“She’s pregnant. I guess she and Jeff finally had sex.”
“Yeah, the last time I had talked to her it had been something like 10 months since the last time they had sex.”
“Jeff doesn’t like having sex.”
“What? How is that even possible? What kind of man doesn’t like to have sex?”
I stare down into my drink, silent. In some ways, this is the hardest part -- living in this society, listening to movies and television and music and friends who all say the same thing: All men want sex all the time. Women may want sex (slut) or not want sex (frigid), but all men want sex, always. What kind of man doesn’t like to have sex? We don’t even have a word for that.
Actually, I do have a word for that. Husband.
According to Wikipedia, a sexless marriage is usually defined as one in which the couple has sex 10 or fewer times per year; a study published in 2004 found that 20 percent of married couples fit this definition of sexless marriage.
I look at this definition and laugh. Ten times a year! That would be veritable feast of sex! Sign me up! It’s been at least six months since my husband and I were sexually intimate. If we’re talking about actual penis-in-vagina penetrative sex? Um… I don’t even know. A year? More? I’ve lost track.
It wasn’t always like this. Early in our relationship, we had sex. Not all the time, not every night, but enough. Enough that I felt loved, wanted, desired. Enough that my needs were met.
However, as time passed, the frequency of our intimacy declined. It was a gradual enough shift that I didn’t notice at first, and even when I did notice I attributed it to that settling-in phase of the relationship, where the heady flames of passion are slowly replaced by the comfortable warmth of shared laundry and someone who makes you juice when you’re sick.
I don’t even remember, specifically, when I first broached the topic of our waning sex life. It was something that had been building for a long time, frustration and desire and fear of another subtle rejection. It is a hard thing, to live in this society that places so much value on a woman’s sexual desirability, and to find that your lover doesn’t seem to have any interest it you.
Was there something wrong with me? Did he not find me attractive anymore? Was I bad in bed? Was there someone else? I was plagued by insecurities, sad and lonely and afraid. Finally, in a storm of tears and anxiety, I confronted him.
I cried, he cried. He said that he just hadn’t been interested lately, but that he still loved me and found me attractive. He promised that he’d try not to let it go so long again. Then we had sex. I felt better.
And then the cycle began again.
The sex would dry up. I would hold my tongue, bide my time, until the fear and the frustration became too much to bear. I’d bring it up. We’d fight, we’d cry, we’d fuck. Again and again.
The fights began to be about more than just the lack of sex. I was angry that he was always promising to make things better, but would do nothing to actually change the situation. I felt like he was saying whatever was expected of him, saying whatever was necessary to get me to stop crying, then going back to doing what he wanted with no real concern for my needs.
Once, I caught him masturbating to porn and lost my fucking mind. How dare he sit in front of his computer, jacking off to some chick with enormous tits, while I lay in the bed we shared feeling lonely and unloved?
Eventually, we even began to joke about the fight-fuck-celibacy cycle. “It’s about that time,” I’d say to him, “can we skip the fighting and crying and go straight to the make-up sex?”
And all this time, over months and years and countless iterations of the cycle, I never told anyone. Who would I tell? What would I say? We have the same friends; even if I were willing to bear the shame of being the woman whose lover doesn’t want to have sex with her, I didn’t want to inflict the shame on him of being the man who doesn’t like sex.
I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, and I didn’t want people to look at him with revulsion and bewilderment. I didn’t want people to know this about us. So instead I listened to my girlfriends talk about how annoying it was that their husbands were always after them for sex, and I said nothing.
I’d wear a sexy outfit, and our friends would tease us about what a great time we’d have when we went home. We’d only smile, maybe laugh a bit. No one knew. No one could ever know.
Over time, our fights became more mature, and turned into discussions rather than arguments. He became better able to articulate his feelings and experiences, and I became better able to hear him without my own insecurities getting in the way. He recognized that his lack of sex drive was a problem. He said that he had never had an overwhelming interest in sex, but that it had noticeably decreased from even his low baseline.
He said that he kept hoping that the situation would resolve itself, or that he would be able to “force” himself to be interested in sex more often. But how do you convince yourself to want something that, really, you don’t want? How do you instill a desire that doesn’t naturally exist? If you don’t like broccoli, you can force yourself to eat broccoli, but how do you force yourself to want broccoli?
We decided to see a couples counselor. I had been pushing for it for a long time, and my husband had been incredibly resistant. While he’s happy for people who find value in therapy, it doesn’t hold much interest for him.
Nonetheless, I held firm, and eventually he had to admit that his own efforts to be more amorous were failing miserably. He agreed. I made the appointment.
It was, in a lot of ways, horrible. My husband admitted that all of the great sex that we’d had in the beginning of our relationship had been forced and unpleasant. The therapist focused all of the responsibility for our difficulties on my husband -- it was his problem, his failing, his duty to set it right -- and while there was a part of me that had desperately wanted to hear that, I was also overwhelmed with guilt.
This is a marriage, a partnership, and this is something we have to work on together. It’s not my husband’s fault that he doesn’t want sex, any more than it’s my fault that I do want sex.
“What about enthusiastic consent?” I asked. “If he’s only having sex with me out of guilt, shame, and duty, isn’t that just another form of sexual coercion?”
“If you’re waiting for enthusiastic consent,” the therapist said, “you’ll be waiting a long time.”
It’s ironic, but the one good thing that came out of our counseling session is a confirmation that, beyond the sexual issues, my husband and I have a remarkably strong relationship. We each independently indicated that we were very satisfied with our marriage. We love each other very much. We talk, and play, and share interests, and maintain our independence while sharing a wonderful life together. We’ve learned how to disagree, how to discuss, and how to work through problems.
Despite the lack of sex, there is still a great deal of affection between us. We kiss and hug and cuddle like nobody’s business. We hold hands while we walk down the street. Every night, after I turn off my light, my husband cuddles up to me and plants a row of kisses along my spine, just as he’s done every night for the nine years we’ve been together.
And so we work it out. We continue to discuss our sex life, and what it means, and what we each want and need. Over the years my sex drive has diminished, though whether that’s attributable to natural changes or managed expectations, I couldn’t say.
Yes, sometimes we still fight about sex. Yes, sometimes I still ask if we can go straight to the make-up sex. It’s not perfect. It’s still an issue, and it’s one that we’ll probably have to manage for the rest of our lives together. So be it.
I look at my husband, I look at the life we’ve built together, and realize that every moment of fear and frustration and guilt and tears have been worth it. If this is the greatest hurdle that we have to overcome as a couple, I’ll take it and count myself lucky.