ErosBlog has a long history of interest in the phenomenon of the unhappily sexless marriage. Does anybody else but me remember all the way back to 2003 when Julia Grey wrote a long series for Salon called Why Your Wife Won’t Have Sex With You”?
Men unhappy that their wives won’t fuck them are common enough to be a cultural phenomenon. Their accounts on the internet are not hard to find. We men like to whine when we are unhappy, and not getting as much sex as we want often makes us unhappy. Google “why your wife won’t have sex with you” (no quotes) and you’ll get back 6.1 million results. But it’s not a one-sided problem: Google “why your husband won’t have sex with you” (still no quotes) and you get 4.9 million results. A little imbalance there, but a lot of unhappiness on both sides. (The imbalance gets more stark — 4950 versus 9 — when you get more specific by putting quotes around the search phrases.)
And yet, frank and honest accounts by women of their undesired sexless marriages are not common as the ones by men. This is probably somewhat to do with gendered social expectations. Yes, there’s pressure for every man to claim to be a highly-sexed stud, but a man can admit that’s not happening — especially if he has a handy woman to deflect responsibility onto — without expecting his manhood to be seriously questioned. There’s also pressure (my impression is that it’s considerably more pressure) for every woman to be sexually desirable. If a woman’s story of sexlessness in marriage can be parsed as “he doesn’t desire you” I can imagine an enhanced reluctance to share that with the world. An analogy in the male world might be psychological impotence; there are not a lot of men who talk about about life with a dick that mysteriously doesn’t work when the plumbing seems to be otherwise in order.
This is all preface. My long term readers understand that I have a weakness for honest-sounding human accounts of sexual and romantic situations, even when those situations are horribly fucked up. I remember getting flack once for posting an account (by the killer, necessarily) of a woman who was trying, until her literal last moment on earth, to use sex to repair her failing relationship with her husband and her murderer. Despite the unreliable narrator problem, I thought we learned something from that story about the role of sex in the human condition. That made it interesting and worthy.
All this prefacing is to set the frame for where I was on Saturday when I stumbled randomly over an article at The Establishment called My Husband Won’t Have Sex With Me. I was sucked in by the headline (I think I did enough prefacing for y’all to understand why) and soon found myself reading along, thinking, “fuck, yeah, this is exactly the sort of writing I like to feature on ErosBlog.” Sure enough:
My husband, boyishly cute, tall, lanky, is a gentle, passive, and wildly intelligent man. He mixes a mean martini and loves me more than anyone has ever loved me.
The problem is: He won’t kiss me. He won’t spontaneously touch me — not a hug or an arm on my shoulders. He rarely, if ever, sleeps in our bed. And for the last five years, we have lived in a “sexless marriage.”
Yes, we have sex. But barely: Six times so far this year. To define my terms, I mean penis-in-vagina penetration. The number drops to two if I only count “successful” forays into the erotic, where at least one partner actually reaches climax. I truly can’t remember the last time he went down on me — four years ago, maybe? I married a man for whom making love to his wife has become an afterthought, or an occasional reaction, under duress, to my advances.
It’s not that either of us lost our looks. I am pretty and sexy in a non-intimidating, disheveled kind of way. I am emotional and physical: I love hard. I work and play hard. I feel things deeply and intensely. When we first got together, he worked in a bar and I had a “grown-up” job. We loved having a good time. We consumed a lot of booze, cooked meals together, and listened to live music as often as possible. I was six months out of an abusive relationship and wanted to feel safe while enjoying a man’s company. No commitments necessary. And we had good sex—it was often slow and delicious.
But it wasn’t frequent. He was 27 when we got together, and had only been with a couple of women. My sexual experience was more, ahem, varied, and I was an enthusiastic teacher. The attraction, at first, was mostly physical: Here was this super-cute guy who was nice to me and had a huge cock.
I’ll confess I did twitch when I saw the phrase “under duress” go by, but I rather uncritically took it in, assuming it was not literal. I assumed she meant something like “under the pressure of my expectations” or some loose notion of that sort. I took it as if she did not know the literal meaning of the word “duress” and was using it for its emotional resonances. I don’t insist on precise writing here at ErosBlog — 5,000 sloppily-written posts in the archives would make that pretty hard! — so I just kept reading.
And after that? Well, the story is pretty unflinching about the ugly parts. One example: the husband turned into a hopeless drunk, and on the rare times he did initiate sex he’d be so drunk he couldn’t perform well, and would sometimes end up literally pissing himself in the marital bed after the attempt.
Meanwhile the account continues eloquently about what not getting enough sex was like:
My friends bitch about the frequency with which their husbands want sex; I tolerate the conversation as long as I can before lashing out at them, telling them to take it when they can get it. One woman asked me over mojitos one night, caring and curious, what it feels like to be denied passion all of the time. I didn’t have to think about the answer: It defeats and crushes me; I feel embarrassed and deeply sad.
Sometimes I miss the simple pleasure of kissing more than sex. I crave lips and fingers and tongue. I love having a man’s hands in my hair or his arms wrapped around me so tightly I can’t breathe, his eyes open, studying my face, watching me, wanting me, overcome by having to make the decision of which part of me he wants to kiss next . . . Ohhh, who am I kidding? I miss the sex, too. No appliance, and no matter how talented and familiar my own hands, nothing compares to connecting with another person on a purely sensual level. Stimulation and orgasm aside, I miss warmth and trust and reading someone’s reactions to my touch, making it up as we go along. I miss waking up sticky and sore and aroused, tasting the other person on my lips, the scent of him on my skin, and doing it all over again. I miss loud, crazy, Cirque du Soleil–worthy sex acts that leave me gasping and incapable of speech and quiet, spontaneous quickies, clothes rumpled and shifted, messed-up hair, followed by giggles.
The two hefty block quotes I’ve featured so far could have been — perhaps, normally would have been — the blog post here. “Hey, folks, here’s a thing to read, this woman whose husband doesn’t want to fuck her, she writes pretty, check it out, it’s about the human sexual condition, that’s our beat, enjoy.”
But, um — you remember where I wrote that her story is “pretty unflinching about the ugly parts”?
In one of those ugly parts, she recounts her tendency to rape her husband. She doesn’t use that word. Maybe that’s a flinch; maybe she doesn’t know. No way for us to tell. She does call herself an asshole, but it’s unclear whether she ever conceptualized her behavior as rape. She writes:
I used to wake him up with kisses, teasing, boldly climbing on top of him and having my way. He responded by laying still, his eyes closed, sometimes with his fingertips on my hips, waiting for me to have an orgasm so he could go back to sleep. The one-sided nature quickly felt dirty and wrong. What kind of asshole was I, taking sex from him when he didn’t want it, just so I could get off?
I have a legal background, and I could quibble quite vigorously with my own use of the word “rape” in some jurisdictions, especially those where rape is still defined around use of force rather than lack of consent. But I cannot quibble away the consent violation. In this better world we are all trying to build here in the 21st century, sex without consent is, for want of a more precise word with an equal freight of unambiguous condemnation, rape.
And now, dear readers, I have a heartfelt and deeply honest question for you. Should this article have been sanitized off the internet because rape — unacknowledged rape, possibly unrecognized rape, but rape all the same — was among the topics of discussion? Because make no mistake, my social media feeds absolutely lit up with condemnation of the article, condemnation of The Establishment for publishing it, and vigorous passionate demands to “pull this article” down off the web.
I've spend the last 24 hours helping to condemn a feminist magazine for publishing rape apologia. I don't make excuses for them. @PhuckSea
— Chris H (@LiteratePervert) August 14, 2016
— Miri (@sondosia) August 14, 2016
It’s not all condemnation and attempted silencing. There’s a lot of understandable criticism of the lame-ish response offered by The Establishment when this blew up in their social media face:
— Lizz Ehrenpreis (@ecehren) August 13, 2016
I fundamentally agree with their “story worth telling” defense of the article’s publication, but given the expectations of their specific readership, it even makes sense to me that they ought perhaps to have framed the story inside a bit of disclaimer:
An editor's note like "hey don't rape people just cuz this writer did" would be the LEAST a publication should do when publishing that.
— Miri (@sondosia) August 14, 2016
I’m not a participant in the culture of trigger warnings, and I don’t accept that a publication always must first condemn or disclaim the ideas it publishes lest it be assumed to support them. But I’m not opposed to trigger warnings and disclaimers, either; every publication has to find its own balance, appropriate to its own audience, between protectiveness of the reader versus the intellectual value of letting words speak for themselves. It’s fair to criticize a publication — especially against its own stated values — for how it finds or fails to find that balance.
In this case, however, even most of the more nuanced pieces say things like “For any publication that proudly boasts the importance of accountability and their feminist ideals, publishing (and defending) this kind of article on their site is reprehensible.” That article goes on to describe this act of publication as “supporting this kind of rhetoric and presenting rape in a sympathetic light.” I must say, the sympathetic light looks pretty dim to me. But mostly, I just fundamentally disagree that any honest act of publication is ever reprehensible. This woman’s story: she told it. We learned something from it. Perhaps we learned things from it that even she did not know. That’s what publication is for. That’s why people do it, that’s why we read it when they do it. I can’t say that The Establishment has nothing to apologize for, but I sure hope they don’t “pull this article down” as their detractors are demanding.
Update: It looks like The Establishment has pulled the story. (Fortunately, it’s still available on the Dame Magazine website where it first appeared.)
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