Sex is a gift, not an obligation
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Oftentimes when we talk about consent in popular culture we imagine people who don’t know each other well and have never had sex before. But I think this leaves a lot unexplored when it comes to the role consent plays in ongoing romantic relationships.
Most people aren’t taught about consent. And what they do know is often unhelpful. I wanted to write a bit about how I think a fuller understanding of consent can benefit all relationships.
Many churches teach that sex is an obligation. Specifically, men always want sex, while women always want love. And therefore wives owe it to their husbands to meet their sexual needs and in exchange men should reciprocate by meeting their wives’ needs for love and non-sexual affection.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I wanted sex a lot more than most of the men I dated! The truth is that most people want sex, regardless of gender. Some people are on the ace spectrum (they are to some extent aesexual).
But most of us partner with people we want to have sex with and then want to have sex with them with some regularity once we’re partnered.
Most couples aren’t perfectly aligned in how often each person would like to have sex. There’s usually someone who feels a little bit rejected and someone who feels a little bit hassled or pressured by their partner’s sex drive. Sometimes there’s a big difference.
The good news is that this doesn’t need to be a big problem. Just like you might like to eat Chinese food every night but your spouse might like it once a month, the key is compromise.
The difference between Chinese food and sex is most people don’t grow up believing their partners owe it to them to eat more Chinese food than they really want. They don’t guilt or harass their partners into eating Chinese food they really don’t want at the time.
Imagine though, that you did believe you owed it to your partner to eat Chinese food every week, whether you wanted to or not. How would fulfilling that obligation leave you feeling about Chinese food? It would probably get really difficult for you to get excited about it. It might even start to turn your stomach thinking about it. Any joy you might have gotten from an egg roll might turn into resentment and annoyance.
That’s why I think it’s a lot healthier and more fun to switch from thinking of sex as something each partner owes the other into a gift each partner has the opportunity to give.
There might never come a time when you and your partner want to have sex the same amount at the same time. That’s absolutely fine. Most partners don’t have completely equal sex drives all the time.
But when you think about sex as an act of service each person can offer the other out of love, it starts to feel safer to offer your partner sex even when you’re not totally in the mood quite yet. And it starts to feel safer to ask for sex, rather than to demand it.
Putting enthusiastic consent at the heart of sex is the necessary foundation for a happy, healthy, pleasurable sex life. You simply cannot harass guilt-trip, beg, whine, or coercing your partner into having amazing sex with you. That doesn’t work. In order for sex to be healthy and pleasurable it must be completely mutually consensual.
I like the acronym FRIES for making sure a sexual encounter is fully consensual:
Freely given. No threats of pouting or punishment.
Revocable. Anyone can stop the encounter at any time for any reason.
Informed. Do you have a yeast infection? Do you have trauma around sex from past experiences? Are you inebriated? Let your partner know ahead of time.
Enthusiastic. A “meh” is not a good place to start if you want to have great sex.
Specific. Don’t try anything new in bed without talking it through first.
Reframing sex from an obligation to a gift opens up space for experimentation and helps prevent resentment. It means that an unequal sex drive doesn’t need to be a dealbreaker or even a huge deal. I believe that making sure any sex you end up having is mutually agreed upon and fully consensual should be the foundation upon which you can then start to build a healthy sex life.