Sex, Moods, and a Wife's Selfless Duty: And We Are in What Century Again?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

The fascinating thing is this.

There’s this…. thing on the Internet. A pair of columns by conservative writer/ radio host Dennis Prager, exhorting wives who aren’t in the mood for sex with their husbands to suck it up and do it anyway, pretty much whenever he wants. You really have to read it for yourself (if you have high blood pressure, be sure you’ve taken your medication first), but here’s the gist:

A man know that his wife loves him by “her willingness to give her body to him.” Therefore, she should only rarely refuse to have sex with him when he wants it. And her decision to accept or refuse sex should have nothing to do with whether she’s in the mood for it, or whether she thinks she’s going to enjoy it. A considerate husband will of course recognize that “there are times when a man must simply refrain from initiating sex out of concern for his wife’s physical or emotional condition”… but apart from “those times,” a wife should pretty much never say “No.” And her mood should have nothing to do with that decision. Sex is an obligation that a wife owes to her husband, and for a wife to refuse it simply because she’s not in the mood is just plain selfish. (Oh, and by the way: This isn’t just how nature made us. It’s how God wants it.)

No, really. I’m serious. It’d be laughable if it weren’t so appalling. I could scarcely believe it was written in this decade. It reads like a marriage manual from the ’50s… and not a very modern marriage manual from the ’50s at that. It almost makes me want to call parody on it and invoke a sexual version of Poe’s Law (“it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that can’t be mistaken for the real thing”).

But the fascinating thing is this.

If you take out all the content about gender roles?

Total Woman
If you take out all the sexist, retrograde, “sex is an obligation that women owe to men,” “women’s sexual desires are less important than men’s,” “close your eyes and think of England,” Total Woman dreck? If you leave out the creepy, oft-repeated language about a woman “giving her body”? If you disregard the bizarre assumption that sex is always something men initiate and women either accept or reject? If you ignore the unsubstantiated at best, blatantly wrong at worst assertions about women’s and men’s sexualities… including the assertion that experiencing sex as a sign of love is somehow exclusive to men? If you overlook the idea that sex with a passive, compliant meat puppet will make men feel loved and satisfied? If you pass over the glaring omissions… such as the idea that men have an obligation to pay attention to women’s sexual pleasure, and if women are repeatedly saying “No” to sex, maybe it’s because their men are inconsiderate lovers who treat sex as something women do for them, instead of something they both do for each other?

If you can squint real hard and somehow ignore all that?

What he’s saying is not radically different from stuff I’ve said in this very blog.

I, myself, have argued that you don’t always need to be in the mood when you start sex. You just need to be willing to be in the mood. If you always wait until you’re both in the mood — especially if either or both of you are stressed, getting older, parents, a couple who’s been together for a while, or just insanely busy — you may wait a good long while, and will wind up having a lot less sex than either of you wants. But starting to have sex can get you in the mood, even if you weren’t in the mood to start with. It’s a good idea sometimes to let yourself be seduced, to start having sex before you’re in the mood and let yourself get drawn in it as you go.

I’ve even argued — very controversially — that if a person unilaterally and permanently refuses sex to their partner without being willing to discuss or negotiate it, it is not automatically the worst moral choice for that partner to seek out sex elsewhere. An argument that was based on the idea that sex — not sex on demand whenever and however you want it, but some amount of some kind of sex — is one of the things we have a right to expect in a romantic relationship. (And no, I don’t want to start that argument again. Please, for the sweet love of Loki, let’s not start that argument again.)

And I certainly wouldn’t argue with the proposition that sex is one of the main ways that people in a relationship feel loved. Like, duh.

But what on earth does any of that have to do with gender?

What on earth does it have to do with what men want, and what women should do about it?

Good vibrations guide to sex
If you spend even a cursory amount of time reading sex educators, sex therapists, sex advice columns, etc., a glaringly obvious pattern will jump out and smack you across the face. The pattern is this: A lot of couples have significant differences in how often they like to have sex… differences that can cause serious problems in their relationship.

And that pattern has little or nothing to do with gender.

Lesbian couples can have significant differences in how often they like to have sex. Gay male couples. Couples where one or both partners are trans or unconventionally gendered. People in triads and other non-coupled relationships.

And opposite sex couples can certainly have significant differences in how often they like to have sex… differences that most definitely cut across gender lines. In hetero couples with differing libidos, sometimes it’s the man who wants it more often — and sometimes, it’s the woman. Pretty often, it’s the woman.

It’s certainly possible that, on average, men tend to want sex more often than women. (I haven’t seen any good research on this one way or the other… but it wouldn’t shock me.) But even if that’s true, it’s hardly a universal rule. Plenty of women want sex more often than their male partners. In fact, a disturbing number of these women have had the crummy experience of being insulted, mocked, and rejected by their male partners for their high libidos.

So I ask again: What’s gender got to do with it? Why was this framed as a salvo in the battle of the sexes?

Let’s try an experiment. Let’s take the gender stuff out of this piece of advice, and see what happens.

Here’s what you get when you take the gender stuff out. Sex is one of the important ways that people in a relationship feel good about themselves and know that they’re loved. Sex is an important part of a romantic relationship, and people have a right to expect it. Often, however, people in relationships have differences in how often they want sex. These differences need to be worked out, since they can cause real problems in the relationship, including the problem of one or both partners not feeling accepted and loved. That working-out may involve a reasonably happy-medium compromise, in which one partner winds up having sex somewhat more often than they’d normally be inclined to, and the other winds up having it somewhat less. (It can involve other solutions as well, such as non-monogamy or redefining what you think of as sex… but let’s stay on topic, just this once.) And if you always wait until you’re in the mood to have sex, you may end up having sex a lot less often than either of you wants, and a lot less often than is good for your relationship. You don’t always have to be in the mood; you just have to be willing to get into the mood.

See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?

But when you put all that gender stuff in? When you make this about women’s sexual responsibilities to men, instead of people’s sexual responsibilities to their partners?

It’s not just wrong. It’s not even just sexist. It taps into a toxic mythology that made people miserable and ruined relationships and marriages, for decades and indeed centuries. It is a revival of a sexual system that was demeaning and depressing for both women and men: a system in which women’s sexual pleasure was considered trivial at best and non-existent at worst, in which sex was a service women were expected to provide for men on demand without concern for their own desires, in which women’s bodies were a commodity that men were entitled to and women were obligated to “give.” It is a form of relationship between men and women that our society has largely been rejecting… and with good reason.

And that’s the real tragedy of this sorry piece of writing: It didn’t have to be this way. There was a germ of a good idea buried in the toxic waste: a germ of an idea about how, in sex as much as in the rest of your life, you have to look after your partner’s needs as well as your own; to be willing to be flexible and accommodating; to not let your moods control how you treat each other; to take pains to make sure your partner knows they’re loved.

But the toxic waste was so overpowering that it makes me seriously question whether the germ of a good idea was really what Prager cared about. It makes me seriously question whether his crucial issue was “men need to know that they’re loved”… or whether, instead, it was “women need to know their place.”

Sex, Moods, and a Wife's Selfless Duty: And We Are in What Century Again?
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10 thoughts on “Sex, Moods, and a Wife's Selfless Duty: And We Are in What Century Again?

  1. 1

    Is it just me, or does he seem to be proposing a model of marriage that is, basically, ownership? Outright ownership of the woman by the man?

  2. 2

    Excellent post Greta. And that last line? Killer.
    Warren, I get what you’re going for here, but outright ownership isn’t the model he’s preaching — but he skirts the line… If it were outright ownership, there wouldn’t be the possibility of saying “no,” and he at least acknowledges that they have the right — he just saying that they should never exercise it. The difference may be academic, but it’s there.
    No, he’s doing what so many fundamentalists do and taking that vicious piece of text from the bible about wives being subservient to their husbands and applying it to today’s world.
    It’s things like this that make me want to hate religion, and I don’t want to do that because it’s a small step from hating religion to hating people who believe in religion — and mostly, those are good people.
    Fundamentalists like this bloke make it bloody hard to do so at times.

  3. Ted

    Well said. There’s just one thing. I do have a lot of straight male friends who very much wish their female partners were in the mood for sex even a quarter of the time that my male friends are. And I don’t know a single straight woman in the situation my male friends are.
    You’re right that the primary lens through which this should be viewed is how partners interact regardless of gender (and that Prager is full of crap). But it’s useful and honest to acknowledge that whether we like it or not this is at least in some part a gendered issue. Understanding the entirety of a problem helps us find a solution, even if the entirety is distasteful.

  4. 4

    Warren – I wouldn’t say it’s ownership, per se. More like rental of the woman’s body. He heavily implies that a man’s primary responsibility to his wife is having a good job so he can “afford” her. That right there raises another buttload of issues.

  5. 5

    I’m still not sure why anyone thinks someone has the right to permanently refuse sex but demand fidelity.
    Actual physical problems, fair enough. Psychological problems… I’d say get help (I did myself. Eventually. My husband remained faithful but was a bit pissed off).
    If you’ve simply decided that you’re not going to have sex any more – well, you’ve opted out of the monogamous sexual relationship. The monogamous sexual relationship actually No Longer Exists, so expecting your partner to remain in it is a bit daft.
    In Christian terms, such a refusal to have sex is breaking your marriage vows just as decidedly as having sex with someone else.
    (Married in, and still attending, church, by the way)

  6. 6

    Thought of something else (I should stop and hang the washing more often. Hmmm….).
    The reason he doesn’t want to phrase it this way is that this is bottom-up thinking. His type of religion is a top-down religion: it’s good if God says so, not the other way round.
    If we start to be reasonable and appeal to these people’s feelings on how things could be good while talking about how to have decent relationships, or how to treat the oppressed and the broken-hearted, then they’ll expect us to do it *all* the time. They’ll expect us to do it when talking about contraception, or consensual polyamory, or – gasp – homosexualness. They won’t accept that God Says So unless they’re used to it. So whatever you do, don’t put forward arguments based on rational humanity, because then you’ll have to stick to it. And we all know where that leads.
    (broad-church Anglicanism, anyone?)

  7. 7

    I think you are looking too hard for a deeper message in the writing. This is pretty obviously a plea for the “good old days” when men ruled the household and women did what they were told sexually and otherwise. The idea of “sharing a life” with a women is totally foreign. Men like that are perfectly happy to have “a passive, compliant meat puppet” because their objective is NOT to feel loved and satisfied but to get off and feel power.

  8. 8

    Thanks, Chad and Indigo. I recognized the cant of Prager’s drivel; I was just wondering if he was equating marital life with either subservience or utter domination.
    I like the “rent” idea particularly; that’s a good way of expressing it, sort of like the “rule” that after the third date somebody owes something to someone.

  9. 9

    Hi Greta, I’m just over here after following the link from the Blowfish article on which I commented a few weeks ago, and I’ve come upon this post. I deeply appreciate it, and thank you for it.
    I particularly like two things about this post: One, that you address the nuance of partaking in sex when initially “not in the mood” and how that can be valuable (removing, of course, the irrelevant and [it seems to me] misguided discussion of gender from the topic), and two, the important recognition of the danger of supposed gender differences being purported as central to the issue, summed up exquisitely by your last line.
    I would also offer disagreement with Ted in that I do and have known a number of women in the position in which he describes knowing a number of men, and I myself have experienced that situation as well. The only way in which I would offer that gender may be relevant is in the way we are socialized to believe it is. These disparities may not actually exist, certainly not to the extent they are sometimes purported to, and yet we may automatically find ourselves thinking that way at times because of this very purporting. (Btw Ted, I’m not suggesting that’s what you were doing — your experience obviously is that which you described, and I wouldn’t dream of arguing that. I just mean that in general perhaps we make certain leaps in perspective more easily due to socialized attitudes, like that men want sex more and more often than women.)
    Thank you again for this, Greta.

  10. 10

    Nice blog–I read Part One (couldn’t read both), and was disgusted. Of course men should expect sex–so should women–and rejection damages both men AND women.
    I find it hilarious that he seems to believe that gender begins in the 1750s, when women turned from dangerous sex temptresses to frigid wimps. For centuries, women were the “more natural” (see childbirth and menstruation), waiting around every corner to tempt men into doing something horrible with their bodies (or, hey, their minds, right Eve?). Most guys that hear this, in my classes for example, say something like “I wish it was still like this!” Hey, guess what…it IS!

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