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Sex, Obligation and Blame

May 29, 2012

I found this post painful to read. It’s a woman talking about her partner’s reduced desire for sex in their relationship. In it, I see every toxic belief about sex and relationships that undermined and very nearly destroyed my own marriage. I think these can be summed up as follows:

  • Sexual desire is something that can be offered or withheld at will.
  • You owe sex to someone you’re in a relationship with.
  • A lack of sexual desire is, at best a sign of something wrong in the relationship. At worst, it’s a sign of malice.

What strikes me most about this post is the blame it’s so filled with. I understand how hurt she must be at her partner’s lack of sexual interest. I understand that mismatched desire can be a huge problem (especially for monogamous relationships). And I totally understand (believe me) how some people simply have a really powerful need for sex.

However.

Desire isn’t a button you can push. No matter how much you may care for someone, no matter how much you may want to meet their needs, if it’s not there, it’s not there. Call it chemistry, but chemistry is important. Sometimes you just don’t want it–and sometimes you just don’t want the person you’re supposed to want.

And what we’re talking about here is having sex when you don’t want to. I don’t think that’s something you should have to do to save a relationship, to show you care, or to get any of your other needs–emotional, financial, social–met. I know many people make that choice, and that’s okay. For example, I think sex work is an acceptable and viable option for some people. But few people would ever agree that anyone should be obligated to engage in sex work. But I often see an assumption that, in the context of partnerships, if one partner is not living up to some minimum standard of providing access to their body, they are “withholding” sex–as though they had it to give, and were keeping it to themselves.

Not desiring someone physically isn’t a sign that you don’t love them. Or that you want to hurt them. Or that there’s something wrong with you. It’s not even a sign that you’re not a compatible partner with them. It just means that, for whatever reason, your body isn’t responding to them. Not wanting sex just means you don’t want sex. And if you don’t want it, for heaven’s sake, don’t do it.

Many deeply loving, committed, lifetime relationships eventually become platonic. The real problem isn’t that it happens, but that we’re taught to believe it shouldn’t: that those partnerships are less valid if they don’t include sex. And in a poly situation, hopefully you have enough variety of partners to meet your sexual needs as well as your others.

Sex isn’t a defining factor in my own relationships. That’s one of the reasons I like being poly: I can craft my relationships based on the needs and desires of the people involved, and sex is more or less important depending on which ways I’m compatible with each person. In some ways, this means it’s becoming increasingly difficult to define what a “relationship” is at all–which I think is ok. But that’s a subject I’ll save for another post.

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