Walk With Me (#3): Sex and Dishes

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

We’re all just walking each other home. — Ram Dass

Dear Asha,

I love my husband. I love having sex with him, too. However, there are days and times that sex feels more like a chore than a joy. Is that normal?

We have been married more than 20 years. At the beginning the sex was earth-shattering.

Now? A lot of days I am tired. A lot of days I’m in bed and asleep 20–30 minutes before him. Mostly I don’t like being awoken once I’m asleep.

So, a lot of days I don’t want to have sex. Some days I do, and it’s great.

When I don’t want to, sometimes I do anyway. Why? Because I love him, because he wants to, because sometimes it doesn’t matter that much to me. On those days, I berate myself. As a strong woman, a feminist, how can I do that? Begrudging consent is still consent….. but it is not enthusiastic.

Also, when he says, “It will just take a few minutes” I want to scream that that is the worst way to convince me. “Tell me instead”, I scream in my head, “that you want to stay up for hours finding all kinds of pleasure,”…. but I don’t, and that’s on me.

So yes, sometimes I approach sex like washing the dishes… it can be satisfying, but of course not earth shattering.

Help?

XO, EP

Dear EP,

Oh, honey. You are so normal. None of our stories in Western culture tell us anything useful about sex as an evolving part of life, even within the context of a loving, long term, heterosexual marriage, which is theoretically supposed to be the pinnacle of relationship achievement. You’d think they’d better prepare us. But after we cross the threshold we are all on our own, with so little wisdom to guide us.

Not to mention that our sense of what to offer and expect from sex as cis-women is wrapped up in centuries of patriarchy. Everyone’s experience of sex in our culture is twisted by patriarchy in my opinion, but I am completely unqualified to talk about sex as a trans woman or non-binary person. Stick with what you know, and be clear about what you don’t, I say.

Let’s start with ambivalent consent, and have some real talk about how sex actually works in a long term, heterosexual relationship. I would expect that some of this applies to other sorts of couples and configurations as well. What people do in the bedroom may differ, but they’re still people, so basic human dynamics still come into play.

In my experience, it is a rare occasion that both members of a couple are equally interested and motivated around having sex, even within the context of a loving, communicative relationship. Nine times out of ten, one or the other partner is going to be the one who desires first, and then the other person responds. Also, though there are cis-women who are more sexually motivated than their male partners (in my current relationship, I’m one of those), statistically that is less common. Is that because of our genetics, or are we, as cis-women, set up to be so disconnected from our own desire and sense of sexual agency that we have lost the ability to sense what we want, much less ask for it? I’d argue it’s some combination of the two.

So, there you are. You’re a cis-woman, you’re married for many years to a man you love, but you’re older now. Maybe there are kids, splitting your energy and focus. Maybe you’ve settled into a more sedentary lifestyle, where you spend less time actively in your body. Maybe there are work obligations, elderly parents to care for, friends that are hurting, or community work that needs doing. Maybe you yourself have long term physical or mental health issues that you’re managing all day, every day.

Maybe you’re so worried constantly about trying to navigate a global pandemic, while also trying to be anti-racist in the midst of white supremacy, that you’re emotionally exhausted all the time. Can I get a witness?

Though it would be lovely to think that in the face of all of that, making love to your husband would feel like a blessing, a gift of grace in the midst of the maelstrom, let’s be real. For many women it can often just feel like one more way someone else needs to be taken care of, rather than something that enlivens us. We function at a nurturance-deficit all the time.

Before we can even think about sex with openness or, heaven forbid, anticipation, we have to get ourselves taken care of. If you are frequently exhausted or carrying too much of the family/children/household management burden, you aren’t alone. But, I implore you to think about how to address that, whether or not you follow up on any of the advice about sex I’m offering you here. You matter, first and foremost. Take care of yourself, please.

Now, back to ambivalent consent: he initiates, you begrudgingly consent, and sometimes it turns out fine. You get over the initial difficulty of entering a head space that you weren’t planning to enter, your body starts to respond, and you end up actually enjoying yourself.

Honestly, regardless of who initiates, this is what most sex is for most married couples most of the time, and it’s not bad. It’s just two separate people communicating, asking, responding, sharing across the divide. You are where you are, they are where they are, and you’re trying to navigate some shared space and reality- emotionally and sexually. A little ambivalence in the midst of all of that is not a sign of a problem, if you ask me. It’s just part of living a complicated life with another person.

But what I hear in your question is that often you don’t ever get past the ambivalence to actually get any real pleasure out of the experience of making love to your husband. If, more often than not, you’re having sex out of a sense of obligation that you’re not actually enjoying, then I do think there’s some uncomfortable work that needs to be done, and it doesn’t sound like your husband is the one that is going to initiate that work. That’s going to be on you, but I believe you can do it. You just have to begin.

Given your description of him offering that “it will just take a few minutes” I would guess your ambivalence isn’t a secret to him. I don’t know your husband, so I have no idea what the tone of that offering is. Maybe it’s his attempt to acknowledge your ambivalence without having to talk about it, to get his needs met without asking too much of you. If that is the case, then there may be some measure of relief for him in you admitting openly to your ambivalence and trying to address it.

It’s also possible that he’s being coercive, which is not okay. Is it some sort of deal breaker? Does it inevitably mean he is an abuser? No. But men are taught to do whatever they have to do to get women to have sex with them, including manipulating women if they have to. Men can unlearn this behavior, but they have to want to. And they have to be held to very clear boundaries by other people so they can’t continue to coerce successfully until they can maintain those boundaries for themselves.

Some of what I’m about to tell you about negotiating consent can teach new patterns and expectations to replace coercive behavior, but if he’s being coercive, even unintentionally, you’re going to have to name that clearly right at the top. That is not easy. He may respond defensively, and you may be tempted to immediately retreat, but please don’t, as long as you feel safe. You will never get what you need until any possible coercion is off the table as an option for him.

You mentioned enthusiastic consent. I also like the term wholehearted consent, which suits some folks better, and I think speaks to sex as a holistic experience of body, mind, and heart. If you are going to make wholehearted consent your abiding rule in your sex life with your husband, you have to stop having sex to which you know you do not wholeheartedly consent. Period. And you have to talk to him, at length and in detail, about to what kind of sex, in what kind of circumstance, you would wholeheartedly consent. You have to tell him what you want.

If, as you mention in your letter, you often don’t communicate to him what you want, that may be really hard at first. But it does get easier with practice, I promise. It will require both of you to grapple with your own instinctive response to a woman expressing desire. You may come up against some shame or trepidation, some feeling that expressing desire makes you, for lack of a better term, slutty. Or he may uncover related feelings in himself, that you being clear and assertive about your desire intimidates him or makes him confused, because he can’t hold the idea of you as wife and mother in the same head space as sex goddess. In a culture where women are generally allowed to be either mothers or whores those feelings are common, but if they’re coming up in either of you, you’re going to have to unpack them together, and separately.

Having made the commitment to begin the conversation about wholehearted consent, you make time. You can squeeze in 5–10 minute blocks of flirting or kissing throughout the day, knowing you’re leading towards a longer stretch of time later. Or you can simply make a point of going to bed together before either of you are exhausted, without the lead up. Or you make time on a weekend morning. If you have kids who are old enough, tell them you’re sleeping in and they should get their own breakfast. If they’re not quite old enough, set out breakfast foods for them to grab on the counter and make sure they know how to work the electronic babysitter. Lock the door if you have to, for your own sense of focus. You don’t need hours and hours of time (though you deserve that, and wouldn’t it be nice?), but you do need some uninterrupted time, so think creatively together about how to find it.

Discuss how you each feel about talking during sex. There should always be space for anyone to say stop, but different people have different temperaments around actual conversation during sex. I’m all for it, myself, and really enjoy it. My partner literally can’t. He goes into a non-verbal space, and to engage in conversation takes him out of the experience. So, maybe it works for either of you to offer verbal check-ins as you go, or maybe you agree to non-verbal cues or gestures that communicate, “I’m here. I’m good. Yes. Keep going, please.”

And then you begin, however that works for the two of you. But you commit to each other that you’re going to stop long enough to take a breath and check in regularly as you go. And if, at any point, you want to stop- to take a break, or completely end it, you agree that is what you’re going to do, as uncomfortable as that may be. Maybe it’s easier to begin, the first time or two, by agreeing ahead of time that you’re not going to “have sex”. You’re just going to make out, or you’re going to only engage in oral sex but no penetration. You get to decide, together.

My partner and I have spent months in a “no penetration” sexual space so that we could navigate wholehearted consent together. I won’t say it is an easy process. It’s physically frustrating and emotionally uncomfortable, but it’s also the most open and vulnerable I’ve ever been, which is its own exhilaration. I have found myself confronted by my relationship to my own desire, and to being wanted. I’ve had to grapple with how I’ve often used sex as an attachment behavior to assuage emotional anxiety about a relationship, rather than actually for my pleasure. I’ve had to learn to ask for what I want, and to allow space for what my partner wants. If you want the rule to be “always wholehearted consent” then this is the sort of work you’re committing to together. Not necessarily the same questions, but the open, vulnerable communication.

For you, from the sounds of your letter, the hardest part may be allowing yourself breaks to check in about whether or not you’re feeling wholehearted consent, and giving yourself permission to stop if you’re not feeling it. For him, it may be hardest to get used to the idea that things may not end the way he’s used to. If, like many straight couples, sex generally ends with his orgasm during penetrative intercourse, you all may need to negotiate other ways to end things if you’re not feeling it. Maybe you just want to step away from the whole thing, in which case he may need some space to take care of getting himself off. Or maybe you just don’t want him inside you, but you don’t mind holding him while he gets himself off, or you get him off in another way.

The important part is that you talk about it- before, during, after- whatever works for the two of you. And you keep talking, because as you move through this process together, what works and doesn’t may change, or expand.

It is unlikely that you’ll ever get to a place where you can just fall into bed together and everything magically happens with no communication, like some sort of movie. Personally, I think that’s a mythical idea men created because they don’t actually want to have to respond to what women want. It doesn’t serve women for men to act like they always “know” what to do sexually, and it doesn’t serve men either. Enough of that patriarchal bullshit.

You did say that the sex between you all when you were younger was earth-shattering, so the physical mechanics are there. But your emotional mechanics, the mechanics of your communication, have to develop to match the more complicated machine that is your life together.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or your relationship. It just means you’re growing and changing, like we all do, and your sex life together needs to grow and change, too.

Yes, sex is a necessary part of long term intimacy, but the only way to take it off the list of chores is to offer conscious attention to help it grow and evolve with you into more than a necessity. Older women, who know our own bodies and desire, despite what our culture may tell us, can have the best sex of our lives. But only if we let our experience of sex be as open, evolving and complicated as we are.

Trust yourself. Trust your husband. Talk to each other. Make the space to work on this together. Let your love and passion be what it can be now, with all you know of yourselves and each other, rather than worrying that its not what it was. Now can be great.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com. Let’s walk each other home.

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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