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Hear me read this post to you. Press play above.
. . .
Eight years ago, my marriage could’ve easily been classified as sex-starved. I was about 22 (my husband 24), both of us decidedly way too young to be going through this issue, but there we were—going weeks and weeks without physical intimacy without a clear reason why. I was at the peak of my sexual shame and dysfunction at that time, when the sex I did have with my gentle, loving, and patient husband left my body feeling raw and my mind reeling with senseless, guilty thoughts—Sex is bad, I am bad, why am I so broken?
It got so bad that one evening, through tears and a trembling voice, I gave my husband permission to have an affair to satisfy the sexual needs I was too broken to accommodate. It truly seemed like the only solution, one where we’d both be able to (finally) be ourselves without pressure or judgment.
That wouldn’t be the last time I made this suggestion to him and I was relieved every time that he declined my offer. But his disinterest in that as an option only went to shine a harsher light on me—on how I needed to, somehow, take initiative on my own sexual healing. An affair would’ve been much easier.
Looking back on this, on how the ball was often left in my court when it came to solving this conundrum, I only find it a little problematic that this was put mostly on me, especially knowing what I know now about my own sexual needs. It’s true that when it comes to a sex-starved relationship it often takes two, not one, to dance this no-sex-having dance. That said, I cannot deny that the cause of most of our sexual disconnect was the result of my own frigidity.
They say that the person with the lower sex drive controls the sexual relationship, and I found that to be true for me. We weren’t having sex because I wasn’t wanting or willing to have it.
In that way, it only made sense that the troubleshooting fell mostly on my shoulders.
So, knowing that and also knowing that an affair wasn’t an option for him, I needed to find a way to fix myself and our sex-starved relationship, and fast. Too much time had passed and as each evening crept by without a hint of physical intimacy, the chasm of disconnect between us grew wider.
With a desperation and frantic energy that I can only compare to the time when I locked my keys in my car moments before I was due to depart to take an important exam at school, I began to search for a cure for my sexual dysfunction.
This entailed reading a lot of books, one in which I first heard the term “sexual anorexia” which frighteningly pathologized what was happening in my relationship and gave it a new sense of direness that it made my stomach sick. It also entailed some not-so-helpful advice.
There was the advice to pop a Viagra pill before sex to help jumpstart my missing libido because it apparently also “works” for women. There was the advice to get my testosterone levels checked because the reason men don’t ever have a low libido (which is false, by the way) is because they’ve got more testosterone, so upping my testosterone levels as a woman would help my lack of desire and mean that I would be able to want and crave sex the way a man does.
There was the idea that I was asexual—a person who simply does not experience sexual attraction and, therefore, doesn’t experience sexual desire. (Truthfully, I tried leaning more toward this one as an explanation for my lack of desire, but just couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t quite right, so I kept looking.)
There was also the outlandish suggestion that the reason I had a lack of desire for sex was because my sacral chakra was blocked, and that in order to unblock it I needed to do tantric breathing exercises every day while sitting on a shiva lingam stone in order to release and renew my sexual center—a super bizarre route, I thought, to go in at the time, although these days I’m more willing to see the validity of it (I digress).
The one nugget of wisdom that stuck with me most, though—probably because it was the simplest—was that the way to cure a sexless marriage was as easy as practicing that popular motto. I needed to “just do it.”
In order to “just do it”, I needed to override my body’s habitual No for sex and force myself to have sex anyway. The more I did this, the advice promised, the more I would create a kind of muscle memory with my brain and vagina, reminding it with every lackluster fuck, “Hey, you like this, remember?”
They said that it would take several times of doing this before I saw results, but I was to stick with it and try to push aside any feelings or thoughts or beliefs I had that kept me from saying yes to sex. Mind over matter, in a sense.
It seemed to make sense. So I tried it, and—surprise, surprise—it didn’t work. It actually did more harm than good.
So, I went back to the drawing board and back to suggesting an affair for my husband as I waited to be fixed.
. . .
The other day I stumbled upon a Ted talk where a relationship expert was speaking about sex-starved marriages and how to cure them. As she illustrated a couple who is in a perpetual space of sexual anorexia—where the high-desire man is angry because he feels entitled to sex that he’s not getting and where the low-desire woman is defensive about her inactivity—the expert suggests that the man ditches his anger and become more attentive to the way his wife wants to be approached about sex (to which I concur).
To the woman, however, the expert says she needs to “adopt the Nike philosophy” about sex and “just do it”. Basically—do it even if you don’t want to, do it especially if you don’t want to, and do it frequently whether you want to or not. Why? Because “he’ll be happy, nicer, more present, and more grateful” and that she, the low-desire woman, will eventually find enjoyment in the sex she didn’t want to have in the first place.
I scrunched my nose. This sounded familiar.
I actually had to double check the date on this talk because not only did it sound straight from a book I read eight years ago, much of the language being used was incredibly dated. (To my surprise, the talk came out almost four years ago.)
I’m not here to critique the talk or this relationship expert. From what she says in her talk, it sounds like she’s had great success in her practice by giving couples this kind of advice, and it also sounds like the couples themselves have become more sexually active in their relationship as a result.
I don’t want to say that the “just do it” philosophy is bad advice for all sex-starved relationships. But it was bad advice for mine.
When I would “just do it” even though I didn’t want to, I definitely started having more sex—which, for a sex-starved relationship, that is a victory. But even though we were having more sex, I wasn’t really enjoying myself because I was forcing myself to do something I didn’t want to do. And because I wasn’t enjoying myself, I, unsurprisingly, got no pleasure from it.
“Just doing it” sex created a really confusing relationship with my body and sexuality where, because I kept overriding my body’s natural inclinations to not have sex, I didn’t exactly know when I really actually wanted it. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to have sex because I knew my husband would be happier, grateful, and nicer to me if I did or if I wanted to have sex because I genuinely wanted to, there was just a part of me that kept saying no for some reason.
“Just doing it” may have made me more physically connected to my partner more frequently, but it created a disconnection between myself and my body.
“Just doing it” robbed me of my ability to choose sex for myself. It took away my sexual agency, made my No charged with new guilt-ridden energy. “Just doing it” made me not trust myself when No was the correct answer.
“Just doing it” also triggered my sexual trauma, reopening wounds from my sexual past that had yet to be properly healed. Because “just doing it” was strikingly similar to the non-consensual sex I had had with my ex, in which I didn’t want to but was coerced and shamed into doing it anyway.
“Just doing it”, for me, was a form of self-violation.
I’ve written about this before—about my personal experience with self-violation and how we need to stop saying yes to sex we’d rather say no to. Because when we say yes to sex we don’t really want, we’re telling our body very directly that we don’t respect it, we’re telling our sexual energy that we don’t honor it, and we’re giving our partners a false sense of intimacy and sexual connection.
And the reality is that a majority of women are already engaging in sex that they don’t really want to have—because they feel like they should, because they feel guilty if they don’t, because they don’t want their partners to be upset with them if they say No, because they’ve never been given permission to take their sexual desires into consideration.
Many of us have already perfected the “just do it” philosophy outside of a sex-starved relationship. As women, we’ve been conditioned to see sex as a service we give our partners, a duty we perform for their pleasure and enjoyment, particularly if those partners are male. There’s already this notion that sex isn’t for us, that our pleasure is secondary. This is one of the reasons so many women have sexual hangups in the first place—we’ve been taught not to prioritize our pleasure or our desires.
“Just do it” sex feeds into these ideologies and violates the connection we have with our bodies. It’s harmful, counterproductive, and dangerous. Particularly for women.
. . .
OK, so what do we do instead?
If “just doing it” doesn’t work, what does? Surely continuing on in a sex-starved marriage isn’t the only option.