Hit Me Up: Is 'Duty Sex' Ever A Good Idea?

After three kids, two traumatic births and more than a decade of marriage, this reader has entered into an era of 'maintenance sex' but is this ever a good idea? Our resident agony aunt, Rhona McAuliffe has some interesting points. 

Dear Rhona, 

I’ve been with my husband twelve years and we’ve three kids together between the ages of 4 and 8.   When we first met the sex was explosive, we literally couldn’t get enough of each other and were known to nip off at weddings or parties for a quickie. Fast forward to now and our sex life is very different. After two particularly difficult births, we’ve had huge sex droughts – about a year sex-free after both births, so two years in total. I knew it wasn’t healthy for our relationship and my husband was going out of his mind – though he was trying to be understanding – so I committed to sex once per week.

There was no negotiation, I just decided that to keep things ticking along I’d play along when he initiated it. My friends and I call it ‘duty sex,’ and most of us are doing it. I don’t hate the actual sex (just the thought of it/ the grooming/ the hassle) and I occasionally actually enjoy it. However, my husband has started to notice that I’m rarely into it and says we might as well be flatmates and that he can’t face down another forty sexless years. He’s constantly trying to book weekends away so we can hole up in a hotel room for 48 hours of passion.

I’ve managed to avoid those weekends with a long list of excuses - mainly the kids - but we’re at the point where something needs to change. I love my husband and everything works between us outside of the bedroom but I’d also be thrilled if my fairy godmother told me that I’d never have to have sex again. I’m seriously ready to be celibate and just don’t feel sexual at all. So what do I do? Should I be honest with my husband or just get better at acting? Convent Bound, Dublin.

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I think we all need to take a moment here to commend your boundless generosity. Straddling your husband once a week when you’re really not feeling it, when your most potent fantasy is the hope of life-long celibacy, when you’re still rallying post two traumatic births, is some 1950’s hole-in-the-nightie level of sacrifice.

And you are not alone, loss of libido is rampant common among women - especially post-kids, pre-menopause and post-menopause - and depending on what survey you tap into, between 50 and 66% of women say that they have experienced low (or no) sex drive at some point in their lives. So on behalf of coitus-avoiders everywhere, I salute your efforts to tick ‘sex with the husband’ off your long list of to-dos!

And that’s not as contentious as it sounds. I’m all for maintenance sex to take the edge off those periods when yours and your partner’s libidos are not compatible, when ‘the more you have, the more you want’ premise often plays out. But opinion is divided on how ‘giving’ we (mainly women) should be.

I locked heads with a friend recently who is fundamentally opposed to having sex with her partner unless she is 100% into it. She believes that meeting her partner’s wants above her own desire is essentially submitting and she will not submit. And so it becomes a power play, where she decides when they have sex and he thus knows his place. Although that may work for them – she may be the dominant sexual partner and he might be the sub - her rationale was so loaded with anti-patriarchal gall, it felt more like a political statement.

It’s also rare for us to be ‘100% into it’ at the exact moment that the opportunity arises. This vague indifference is compounded by domestic familiarity and general exhaustion, among many other factors. We have the choice to be open, generous and compassionate with our partners, or not. Raw, sex-crazed desire for your long-term partner just doesn’t happen unless you both continue to fan those flames.

And I think this was your original intention, keeping all systems operable, right? The problem is, you’ve moved way beyond short-term or intermittent maintenance sex into a long-term service agreement. You’ve disconnected mentally and emotionally from the physical act to the point that it has almost become an out of body endurance test. Despite your greatest efforts, you’re still poised to join the Sisters of Mercy and your husband is no doubt feeling rejected and patronised. Male sexuality is often depicted as one-dimensional, a primal thrust-monster hungry for its next conquest but men crave more intimate connections too and are unlikely to be pacified when only their ‘biological need’ (another testy concept) is served. If your husband has any willpower and/or self-respect he’ll hold off initiating sex until you’ve got a grip on what’s going on with you.

There are lots of reasons your libido might be suffering and having small children in the house, who are entirely dependant on you and likely popping in and out of your bed in the middle of the night, is just one of them. General exhaustion, lack of sleep, depression, a hormonal imbalance and underlying medical issues - for example impaired thyroid function - are other possible contributing factors. The first thing you need to do is go for a full medical check-up with your GP.

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If, after relevant tests, nothing significant jumps out, I would suggest making an appointment with a recommended psychosexual therapist. Finding the right one for you is key so please persevere if you don’t click with the first or second one. Perhaps you could invite your husband to join the sessions when you’re comfortable with your therapist and feel like your mojo is sputtering and lurching back to life? Or maybe you’ll be sufficiently enlightened to kick-start things at home yourself? Communicating freely, sharing your desires and prioritising your sex life now will act as a springboard for the next incarnation of your intimate relationship. You’re unlikely to match the impassioned frenzy of your early days together but neither should you try. When you know what you want, what turns you on and are comfortable sharing that with your husband, you might just find that sex together is more intense than ever.

Relationship psychologist and general sex guru, Esther Perel, says: “Foreplay begins the moment the last orgasm has subsided.” It makes sense but seems like a lot of work, or at least requires a complete shift in perspective and a sort of sensual renaissance. Are you ready? Is your husband ready? Who knows where this self-exploration might lead. You could be swinging with the neighbours by June; or resolutely asexual by July. Please don’t give up without a fight.

Rhona McAuliffe might not be a trained therapist but she does have very big ears, quite a long nose and a gaping heart. If you have a problem that won’t just go away, she’d love to hear it. Write to Rhona at [email protected]

Photo by ANMOL on Unsplash

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