It doesn't often factor into our discussions about sex and relationships that, within a relationship, you sometimes just go along with sex because the other person wants it. But: Don't you? And is it okay? And are there rules for this kind of thing?
This kind of sex is maintenance sex, "duty sex." It's when you don't actually feel like having sex with your partner for a variety of reasons—too tired, too bored, just not feeling it—but you do it anyway because they want to, you feel bad for them, or want them to have release, even though you're not necessarily into the idea of initiating sex. It's pacifying sex. It probably isn't that great, at least not when it's getting going, though it has the potential to become great. And it's arguably the glue of many relationships' sex lives during certain periods.
Whether you agree with its usefulness or not—you will find many a dissenting viewpoint on the issue, even among sex therapists—the reality is this: If you're in a relationship in which you agree the sex matters, eventually you will have to expend more effort to have the sex you both agree should happen. Sex drives will not always magically align. When they don't align, somebody will be horny and the other somebody will not. Then what?
You could just not have sex ever when you don't feel like it and see what happens. Or, more likely, you could work toward getting into the mood for the other person some of those times. No one is saying you gotta have sex twice a week, but eventually, it's almost inevitable that some of the sex you're having will be maintenance sex.
I'm writing this gender neutrally. This issue could just as easily apply to a man who doesn't feel like sex and caves for his lady, or a man for another man, or a woman for another woman. But in reality, of course, maintenance sex is almost exclusively discussed in terms of something a woman does to keep a man happy and faithful, and it's deeply rooted in the notion that men have a higher sex drive than women, who must be cajoled and coaxed into putting out, or else risk him going elsewhere.
This version of the idea is slightly hideous. Sometimes shout-outs to maintenance sex are really just guides to marital rape, as was the case with New Jersey Real Housewife Melissa Gorga's book, Love Italian Style, which helpfully suggested that readers can "do anything for ten minutes." Clementine Ford writes at Daily Life about the broader cultural context from which this philosophy gains traction:
Whenever one of these stories appear, it whips the reading populace into a frenzy. On the one side are those naturally outraged by the suggestion that it falls to women to maintain harmony in the bedroom. It's a harmony that appears contingent not on efforts being made by both parties to seduce and entice, but on women to recognise the apparently incontrovertible fact that men need sex in a way that their female partners don't and that keeping it from them is tantamount to you taking your marriage certificate, fashioning it into a sick bag and then using it to visually demonstrate exactly what it is you think of your husband's virility by asking him to pull his pants down and then vomiting as soon as his penis emerges. What rarely occurs in this repetitive dialogue is a discussion over why women might not be inspired to service the needs of their male partners, not least of which might be due to the fact it's treated like a necessary 'service' in the first place.
On the other, there are people who willingly accept the notion of maintenance sex as a routine part of married life. Men are more visual, women more emotional. Women punish men by withdrawing physical affection, men are forced to look elsewhere to satisfy their needs. If only women would see the benefits of putting their own needs aside and prioritising those of men, they might be able to achieve the marital happiness that seems to elude them while they contribute more unpaid work to the house and more sacrifices for their families.
This dismay is echoed in the work of couples therapist Stephanie Manes, who, in a piece about the "Myth of Maintenance Sex" at HuffPo, describes the disconnect happening among the couples she counsels. Manes writes:
The phenomenon of maintenance sex is fueled by a stereotype of male sexuality as the face of pure impulse, devoid of any relational meaning. Esther Perel, a leader in the field of sexuality, says it like this: "the cliché is that men are always interested in sex. Male sexuality, we think, is like a perpetual motion machine. Contrary to women, their desire is seen as uncomplicated, a simple biological force seeking an outlet." And it is true that many women I have encountered revert to a narrative in which male sexual desire has the subtlety of a Labrador Retriever mindlessly chasing after a ball — a one-sided, unvaried primitive pleasure. In this story, whether or not the women actually want or enjoy sex is secondary to men satisfying their need for penetration and orgasm.
When I read this, I secretly hoped all her couples were older and that this viewpoint was just generational. Manes also allows for a lot of possibilities about what's really going on here: It's a blind spot for men—how can he not notice or care that she's not that into it?—and it's a blind spot for women, too—she views male sexuality as a "one-note" caricature that diminishes the connection her partner actually gets from sex. It's a blind spot for everyone, misreading the other's needs and sexuality and not doing the work to bridge the connection in ways that will foster better, more mutually engaged sex.
In conclusion, Manes says:
If a guy actually wants better sex, he may have to start turning it down when he gets the feeling that his partner is just doing him a favor. And he needs to start holding the woman in his life accountable for her own gratification by asking her to tell him what she needs to get turned on. This is grown-up sex — the kind where both parties take some responsibility for their own pleasure — and unlike maintenance sex, it's actually pretty hot.
But what about the scenario in which the people in the relationship are fine with "just doing [him or her] a favor? It seems that some couples can use maintenance or "meat-and-potatoes" sex as just one of many approaches to keeping sex alive, like trying to be more spontaneous and creative. And herein lies an important distinction: There is the broad cultural umbrella in which we all play out some degree of these stereotypes, and then there's your individual relationship and what works for you.
Which brings me to Dan Savage, who recently fielded a question about this very issue:
What is your stance on maintenance sex? I'd never thought about the issue until reading Amy Poehler's new memoir. I didn't find anything she said controversial, and was surprised when this quote blew up in the feminist blogosphere: "You have to have sex with your husband occasionally, even though you're exhausted. Sorry." I'd never realized many people firmly believe one should have sex with their partner only when they are in the mood! Some articles even made it sound like maintenance sex is a form of nonconsensual sex. I have sex with my husband pretty often when I'm not in the mood. He would prefer sex every day, and I'm more of an every-other-day or twice-a-week girl. I'd say about 25 percent of the time we are having sex, I am doing it for maintenance purposes. I always enjoy it and I get off the majority of the time, but I don't always go in wanting it or needing it. Is this wrong? Am I not the feminist I thought I was?
Maintenance Sex Supporter
As you would imagine, Savage—GGG all the way—is all for it, assuming there's a healthy distinction about why you're actually doing it:
I'm pro maintenance sex, MSS.
Sometimes I sex my husband when I'm not feeling it; sometimes he sexes me when he's not feeling it. We take care of each other. But maintenance sex is not the same thing as enthusiastic sex. The person asking for maintenance sex—the horny partner who's being indulged/milked/sexed by the non-horny partner—shouldn't expect mind-blowing, toe-curling, sheet-shredding sex. Maintenance sex is mellow sex, it's low-impact and low-stress, it's sex that requires minimal effort, and it's likely to be non-penetrative sex—and gratitude is the only appropriate response.
Another important note: Being pro maintenance sex doesn't obligate a person to have sex whenever their partner wants it. Proponents and practitioners of maintenance sex still get to say no. There's a difference between indulging your partner when you're not feeling it—when you could take it or leave it—and forcing yourself to have sex (or being guilted/pressured/forced) when you're too exhausted, too sick, or too angry for sex.
And as you've discovered, MSS, and I can also attest, sometimes you go into sex "not wanting or needing it" and then you start to enjoy it, too, i.e., not in the mood when you started but definitely in the mood before you finished. Those are the times when mellow, low-impact, low-stress maintenance sex turns into mind-blowing, toe-curling, sheet-shredding sex. I would hate to think of how much great sex I would've missed if my feminist principles didn't allow for maintenance sex.
I ran this by Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist in San Francisco, who agrees with Savage's perspective. "Relationships are filled with doing things for each other that we don't always want to do," Marin wrote by email.
Picking her up from the airport, taking out the trash, moving out of state for his job. Some compromises are bigger than others, but we do these things because we want to create a generous, giving relationship.
I saw the backlash from the Amy Poehler quote, and have seen the same level of vehement disapproval amongst my clientele. Many people seem to think that they should only be expected to have sex when they are fully in the mood. I'm all for valuing passion, but even the most sexually compatible couples are never going to be fully aligned with wanting sex at exactly the same time, every single time. Sex, like every other part of a relationship, requires compromise.
There are benefits to engaging in maintenance sex, she says, such as getting into it partway through. Sex comes in different flavors. Marin writes:
Passionate sex is great, but so are tender sex, make-up sex, and playful sex. Maintenance sex can actually be pretty light and funny if you say things like, "Want to bet on how quickly I can get you off with my mouth?" or "Sure, I'm up for it, but I want to lay back and enjoy the ride."
She notes that this is also an antidote to sexual warfare—generosity begets generosity in the sack, and elsewhere. Maintenance sex also helps you avoid dry spells. But it's crucial that you "want to" do it:
What it boils down to in the moment is taking the time to ask yourself if this feels like an acceptable compromise to make. There are going to be times where you're just too tired, sick, depressed, or uninterested, and that's perfectly OK. You get to say no. But there may be other times where it feels fine to go ahead with it. I've advised my clients to ask themselves, "OK, so I'm not in the mood now, but does it feel alright for me to take care of this person that I love by doing this for them?" It's not your responsibility to fulfill all of your partner's needs, but you should respect your partner enough to take their needs seriously.
I might also want to note that how your partner requests sex is important too. If they're being demanding or acting entitled, they're probably not worthy of the kind of generosity I advocate above.
All this considered, it makes the rules for maintenance sex pretty simple:
How to Have Maintenance Sex
- Unless you want to indulge your partner
- And if you do, they can't expect a mind-blowing performance
- Yet, try to be into it if possible, and open to it becoming pleasurable
- Definitely have a sense of humor (I wouldn't laugh too much, though)
- And finally, make sure this is a two-way street. You are not Melissa Gorga.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.