How do you get beyond “obligation sex” or “duty sex” to find the freedom of embracing sex because you actually want to?
We’re in the middle of our debunking series on the blog, and every week we’re debunking a different teaching that’s been prevalent in evangelical circles that has hurt sex, leading up to the release of our new book The Great Sex Rescue.
Last week, starting with the podcast, we looked at the “obligation sex” message, the idea that a woman must give her husband sex when he wants it, and can’t refuse. In our survey of 20,000 women for our book The Great Sex Rescue, this was the belief that we found had the worst outcomes. And it’s very prevalent; 40% of Christian women report believing it before they were married.
On Friday I talked about how that message impacted me–and I was a textbook case, according to what we found. It messed up sex for me, and even contributed to vaginismus.
One of the worst things about the duty sex message is that it changes the very nature of sex
Instead of sex being about a joining of two people for the purpose of mutual passion, fun, and intimacy, it becomes an entitlement to one and an obligation from the other. And if it’s an entitlement, then it can’t be a mutual, passionate, sharing. In fact, it can’t be mutual at all, because by turning it into an obligation, you’re saying that only one person’s needs matter. One person “needs” sex, and that means the other must provide it. So it’s no longer something entered into willingly.
That turns sex into something impersonal, or even dehumanizing. I don’t matter, only you do.
But when you have grown up hearing that it is a sin to say no; that if you say no he won’t feel loved; or that if you say no he’ll have an affair or watch porn and it will be your fault–well, then it’s very hard to resist that message.
One woman in our focus group told us a funny story about the obligation sex message:
A friend of mine married, and within a few years was really perturbed because her husband never initiated sex. She worked really hard to get herself in the mood, and initiated every 3 days, like clockwork. He would go along, but he was never that enthusiastic.
One night in frustration everything came spilling out of her. “Why don’t you ever take the lead?”
He replied, “I’m just trying to keep up to you!”
That led to a rather interesting discussion. It turns out that she was initiating every 72 hours because that’s what she had been taught that men need, and so she was trying to do her duty so he wouldn’t sin or be tempted. He had no idea that she had ever been taught this, or that this was her motivation.
When he told her, he was flabbergasted, and assured her that he did not need sex every 72 hours, and he certainly wasn’t going to watch porn if they didn’t have sex enough.
So she stopped initiating when she felt like she “had” to, and they both decided to initiate when they wanted to. Since then, they’ve settled into a pattern of about once a week, and they’re both very happy.
She had been initiating out of duty and fear, and it hadn’t led to a great sex life.
But her husband was a good guy, and they were able to work this through quite well! With the duty gone, their sex life blossomed.
That’s a good outcome. But for many of us, it’s not that simple, because we’ve believed so long that he needs sex and we can’t say no that to stop sex or to not initiate would invoke almost panic. So let’s look at some steps to help you overcome obligation sex:
1. Make sure you’re safe
Most guys are good guys and would never want their wives having sex just out of duty.
However, most is not all. If you feel that not having sex whenever he wants it would cause him to treat you badly or treat the children badly, or would result in other negative outcomes, then you should likely seek help, at least from a licensed counselor, and even from a domestic abuse hotline. Even if you aren’t sure if you are being abused, if you call, they’ll be able to ask questions and walk you through.
2. Talk to him about the obligation sex message, where it came from, and what it’s doing to you
So many of the women in our focus groups reported that when they talked to their husbands about this, their husbands were flabbergasted. They had known for years that she wasn’t really into sex, but could never figure out why. But they didn’t want “duty sex”. They only wanted sex when she was fully into it. And when they heard that this is what she was feeling, they wanted to show her that she never, ever needed to feel that way.
And that changed everything.
It could be, though, that your husband isn’t happy about this. In that case, I’d read the obligation sex chapters in The Great Sex Rescue with him, because I think they’ll help explain what you’re going through and the effect that it is having on you (lower libido; lower orgasm rates; lower rates of arousal; less marital satisfaction, etc.) Say that you want to be freed from this so that you can both experience real passion.
The Great Sex Rescue
Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.
What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the things that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these messages?
Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.
3. Take a sex hiatus
For someone who has been having sex every few days, or even everyday, for years, this can be scary. But in order to break the fear that “if I don’t have sex something bad will happen”, you need to let a significant amount of time go by without sex so that you can see that the sky won’t fall; your husband won’t become a porn addict or a terrible person; you can still love each other.
(Now, if your husband WOULD watch porn or treat you badly, please call a licensed counselor and get some help, because this isn’t okay.)
What does a hiatus look like? Take sex entirely off the table for a period of time, like a few weeks or a month, to grow the relationship, have fun together outside the bedroom, to show reassure yourself that sex is not what’s holding you together. Alternatively, and especially if you’ve had trouble with orgasm, make your orgasm the focus for a few weeks, rather than his. This can free you from rushing through foreplay because you’re feeling guilty and you know he wants to get on to the “main event”.
4. Give yourself permission to stop at any point
Several large studies have shown that one of the key ingredients in a woman being able to reach orgasm is feeling like she can speak up in the middle of a sexual encounter and ask for what she wants.
However, most women don’t feel that way. Take this example from The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller, which shows what most couples consider normal (and which he doesn’t try to correct):
“If I asked her, ‘How was that?’,” and she said, ‘It just hurt,’ I felt devastated, and she did too.
In context, they were talking about how trying for her orgasm was too much pressure, so they decided to stop trying. But I found this anecdote really sad. He was only asking her how it felt AFTER the encounter, not during. And she was enduring pain without speaking up!
That’s the obligation sex message. That’s what it does. It tells us that once we start sex, he can’t stop and he needs to finish, so we just hope that we can feel some pleasure, but if we can’t, we need to just lie there until he’s done.
Well, the biggest breakthrough for getting over the obligation sex message, and allowing yourself to feel pleasure, came, according to our focus group participants, when they allowed themselves to speak up in the middle of sex if it wasn’t feeling good, or if they needed a different angle, more pressure, or even just more blankets!
Not just that–sometimes she just wanted to stop. She started, and it seemed like she’d enjoy herself, but then partway through she’d realize it just isn’t feeling good. Having the ability to stop was what helped Sandra, one of the women whose story we told in The Great Sex Rescue, finally start to heal from longstanding vaginismus and find her own libido.
5. Practice paying attention to your own body
One last thing–often the obligation sex message goes hand in hand with the idea that he needs sex in a way that you don’t, and that sex is primarily about his pleasure. You have to grab pleasure if you can, but if your timeline doesn’t work with his, then you just need to live with it.
So you could be doing foreplay, but you worry that you’re taking too long and he’s getting impatient, so you say, “It’s okay, let’s just start,” and you forego your own pleasure.
Again, that’s obligation. That’s having sex pretty much entirely for him, allowing yourself to be an afterthought.
And most guys honestly don’t want that.
The only way to stop doing this, though, is to stop thinking about what he’s feeling and allow yourself to value what you’re feeling. Don’t worry if it’s taking too long; just pay attention to your body and what wants to be touched. When you’re having intercourse, pay attention to what feels good. If it would feel better at a different angle, tempo, depth, anything–notice that and speak up. When you allow yourself to focus on your own body rather than his, then this idea that sex is only for him can start to dissipate.
But isn’t all of this letting her be selfish with sex, rather than him?
Actually, no. Sex is meant to be mutual. When she is having sex only for him, and when we have a 47 point orgasm gap (in that 95% of men reach orgasm almost always or always, while only 48% of women do), then we need to right the balance. That will feel selfish, because we’re so used to sex being slanted in his direction. But what most guys really want, too, is for their wives to be able to let go and feel passion. And you will never, ever be able to do that if you see sex as an obligation.
Also, the obligation sex message has terrible repercussions on her sexual satisfaction. If he loves you and wants you to enjoy sex, too, then he should see that this message has to go, and you need to matter, too.
If you’re really struggling with this, two resources will help.
First, The Great Sex Rescue helps you to see how the obligation sex message got so internalized that we all seem to believe it. Then The Orgasm Course helps you work through letting go of this message and learning how to allow yourself to feel pleasure.
What do you think? Have you ever overcome the obligation sex message? If so, how? Or are you still stuck in it? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Obligation Sex Debunking Posts
Some posts that have also dealt with obligation sex and coercion
- The Duty Sex Isn't Sexy Podcast
- 10 Times You're Allowed to Say No to Sex
- Obligation Sex, Consent, and Marital Rape Podcast
- Yes, There Can Be Rape in Marriage
- The Body Keeps the Score: How Obligation Sex Affects Pain
- The Book I Drowned in the Bathtub
- Is Sex a Need or a Drive?
- 5 Steps to Get Over the Obligation Sex Message
And check out The Great Sex Rescue--with two chapters looking at where the obligation sex message has been taught, what our survey of 20,000 women told us about how it affected us, and what we should teach instead.
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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