When we talk about people’s “sexual needs”, are we muddying the waters?
Happy Monday, everyone! Hope you all had a good weekend and a lovely Valentine’s Day.
I’m in the final crunch to get the manuscript for The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex in at the publisher, and then The Great Sex Rescue launches in two weeks (yay!), so I don’t think I’ve relaxed for a while, and this weekend was no exception.
One thing that kept going around in my mind, that fits into our discussion about the obligation sex message that we started last Thursday on the podcast, was that our framing of sex may be part of the problem.
What does it mean when we call sex a need?
When you say something is a need, you mean that they can’t exist in a healthy way without it. But does that phrasing cause a problem? I think it does, and let’s look at a few reasons.
Not all needs are equal
Anyone who has ever taken Psychology 101 will be aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. On the bottom are things like food and shelter and clothing, and then further up there’s social needs, like relationships and sex, and then you have your needs for actualization and purpose.
Basically, you don’t care about the further up needs until the more basic ones are met. So your need for actualization is not going to register when you’re starving. Your need for sex won’t register when you’re running from a bear.
When we call sex a need, though, people don’t tend to picture Maslow’s Pyramid and think to themselves, “well, sure, that’s a need, but there are greater ones, so it’s okay if I tend to my greater ones first.”
No, when we call something a “need”, we tend to put it on the same level as the other things that we know we need–food, shelter, etc. And the “need” for sex is simply not analogous to many other things we truly need.
Calling sex a need changes the nature of sex
When we say that sex is a need, what are we really saying the ultimate need is? In our Christian literature, it tends to be about physical release. The book Power of a Praying Wife, for instance, says:
But for a husband, sex is pure need. His eyes, ears, brain and emotions get clouded if he doesn’t have that release.
This is quite similar to Emerson Eggerichs in Love & Respect–“if your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have.” And that need? Again, physical release.
But is the main need for sex physical release? Is sex primarily about physical release?
I think physical release is a huge part of it, and I do think orgasm is important–for both! We should not have a 47 point orgasm gap between the genders, and if orgasm is a problem for you, check out The Orgasm Course.
The real point of sex, though, is intimacy. Sex is about a deep longing to be totally connected in every way–physically, emotionally, and spiritually–all at the same time. That’s the way it was designed. That’s the way it’s talked about in Scripture. And sex is supposed to be mutual.
So when we make sex about a husband’s physical release, we diminish the purpose of sex and what it is supposed to be.
There’s a difference between how we think about needs and desires.
One of the things I criticized about the book Love & Respect was the subtitle–the love she most desires; the respect he desperately needs. From the get-go, Eggerichs is saying that she has desires, but he has needs.
Now, needs take precedence over desires, don’t they? Because when it’s a need, we think of it in a certain way. We think: “they can’t function without this. They can’t help how they act without this.” Whereas when we think desires, we think, “this is her preference. This is what she’d like.” But you can still function well even if you don’t get what you want! That’s what we’re always teaching children, after all.
When we say that someone has a need, we also say something implicit about that. We say–therefore, someone must fulfill that need.
If someone has a genuine need, then whoever is in place to fulfill that need should do it.
When we phrase sex as a need, then, we turn sex in marriage into an obligation. And as we discussed on the podcast last week, that has terrible repercussions for a couple’s sex life.
But what if someone really wants sex and can’t function well without it? Is that bad or wrong?
No, I don’t think so. I just think we need better language for it.
I think we should talk about sex as a desire or a drive. Some people have a higher felt desire or higher felt drive for sex–and that’s totally healthy and okay. But when we recognize that it’s a desire or drive, then we also recognize that the responsibility for that desire or drive rests on our shoulders. We need to act responsibly with that. That means that we need to treat our spouse well, woo our spouse, honor our spouse.
And we need to realize that not every urge for sex is a need. I want chocolate chip cookies a lot, but I don’t eat them every time I want them. A desire for food is necessary and healthy; a desire for chips every time I’m hungry is not. Gluttony is a thing with food, and sexual gluttony can be a thing too. But when we say “sexual needs”, we imply that every time someone has a sexual urge, that represents something that must be fulfilled. That leads to a lot of frustration. I have had so many women comment here and on Facebook and send me emails since I started talking about the methadone podcast (how sex keeps him from watching porn) and the obligation sex message telling me that their husbands need sex multiple times a day.
That’s not a need. That’s selfishness and gluttony.
Here’s how I think we should talk about it:
Sex is a necessary component of a healthy marriage.
Absolutely. A healthy marriage will have a healthy sex life at the heart of it. Sex should be something you both desire, that you both enjoy, that you both prioritize. Ideally, sex should be quite frequent (studies show at least once a week, and several times is even better, if you both enjoy it and if you can swing it due to your stage in life). But at the same time,
A healthy marriage is a necessary component of sex.
Sex on its own can’t create a healthy marriage. We have to focus on the other aspects of the marriage as well. And that means that your spouse matters. Your spouse has dignity and honor and should be treated that way. Your sex drive does not supersede his or her need for sleep, or for rest.
I’m all for great sex. But I think we’d do better to recognize sex as a strong desire, not a need.
Marriage needs a sexual relationship, but not every sexual urge needs to be fulfilled.
That puts the responsibility back on the person having the sexual urge, rather than telling them they can’t help it, they need release–which puts the responsibility on the spouse and excuses the one with the “need” of bad behaviour.
Our survey of 20,000 women found that the obligation sex message just doesn’t work. It lowers libido and orgasm rates and causes sexual pain to skyrocket. And you can read all about that in The Great Sex Rescue! And when we talk about sexual needs, we give the obligation sex message. We just do.
How about we talk about sexual desires, which need to be negotiated and compromised and honored just like all other desires in a marriage? Your spouse’s sexual desires and drive is important. If you love your spouse, you should care about something that they really want, and you should want it, too–especially since sex is really the drive for intimacy. But in caring about it, there’s always the recognition that BOTH of you still matter. Wouldn’t that be healthier?
And when we talk about it like that–I bet more women’s libidos would return as well!
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.
What do you think? Can we encourage couples to prioritize sex if we DON’T call it a need? Is calling it a drive more accurate? Let’s talk!
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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