The benefits--and limits--of duty sex

A wife who’s resisted sex for a long time can face a tough journey when she begins to work on sexual intimacy.

The goal should be a thriving sexual relationship with her husband. Sometimes, though, it’s easier for a sexually reluctant wife to think of sex as little more than duty sex in which she allows her husband to have an orgasm with her body. Men report that this leaves them feeling emotionally empty and deprived—and honestly, it doesn’t do so much for us emotionally, either. (I’ve written about the downsides of duty sex here, here, here, and here.)

Getting comfortable with duty sex should not be the end goal for a wife who decides to work on sex.

However, duty sex isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it is a helpful early step in a wife’s journey toward joyful sexual intimacy. Read More →

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Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I had a lot of sexually unsuccessful years with my husband.

Big Guy never went months or years without sex. At my worst, it was once every three or four weeks, with one stretch of five weeks of nothing. I would sometimes read a reference to someone going months without, and I smugly would think that I was doing better than other women.

The frequency wasn’t nearly enough for him (or for our marriage), but frequency wasn’t the biggest problem. I had become a very reluctant participant in sex, and I said “no” more often than “yes.” My husband never knew if he was going to get a physical release, and even when he did, that was ALL he got.

I was the queen of duty sex, also known as “lying there waiting for it to be over.” I was the wife who would sigh, roll her eyes, and say, “Let’s get it over with.” I had an immature response to a request for a healthy, normal, marital activity. Duty sex is essentially the same thing as pity sex, but pity implies a bit more sympathy than I often had. For me, the purpose of duty sex was to get my husband to stop bugging me about sex for a few days.

Get ‘er Done

We’d go to bed, I’d get naked and lie down, and I would say something along the lines of, “Let’s get ‘er done.”

My thoughts went something like this:

  • I’m not emotionally connected here, so I can’t really engage.
  • All he wants me for his sex, so that’s all he’s going to get.
  • I don’t like my body, so it needs to stay hidden.
  • I can’t do anything that will encourage more bed-shaking or noise because then the kids will hear.
  • Why couldn’t he try to romance me first and help me want to be here? Doesn’t he love me?
  • If I do anything to indicate participation, he’ll think I like sex and then he’ll expect me to want to do it more.
  • Wait, didn’t I used to like sex? And wait, after he’s been at it for a while, don’t I start to feel a little interested? Maybe I could participate after all, and oh, darn it, he’s done already.

I would end up feeling used and sexually aroused with no release—all because I didn’t fully participate. I was the author of my own frustration. And my husband? Well, he had his physical release, but he would pull away from me—physically and emotionally—after duty sex. I understand now that it was because he felt so emotionally emptied by the experience. I would think about how even after I agreed to have sex, even then he wasn’t emotionally available to me. And the not-so-merry-go-round of disconnection and refusal would keep on spinning.

What’s the problem, with duty sex, anyway? I figured he was the one who wanted sex, so he should be happy he was getting it. It was better than no sex, right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

Duty Sex Is Better Than No Sex at All. Or Is It?

A conversation with my husband the other day led me to wonder what other husbands think about some of the experiences my husband had with me. I’ve been conducting a survey about what duty sex is like for husbands. (Guys can still take the survey by clicking here.)

So far, over 130 men have responded (including Big Guy).  The first question is, “Which is better–duty sex or no sex at all?” Since the survey opened, the responses have been evenly divided on this. Some say duty sex is better because there is at least a physical release. (My husband said that duty sex at least included the hope that he could change my mind as we proceeded.) Other men say that duty sex leaves them so empty and lonely that they are worse off than they were before the sexual encounter.

Did you see that sisters? When we don’t fully participate in sex, we make our husbands feel empty and lonely.

I want to share some of the explanations men gave for their preference. [Editorial note: I’ve corrected some typos to enhance readability.]

  • “Eventually I’ll prefer duty sex, but then I feel worse emotionally afterwards.”
  • “I would have originally said duty sex because it at least shows SOME effort.   But it usually feels worse adding more distance and loneliness in my heart knowing she wasn’t really there WITH me.  Sex IN her is not the same as sex WITH her….”
  • “It depends how long it’s been, duty sex is not fun but sometimes I just need a release. It got to the point where I would just focus on me and block out her non-participation.”
  • “It’s two edged sword. It’s good to get to get the release.  But there is still an empty disappointed feeling afterward.”
  • “As bad as it is, at least you know she cares enough to provide you with sex.”
  • “I would rather be forced to watch a “GLEE” marathon then have a wife that just lays there and counts the minutes until it’s finished.”

The responses on this survey have overwhelmed me. For years, I was sure that my husband valued me primarily for physical release. Oh, how wrong I was. (I already knew that, but the results reminded me.)

When their wives don’t fully participate, men experience feelings of loneliness and emotional disconnection. The survey comments noted the feelings of emptiness and the lack of feeling whole. My heart aches when I think of how many times I hear women talk about how they feel these same things in their marriages. When we provide duty sex, we damage our husbands’ hearts.

I’m sure some women read this and think, “Good. If duty sex is so bad, then my husband can go without any sex at all. If he can’t control his overactive sex drive, he can go masturbate.” Sadly, I was once a woman who would say this. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did say that, out loud, several times to my husband.

When we deprive our husbands of sex—of fully participatory sex—we deprive them of the very thing that helps them feel emotionally connected to us, their wives. And for so many of us, that emotional connection is what our hearts are craving. When we deprive our husbands of the sex they need (to borrow one man’s comments, by giving them Sex IN us, rather than sex WITH us), we hurt our hearts along with theirs.

Participation Counts

When I made the decision to make some changes in my sexual interactions with my husband, my first step toward sexual generosity (other than making the decision to try something different) was to be a full participant in our sexual activity. In some ways, it was easy to make that decision. It’s what my husband complained about the most, so I figured it was likely to have the biggest impact. I figured if that was the only change I made, it should still make a difference that he would notice. I told myself that since I was having sex anyway, it wouldn’t take me any more time to participate and enjoy it than it would to lie there waiting for it to be over.

But oh, those first few times were so difficult. I had forgotten how to be fully present for sex. I had to retrain my physical, mental, and verbal responses. I learned, all over again, to put my hands on my husband’s shoulders and chest. I learned to kiss again. I learned to push the grocery list out of my head. I learned to pay attention to my own sexual responses. Pretty soon, I was learning to ask him to slow down so I could enjoy it more.

Making just this one decision—to actually participate in sex rather than begrudgingly offer duty sex—made so much difference. My husband knew that when he had sex, he would actually be with me rather than just in me. Although he was still somewhat sexually frustrated because of the infrequency, he began to feel like a man again. He began to feel connected to me. He was whole. Sexual activity no longer nurtured the seeds of resentment I had sown in him.

And for me? Participating in sex meant that since I’d shown up for the whole show, I was more likely to enjoy a happy ending.

If you’re going to have sex, show up.

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In an upcoming post, I will share what husbands have said about sex with fully involved and participating wives. (Hint: Sisters, we have a superpower!)