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The Myth of Maintenance Sex

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"Sex -- I could completely go without it. But I know he needs it so once in awhile, I just do it anyway...."

Anne, who has been coming for couples therapy, announces this when her husband Noel steps out of the room. Married for more than a decade and not yet 40, they came to me for help because Noel was worn down by what felt like years of too much spending and too little sex. Anne's sidebar confession would seem to confirm Noel's complaint, but if it were meant as a secret, it's not one she works very hard to hide from him. When he returns and I ask about a recent interlude, the most Anne can say is that it was "fine," and is ready to move on to the next subject. Subtext: "I had sex... what more do you want from me?"

Anne is not unlike many of the women I have talked to over the years, who assume that for men, sex is like pizza: There's no such thing as a bad slice; and even the worst slice beats not having it at all. And that's how they approach bedroom encounters -- just "doing it" once in awhile to keep the guy happy, assuming that he won't notice or won't mind that she's obviously only going through the motions. I like to call this maintenance sex -- it's the sex you have to keep your relationship on an even keel. And from what I've seen, it's the worst sex around.

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.

All this seems to imply a certain blindness on the part of men. But I have come across quite a few women who suffer from a narrowed field of vision when it comes to men and sex -- women who overlook the possibility that sex might hold more for a man than just getting off. When any of us rely on a one-note caricature of male sexuality, we can't possibly appreciate the rich experience of connection men find through sex. We miss out on the profound importance of what it might mean to a man to know -- with an overwhelming immediacy -- that he is desired by the woman he loves. For most of the men I encounter, love-making with their partner is a simultaneous reflection of love and value, and it strikes a deep chord in the heart of their identity. And for men who struggle with the complex language of emotion, sexual contact is the truest and most direct way to experience love with their partners.

One of my patients explained to me: "It's the time I feel closest to her. It's this thing that's just for us -- a place that only the two of us can go. She looks at me in a way that I never see at any other time." And another patient said it this way: "Look, it's not just that she gets me off... I mean, I need her to be into it too. I can tell when she's just doing it because she thinks it's what I want. And I hate that. I'd rather jerk off. I want her to actually want to have sex with me."

For some women, maintenance sex seems like a case of benign neglect, as they genuinely misread the meaning behind their partner's longings. Women in this camp tend to believe that in simply showing up for sex they actually satisfy their partner's need, which is to get off without having to do it themselves. Or they believe that acquiescence is a fair equivalent of genuine desire. It's enough to be willing to go for the ride.

For other women, though, there is an undercurrent of anger that seems to get acted out through the indifference. Maintenance sex, which is a simultaneous engagement and refusal, becomes a source of punishment for the fact that the man she is sleeping with seems to get something and she gets nothing. Her unveiled indifference sends a not-so-subtle message to her partner that he is the dependent, needy one. She is saying: "I am doing you a favor here by having sex with you but let's be clear, I wouldn't do it otherwise. You are excited by me and I am not excited by you."

So, where does this all leave us? Perhaps we have come full-circle. In a post-feminist world, women have been urged to say "no" to unwanted sex and to stand up for personal pleasure. It may be time for men to start saying "no" too. 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.