The other day, when my friend and I were talking about orgasms while cleaning up after a child’s birthday party (the kiddos were long gone, BTW), the concept of guilt sex came up. Maybe you’ve experienced this phenomenon of really not being in the mood yet rallying yourself to rise to the occasion of totally consensual sex with your partner for no other reason than feeling as though you should. Because your partner wants to do it, and you don’t know why you don’t want to do it, and, in fact, you may even wish you wanted to do it more. You feel they’re normal and you’re the problem, and since sex can be a healthy, benefits-laden thing to do, you sigh, turn off that episode of Black Mirror you’d prefer to keep watching and go through the motions with your partner. You love them, but there’s still this specter that haunts the act of making love to them. And for many, this can be a recurring, silent problem.
Though I’m a fully horned-up Peg Bundy in my current relationship, I’ve felt that strain in previous unions just as my friend is experiencing now. “I feel like it sometimes feels maybe…habitual,” she told me as we folded gingham picnic blankets. “Like it’s just something I do as part of my day. This sounds terrible, but kind of like brushing my teeth.”
There’s a historical footnote that says when one of Queen Victoria’s daughters asked how to proceed on her wedding night, the monarch responded, “Close your eyes and think of England.” While it’s unclear whether she actually ever said this, it still colors how women, especially in heteronormative partnerships, have been long taught and conditioned to view sex as another chore to knock off the to-do list even when it’s not something they’re expressly excited to be doing.
“This really comes down to gender socialization,” says psychotherapist and sex expert Vanessa Marin, LMFT, creator of The Passion Project, an online course for couples with mismatched sex drives. “Women are taught to be self-sacrificers and caretakers. We’re taught to put others’ needs before our own, both inside and outside the bedroom. We’re also given messages that it’s our “duty” as women to fulfill our partner’s desires.”
When we first get into a relationship, our biology does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to being turned on, and after a certain amount of time—maybe a year, or two, or less—our body goes on autopilot.
Even if your convictions are modern and you try to approach relationships as equals, those messages can worm their way into our psyche. Shan Boodram, sexologist, relationship expert, and author of The Game of Desire, echoes that the need to fulfill “duty” sparks that sense of guilt. She adds that as we become more insular, we look to our partners for everything…and that puts extra pressure on satisfying their sexual needs.
“In a society that is so monogamous and [sex] is your sole husbandly or wifely ‘duty,’ I think there is a lot of [feeling] like, ‘I’m failing you,’ and ‘I’m not holding up my end of the bargain, ‘I can’t satisfy you,’” Boodram says. “And that, of course, goes with the fear of infidelity.” So that “guilt” that’s pushing you to close your eyes and think of England? If you’re monogamous and you’re socialized as a woman, you may in part be motivated by this fear that if you don’t fulfill your “duty,” your partner will start seeking romantic overtures elsewhere. It is a deeply unpleasant revelation, but knowing where it comes from is half the battle. The other half? Talking about it. So let’s start with the basics: You are not abnormal for having a different sex drive from your partner.
“You’re always going to have mismatches in desire in a relationship; you’re never going to meet a partner who wants the exact same kind of sex at the exact same time, every single time,” says Marin. “Start with recognizing that it’s normal for you to have different levels of desire, and validating that your individual levels of desire are perfectly acceptable.” From there, she advises having a conversation that recognizes the why of why your sex drive is lower, and to focus on how to proceed as a couple.
Don’t find yourself as turned on as you did during the honeymoon phase? Boodram says that makes sense: When we first get into a relationship, our biology does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to being turned on, and after certain amount of time—maybe a year, or two, or less—our body goes on autopilot. So maybe reigniting that flame is a matter of spicing things up in the bedroom, or upping the romance factor, or altering your routine in some other way.
“If you’re forcing yourself to have sex that you don’t want to be having, you’re going to start to feel resentful of your partner.” —psychotherapist and sex expert Vanessa Marin
But if you suspect that there could be something medical at play that’s lowering your libido, you may want to investigate hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a condition classified as a sexual dysfunction, wherein a lack of hormone balance in the body causes low libido. “If you feel like you might be on that spectrum, it’s important to go to your doctor,” Boodram says. “Having a diagnosis or a title for why you feel the way you do is massively important and makes it a lot easier for your partner to understand.”
And if the reality is that you don’t find sex all that important, it’s certainly valid, and certainly something to communicate. If you identify as asexual, demisexual, graysexual, or just don’t feel super-sexual, have an open conversation with your partner, and make sure that you’re getting something out of sex, even if it’s the compromise of “we can consensually engage in sex because I love you, but since it’s not really my bag, can you make sure to do the dishes tonight?” You know, like a chore.
But seriously, also like a chore, this course of action really only works if you can feel good about your motivations for doing it. “Is it something that you can freely give to your partner in that moment, with an open heart? Or are you pressuring yourself to do it out of a sense of guilt or obligation?” Marin asks. “If you’re forcing yourself to have sex that you don’t want to be having, you’re going to start to feel resentful of your partner.”
While your partner may well be great (hence why you’re trying to maintain the relationship), don’t forget that the most important relationship you have is the one with yourself. Do right by your VIP.
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