Sex & Relationships

Radio Host Calls Sex a "Wife's Selfless Duty": What Century Is This Again?

Dennis Prager says sex is a wife's 'duty', tapping into a toxic mythology that made both men and women miserable for decades.

The fascinating thing is this.

There's this ... thing on the Internet. A pair of columns by conservative writer/ radio host Dennis Prager, exhorting wives who aren't in the mood for sex with their husbands to suck it up and do it anyway, pretty much whenever he wants. You really have to read it for yourself (if you have high blood pressure, be sure you've taken your medication first), but here's the gist:

A man knows that his wife loves him by "her willingness to give her body to him." Therefore, she should only rarely refuse to have sex with him when he wants it. And her decision to accept or refuse sex should have nothing to do with whether she's in the mood for it, or whether she thinks she's going to enjoy it. A considerate husband will of course recognize that "there are times when a man must simply refrain from initiating sex out of concern for his wife's physical or emotional condition" ... but apart from "those times," a wife should pretty much never say "No." And her mood should have nothing to do with that decision. Sex is an obligation that a wife owes to her husband, and for a wife to refuse it simply because she's not in the mood is just plain selfish. (Oh, and by the way: This isn't just how nature made us. It's how God wants it.)

No, really. I'm serious. It'd be laughable if it weren't so appalling. I could scarcely believe it was written in this decade. It reads like a marriage manual from the '50s ... and not a very modern marriage manual from the '50s at that. It almost makes me want to call parody on it and invoke a sexual version of Poe's Law ("it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that can't be mistaken for the real thing").

But the fascinating thing is this.

If you take out all the content about gender roles?

If you take out all the sexist, retrograde, "sex is an obligation that women owe to men," "women's sexual desires are less important than men's," "close your eyes and think of England," Total Woman dreck? If you leave out the creepy, oft-repeated language about a woman "giving her body"? If you disregard the bizarre assumption that sex is always something men initiate and women either accept or reject? If you ignore the unsubstantiated at best, blatantly wrong at worst assertions about women's and men's sexualities ... including the assertion that experiencing sex as a sign of love is somehow exclusive to men? If you overlook the idea that sex with a passive, compliant meat puppet will make men feel loved and satisfied? If you pass over the glaring omissions ... such as the idea that men have an obligation to pay attention to women's sexual pleasure, and if women are repeatedly saying "No" to sex, maybe it's because their men are inconsiderate lovers who treat sex as something women do for them, instead of something they both do for each other?

If you can squint real hard and somehow ignore all that?

What he's saying is not radically different from stuff I've said in this very blog.

I, myself, have argued that you don't always need to be in the mood when you start sex. You just need to be willing to be in the mood. If you always wait until you're both in the mood -- especially if either or both of you are stressed, getting older, parents, a couple who's been together for a while, or just insanely busy -- you may wait a good long while, and will wind up having a lot less sex than either of you wants. But starting to have sex can get you in the mood, even if you weren't in the mood to start with. It's a good idea sometimes to let yourself be seduced, to start having sex before you're in the mood and let yourself get drawn in it as you go.

I've even argued -- very controversially -- that if a person unilaterally and permanently refuses sex to their partner without being willing to discuss or negotiate it, it is not automatically the worst moral choice for that partner to seek out sex elsewhere. An argument that was based on the idea that sex -- not sex on demand whenever and however you want it, but some amount of some kind of sex -- is one of the things we have a right to expect in a romantic relationship. (And no, I don't want to start that argument again. Please, for the sweet love of Loki, let's not start that argument again.)

And I certainly wouldn't argue with the proposition that sex is one of the main ways that people in a relationship feel loved. Like, duh.

But what on earth does any of that have to do with gender?

What on earth does it have to do with what men want, and what women should do about it?

If you spend even a cursory amount of time reading sex educators, sex therapists, sex advice columns, etc., a glaringly obvious pattern will jump out and smack you across the face. The pattern is this: A lot of couples have significant differences in how often they like to have sex ... differences that can cause serious problems in their relationship.

And that pattern has little or nothing to do with gender.

Lesbian couples can have significant differences in how often they like to have sex. Gay male couples. Couples where one or both partners are trans or unconventionally gendered. People in triads and other non-coupled relationships.

And opposite sex couples can certainly have significant differences in how often they like to have sex ...  differences that most definitely cut across gender lines. In hetero couples with differing libidos, sometimes it's the man who wants it more often — and sometimes, it's the woman. Pretty often, it's the woman.

It's certainly possible that, on average, men tend to want sex more often than women. (I haven't seen any good research on this one way or the other ... but it wouldn't shock me.) But even if that's true, it's hardly a universal rule. Plenty of women want sex more often than their male partners. In fact, a disturbing number of these women have had the crummy experience of being insulted, mocked, and rejected by their male partners for their high libidos.

So I ask again: What's gender got to do with it? Why was this framed as a salvo in the battle of the sexes?

Let's try an experiment. Let's take the gender stuff out of this piece of advice, and see what happens.

Here's what you get when you take the gender stuff out. Sex is one of the important ways that people in a relationship feel good about themselves and know that they're loved. Sex is an important part of a romantic relationship, and people have a right to expect it. Often, however, people in relationships have differences in how often they want sex. These differences need to be worked out, since they can cause real problems in the relationship, including the problem of one or both partners not feeling accepted and loved. That working-out may involve a reasonably happy-medium compromise, in which one partner winds up having sex somewhat more often than they'd normally be inclined to, and the other winds up having it somewhat less. (It can involve other solutions as well, such as non-monogamy or redefining what you think of as sex ... but let's stay on topic, just this once.) And if you always wait until you're in the mood to have sex, you may end up having sex a lot less often than either of you wants, and a lot less often than is good for your relationship. You don't always have to be in the mood; you just have to be willing to get into the mood.

See? That wasn't so hard, was it?

But when you put all that gender stuff in? When you make this about women's sexual responsibilities to men, instead of people's sexual responsibilities to their partners?

It's not just wrong. It's not even just sexist. It taps into a toxic mythology that made people miserable and ruined relationships and marriages, for decades and indeed centuries. It is a revival of a sexual system that was demeaning and depressing for both women and men: a system in which women's sexual pleasure was considered trivial at best and non-existent at worst, in which sex was a service women were expected to provide for men on demand without concern for their own desires, in which women's bodies were a commodity that men were entitled to and women were obligated to "give." It is a form of relationship between men and women that our society has largely been rejecting ... and with good reason.

And that's the real tragedy of this sorry piece of writing: It didn't have to be this way. There was a germ of a good idea buried in the toxic waste: a germ of an idea about how, in sex as much as in the rest of your life, you have to look after your partner's needs as well as your own; to be willing to be flexible and accommodating; to not let your moods control how you treat each other; to take pains to make sure your partner knows they're loved.

But the toxic waste was so overpowering that it makes me seriously question whether the germ of a good idea was really what Prager cared about. It makes me seriously question whether his crucial issue was "men need to know that they're loved" ... or whether, instead, it was "women need to know their place."

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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