Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

Click this banner to see the entire section.

May 3rd, 2009

Saying Yes to Sex

Reconsidering a woman's "wifely duty"



A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a column titled “Women need to say yes to sex.” I had my back up immediately — but kept reading. Bettina Arndt, author of The Sex Diaries, begins the piece with this opening salvo: “What ever happened to wifely duty?”

Got your attention now? Yep, in any marriage, negotiations about sex cut to the heart of power dynamics, trust issues and emotional intimacy. And these are very sensitive subjects. (And no, I won’t be offended if you just click through to read her piece first and then come back to mine. It’s provocative.)

Arndt argues that “the assumption that women need to want sex to enjoy it has proved a really damaging sexual idea, one that has wrought havoc in relationships for the past 40 years.” Instead of waiting to be in the mood — a mood that diminishes faster for women than for men, says Arndt — “women must get over that ideological roadblock of assumptions about desire and ‘just do it.'” Once things get going, pleasure will most likely follow. Or, as Arndt puts it, “Once the canoe is in the water, everyone starts happily paddling.”

Her conclusion? Sex isn’t just sex, it’s an “emotional experience of making love, feeling connected, wanted and desirable and not facing the humiliation of constant rejection.”

Women as sexual regulators

One of the first things you learn in any class about the study of human sexual patterns is that women are socialized to be the “sexual regulators” — the ones who say yes or no to sex — because they are the ones who will have to (literally) bear the burden if that sex act creates a new life.

But when we think about sex from a Catholic perspective, we discuss it as a gift from God to unite husband and wife and reaffirm their marital union. Sex is more than just the orgasm or other physical sensations; it’s a giving of oneself with the openness to the creation of life. So should that action, within marriage, also be “regulated” by the woman?

Certainly, no one should be forced into a sexual act against their will. Rape within marriage is still rape — and has been acknowledged as such by the courts. No means no, regardless of the relationship. But let’s put aside acts of domestic violence to ask what I think is a trickier question:

Should you have sex when your spouse wants to, even if you don’t feel like it? And how often?

The naked truth

Married couples say they have sex 68.5 times a year, or slightly more than once a week, according to a 2002 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. But that’s on average — so there are couples on either end of the bell curve.

Last year, two couples wrote books about their quest to revive their sex lives with daily — yes, daily — sex for a year. Just Do It and 365 Nights, of course, got national media attention.

Catholics are talking about the need for regular — and hot — sex, too. Dr. Gregory K. Popcak’s latest book, out in 2008, was titled Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing Infallible Loving. He argues that not only can married Catholics experience a sexual life that “could make even the most jaded pagan jealous,” we’re virtually commanded by God to do so.

Mind-blowing Catholic sex?

Holy Sex! is a self-help book — complete with quizzes and checklists that challenge our assumptions about the role of sex within Catholic matrimony — but its main purpose isn’t as a how-to for doing the deed. To have great sex, a couple needs to be in sync throughout their lives, Dr. Popcak argues, so the act of sex is about reinforcing love and creating a religious experience of mutual satisfaction.

While eroticism seeks personal pleasure, which can be empty and even degrading, “Holy Sex” is driven by intimacy, which places the other person’s needs first and becomes more joyful and vital with time. The arrival of children and the inevitable increase in daily responsibilities can be a buzz kill for eroticism, but Holy Sex welcomes and sustains life within a family. While both can be pleasurable, Holy Sex takes things to a higher level: It’s a passionate encounter that brings the couple closer to each other, and to God.

So back to Arndt’s argument: Say yes to sex.   What do you think? Should you have sex when your spouse wants to, even if you don’t feel like it? And how often? Post your comments and thoughts below or email me at puresex@bustedhalo.com.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
See more articles by (214).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • James Witter

    I feel that the couple should agree to sex anytime the other wants to have sex. I also feel that if one is sick or exhausted that that is a different story. Just remember that if you keep the other mate happy in bed with lots of sex he/she will not look elsewhere to have there needs met.

  • Jim

    @Don: For a HEALTHY couple (no hormone imbalances or psychological issues), you are absolutely right. The Pill kills a woman’s sex drive and indirectly, her partner’s too.

    Couples who use NFP do NOT have this problem. In fact, the biggest complaint from NFP couples is the opposite.

    Not a fan of Creighton, though. Didn’t work AT ALL for us. Billings did, however. They seem to be optimized for opposite types of women.


  • missy

    those who have been sexually abused yes it can take a toll on your marriage or sex life but you should never let it rob you or your mate. you deserve to feel good and have that great intimate connection. getting the right help and Gods healing is the only way to experience the life you deserve that has been robbed of you by abuse.i speak sensitively on that best i can for i was abused greatly as a child and am now learning what living with Jesus and living in general really means:) thank you Jesus

  • missy

    wow big thumbs up to this article:) its nice to see that the church isnt condeming sex and the real talk of it.too often it is seen as dirty or it is perverted of what God intended. i strongly believe God desires all of us to be happy wheter we are single or not and i believe he has someone for everyone and for me if i was married or was committed to a man yes i would more than be glad to make him happy in any way he needed whether i was in the mood or not. loving someone and desiring them well…it wouldnt be a burden or routine it would be an enlightning experience.

  • JCD

    @Don – I agree with you to a small degree. Yes, oral contraceptives can cause a lowering of a woman’s libido. But I am not on contraceptives and agree with the other women posting that say their sex drive switch is mostly on around ovulation. That is, of course, as it should be – God is smart that way! The issue is the REST of the month (or months, if a woman has long cycles). Don, you sound like you either have a one issue agenda (anti-contraception, which is fine but limited in relation to this article) or you are uninformed about the way a woman’s cycle works. Maybe both. Women who are annovulatory, for example, really have it tough. Anyway…

    My husband and I are hoping to have children – and I’m glad that my switch is on when it most needs to be. I just wish it was more on the rest of the month! But with post-ovulation progesterone levels causing breast tenderness, and bloating, etc., plus being exhausted from the hectic lives we lead…it can be tough. I had to make up my mind (since that is where sex and intimacy really start) that I will make every effort to be open to sex every weekend. Yeah, weekends – because that is when we are both home and AWAKE! Sometimes that means Fri, twice Sat, Sun, and sometimes it may only be Sat (or whatever). But I do think that I need to “try harder” because my husband isn’t subject to the same hormonal fluctuations that I am. In fact, his hormones are pretty steadily telling him to get after it! So, I try to honor that part of his “maleness” (its one part of why I’m attracted to him after all, because he’s a MAN and men have testosterone). I also try to remember that his “wanting” me is a honor to me – he never thinks I’m too fat or too plain or too “unsexy” – even when I feel that way about myself – because he sees me through loving husband eyes. Dang, I love him! Can’t wait for him to get home now!


  • Don

    Lack of libido in women overwhelmingly can be traced to one thing: CONTRACEPTION!! Physically, hormonal methods are notorious for causing low libido/depression, etc (I’ve never met a woman who had a higher sex drive while using them), and most importantly, they cause chemical abortions. Emotionally, women usually feel exploited (although they frequently don’t realize it) when using contraception, inasmuch as it shows that their husband does not love and accepting everything about them. Divorce rates among couples marrying today are anywhere between 60 and 65 percent. Couples who use natural family planning have an average divorce rate between two and four percent. No surprise, because artificial contraception doesn’t just put a physical barrier between a couple; the barrier is also emotional and spiritual, and the entire relationship suffers.

    I had to laugh at this article. To a person, the faithful Catholic couples that I know who use natural family planning NEVER complain about lack of sex and have amazing sex lives for years on end. My secular friends (mostly men) who use contraception are always complaining about lack of sex. Folks, God knew what he was doing. You completely remove the Holy Spirit from the marital embrace when you use artificial contraception. After that, it’s all downhill.

    Check out these links if you want some great information on NFP. http://www.creightonmodel.com.

  • kisarita

    Timmy if her role in the marriage is to prostitute herself to her husbands pleasure that’s more of an insult to him than to her.

  • Brian

    I think the question of “should you be having sex even when you don’t feel like it?” should be superceded by a much more important one: WHY don’t you feel like it?

    Our libido can be affected by any number of external influences. Stress, lack of sleep, emotional exhaustion, and negative emotions about ourselves and our partners can have a dampening effect on our sex lives.

    So perhaps instead of asking ourselves if we should be having sex even though we’re not in the mood, we should be communicating (honestly) with ourselves and our partners about WHY we’re not in the mood, and what can be done to provide a solution. In other words, cure the disease instead of suppressing the symptoms.

  • Emma

    I have waited a week to post this as I found some of the previous comments uncomfortable and other infuriating. Regardless, I feel it is important to not forget that the responsibility for intimacy and sexual pleasure goes both ways. Men should pleasure their wives just as much as wives pleasure their husbands. No one should feel uncomfortable about what they are doing for their spouse and if they do, they are not honoring themselves. Our sexuality is a gift from God by which we honor our spouse, OURSELVES, and God. It is when one of those three is missing that we do not use intimacy and sex for its divine purpose. Communication between spouses is essential, along with prayer, to get through the times when sex is not what a person wants for whatever reason. It is a sad day when people see sex as an obligation and not gift. God bless you all and thank you for your enlightening views.

  • timmy

    kisarita… settle, this woman is so devoted as to put her spouses feelings above her own, and shes rewarded by your calling her a prostitute??? god bless you anon. you are a good and faithful servant and your eternal reward will be great, you, unlike kisarita, seem to understand true agape and want the best thing for your spouse. you are a beacon to all these little self righteouse college knowitall brats that think because the social dynamic in america has changed, that that means Gods will has. you keep grinning and bearing, like the strong saint you are. you are the true female empowerment, that women are MORE saintly giving and loving than we ignorant sex driven animalistic menfolk. God bless ANON!!!!!

  • Shea

    I have a wonderful, romantic, loving relationship with my husband. He, unfortunately, has a very low libido, and mine is quite high. Last year we had “relations” three times. You know what? It’s frustrating, but it’s okay. We hug, kiss, cuddle and just hold each other a lot. And if that’s what I have to live with, I will. I love him so much, that I’m willing to give up being sexually satisfied for it. We both wish it was different, but it’s not something either of us can control. I stopped pushing him for sex, and it’s made him happier. That’s really what counts.

  • Tanya

    This issue is complicated, because it seems to me that a woman’s sex drive is profoundly affected by stress, sleep deprivation (even minor), and most of all by the presence/absence of a loving, intimate emotional connection with her spouse. If any one of these three factors is out of whack, her sex drive can totally disappear. While it is often beneficial for a woman to make love to her husband even if these factors are out of whack & she doesn’t really feel like it (what marriage is perfect?), men need to understand that a big part of this equation is making sure his wife is provided for enough that she’s not stressed/overworked and that he is regularly showing her evidence of his love in non-sexual ways: personal attention to her – not just providing for the family.

  • kisarita

    ANON, please don’t just “grin and bear it….” get some medical advice.

    Having sex when you don’t want to? Once in a while, of course. But what happens when it’s expected of you most of the time, or all the time? That’s not marriage. To me, that’s more akin to prostitution- the provision of sex as a service.

  • anon2

    Having experienced sexual abuse, I find it abhorrent that anyone should suggest a woman (or a man) should have sex when not interested just because that person’s partner is feeling the itch. …Now a more subtle point might be that the partner needs to help get the other “in the mood” and that the one who is not in the mood can seriously consider whether or not he/she is willing to get into the mood. This to me is about the communication and love in a relationship and appropriately managing love of self and love of spouse.

  • Mark

    As a husband married to my wife for 33 years, i can attest to the situation as related in the article. My wife pretty much has always decided when we would be intimate and as we have gotten older and she has reached menopause those times have essentially ended. We love each other but the article raises some valid points for me about intimacy and communication. I want to communiacte better (not just for sex) but that isn’t as strong as I know it could be. plus my wife is very reluctant to discuss sex with me. This didn’t all happen overnight but over the many years we have been together and raising our 3 kids. Still, there is a wish/hope/prayer that something can be done by me/us to reroute ourselves into a more intimate spiritual communication which would benefit all aspects of our marriage.

  • flossy

    I can totally relate to Anon’s comments. Ditto on what she said (though I don’t find sex creepy – I do have less drive outside ovulation time). Combine that with my husband’s ED, and it’s very frustrating. His best functioning is when I’m fertile – we both recognize it. A part of our life which was once free and flowing (either using artificial contraception before using nfp to avoid conception, or trying to get pregnant) is now depressing and difficult. We’ve been using NFP for five+years now, have three kids, and our family’s complete, due to medical issues with me and concerns with health of baby (old eggs can make for unhealthy babies).

  • Gail

    How sad.

    My husband and I have struggled with inferitility, but eventually had two wonderful children. I suppose our infertility would be seen by some as a blessing, because it has freed us from the “fear” of conception that burdens so many Catholics. Having great sex with your spouse is a gift and a blessing. It should be enjoyed.

    I also think that this notion that men want sex more than women is a myth, or at least a sterotype. I have a far greater sex drive than my husband, as do many of the women I know. I think that the reason so many women do not desire sex is because they don’t achieve orgasm when they have sex. From what I hear from my female friends, many if not most men have no clue how to give their wives an orgasm. They have no idea what a clitoris is or where to find it. Again, it’s sad. There is such a lack of education, especially among Catholics.

  • Anon

    Well, now that I’m peri-menopausal with a serious reason to avoid conception, EVERY time we have sex is a time when I’m saying yes even though I don’t want to. I get very frustrated with my body these days. It only has the slightest amount of “get up and go” when I’m ovulating, and since we can’t afford another child (health + financial reasons), I have to say no every time I want sex. And the rest of the month, it’s just pretty darn awful. My husband is a great lover, but my body no longer responds to his touch outside of the ovulation days. In fact, sex feels creepy. As much as I try to focus on my love for him and the spiritual joy and magnificence of sex, it’s just about impossible to shake that physical discomfort. I pretty much hate the whole arrangement, but I’m committed to the Catholic teaching on sex and artificial birth control, so I just grin and bear it.

  • Erin

    I think that absolutely yes, spouses should be open to having sex when their partner wants to and they’re not necessarily turned on to it.

    There are many times within marriage when sexual appetites do not synch up for extended periods–during some parts of pregnancy, breastfeeding & while on some medications, for example–but it’s unkind and unwise for a woman to use her own desire as the sole determining factor in consenting to sex. It’s really pretty normal for men to have higher sex drives than women and if marriage and conjugal lover really constitute a total gift of oneself then some self-sacrifice is occassionally in order, isn’t it? Marriage is a means of sanctity for husband and wife. They are each the other’s paths to heaven. Denying one’s own will and desires is a wonderful way to achieve that sanctity and strengthen the marriage bond. Besides, if a husband’s sexual desires are continually denied by his wife doesn’t it make sense that he would be more susceptible to temptation–even if it’s just masturbation. Is agreeing to sex when you’re not in the mood really such a terrible burden to take on in the name of helping your husband?

    Of course there’s another side of the coin. Husbands need to love their wives and as such they need to be aware of pushing too hard. When a woman’s been up all night with a sick, nursing infant should her husband try to initiate sex the next morning? No. Should he give it a try when she’s sick herself? I don’t think so but just waiting around until a wife with a genuinely low sex drive is in the mood sure isn’t the answer either.

  • Michelle

    I was once engaged to a man who told me I should consider sex to be my duty to him to provide children and that if I thought of it as anything else or intended to have sex for any other purpose I was a slut. The sexual revolution (supposedly) made it OK for women to enjoy sexual intimacy. But do some women put on the brakes, even in marriage, for fear of what their husbands would think if they did not? Personally, I agree with the attitude of this article and the one it was based on. Men and women need to communicate more openly about sexual intimacy (not just sex), and it needs to stop being a game.

powered by the Paulists