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