This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Via Pharyngula, we have a charming piece of marital advice from Christian marriage advisor Mark Gungor. The gist: Couples who have been married a long time shouldn't expect sex to be as exciting and passionate and emotional as it was in the early days. They should expect it to become safe and comfortable and unexciting. But they should go ahead and have sex anyway -- because it'll feel reasonably good even though it won't be as great as it used to be, because it'll be good for the marriage, and because it's one of your basic marital duties. The money quote:
As I said, sometimes sex is just sex; it's what you do when you are married. Just like cleaning the toilet is what you do to keep your house clean... and I bet you don't have this great desire or huge emotional connection to scrubbing the porcelain! [Bold in original - GC] You do it because it needs to be done and that's the way it is with married sex... it does need to be done! It's the glue that God gave us to bond us to one another. The bible is very clear that it is your responsibility as a spouse.
There are so many different directions I could go in on this one, I don't even know where to begin. (Although screaming and tearing my hair out would be a good start.) I could talk about how Gungor utterly fails to talk about how long-married couples could make their sex lives more exciting... and instead, encourages them to settle for what amounts to a lifetime of mutual mercy-fucks. I could talk about the profoundly screwed-up gender assumptions in this piece -- the assertion that "Women, more often than men, get hung up on this one and think they have to have all these warm and fuzzy emotions to feel like they can get physical with their husbands" [again, bold in original - GC], and the notion of "chick flicks being a huge culprit" in creating unrealistic expectations of marital sex. (As if there's something patently stupid about expecting warm emotions during sex with your spouse -- and as if men never have unrealistic expectations about sex.) I could talk about this pattern of hard-core Christian marriage advisors giving advice that's almost right, advice that with a little tweaking could be halfway decent... but that, because of their profoundly messed-up assumptions about gender and relationships and religion and whatnot, goes completely, hideously, would- be- laughable- if- it- weren't- so- desperately- sad wrong. (A place I've gone in the past, and thus don't feel a compelling need to re-visit.) I could talk about how yes, you don't always need to be in the mood for sex when you start, as long as you're willing to get into the mood as things get going -- and how this still doesn't translate as sex being a chore or a duty. I could even beg Gungor, for the sweet sake of fuck, if he's going to compare sex to a household chore, could he please make it vacuuming or laundry or something less disgusting than cleaning the toilet?
But today, I want to go someplace else.
I want to talk about the assumption Gungor makes without even thinking, the assumption that forms the foundation for everything else he writes in this piece... an assumption that's very, very common, not just among Bible-thumping marriage advisors, but in the culture at large.
It's the assumption that, when you've been in a relationship for a long time, the sex just naturally becomes less exciting. It's the assumption that of course sex is passionate and intense and highly charged in the early days of a relationship... and that, of course, as the years wear on, sex is going to become less exciting and passionate, and more routine and predictable. There's no use fighting it. That's just the way it is.
I've been in a long-term relationship for over twelve years. And it's true, I have to acknowledge; the sex is not what it was in the early days.
Way, way better.
By several orders of magnitude.
Now, I realize that my marriage with Ingrid is a sampling size of one, and therefore is not statistically significant. (If you're in a long-term relationship and are still having amazing sex -- please speak up in the comments!) But at the risk of sounding like what Bridget Jones called "smug marrieds" ... the sex is so much better now, so much more passionate and intense and highly charged, I can't even tell you. (Although I'm certainly going to try.)
For one thing: There is nothing in the world like having sex with someone who you've had sex with hundreds of times before... and who therefore really, really knows you. Someone who knows exactly how you like your clit to be touched, who knows exactly how hard you like your nipples pinched, who knows the exact circular motion that you like your prostate to be massaged. Verbal communication is a wonderful thing in a sexual relationship, not to be underestimated for a second... but some things, like "Just ten millimeters to the left and with a slightly slower figure-eight motion, alternating with a light, fast flicking"... some things are hard to say in words. There really is something to be said for physical trial and error. And there is most emphatically something to be said for the exquisite fine-tuning that results from physical trial and error taking place over years and years and years.
And there's an ease and fluidity that comes with familiarity as well: a letting go that makes sex completely explosive. I can be a very self-conscious person, constantly parsing my actions and reactions and fretting over what other people will think of them. (Sexually and otherwise.) Which, not surprisingly, makes it hard to let go and lose myself in sensation and pleasure. Having sex with the same person, over years and years, has helped me relax enough to be present in the moment; to get the hell out of my head; to stay in my body and feel what I feel; to trust that I won't be seen as greedy or selfish when I want to come one more time. (And one more. And one more. And, okay, just one more. Okay, maybe another one.)
But amazing long-term sex isn't just about familiarity. It's also about having a strong, safe foundation for experimentation.
With a handful of exceptions, I have never felt as comfortable asking to try freaky things with new partners as I am with my wife. Years of hard work put into our relationship -- years of going through horrible shit and coming through stronger on the other side -- have built a foundation of trust, a deep confidence that this person is really, really not going anywhere. So when I want something totally fucking freaky -- or even not so freaky, maybe just goofy or silly or embarrassing -- I feel safe asking for it. She may not say yes... but I feel confident that she'll seriously consider it, and not laugh at it, or denigrate it, or break up with me for suggesting it.
Gungor, and others in our culture, make the assumption that, when it comes to sex, "safe" somehow equals "boring." In my experience, it's anything but. "Safe" equals "trusting." And trust is the core, not only of kink, but of a whole host of wild, intense, exciting sexual explorations.
I have nothing at all against the early stages of a sexual relationship. The early stages of a sexual relationship are lovely. They have a sweetness, a newness, a sense of adventure, a feeling of being alive and awake, that are unique. And the early stages of a sexual relationship often make it easier to discover new things about your sexuality: sexual territories that you had no idea existed until this new person showed up to show them to you. (When Ingrid and I were first starting out, I was like, "Vanilla sex! Oh, my God! I'd completely forgotten about vanilla sex! Sexual pleasure without pain or power games? What a concept! What a delightful change of pace! Vanilla sex can be totally awesome!" It was an area of my sexuality I'd been ignoring for years... and was tickled pink to re-discover.) You can do that sort of discovery in a long-term relationship too, of course... but it takes more conscious effort. In a new sexual relationship, it's more likely to just happen automatically.
But the early stages of a sexual relationship can also be fraught: with anxiety, with awkwardness, with misunderstanding, with self-consciousness, with doubt. The early stages of my relationship with Ingrid were a delight: they made me feel boisterously, gigglingly happy just to be alive and walking down the street, and I wouldn't trade the memory of them for anything. But I also wouldn't go back to that time for anything in the world, either.
A years-long relationship takes work. Really hard work sometimes. It takes patience, courage, introspection, the willingness to have difficult conversations, the willingness to go to parties you don't feel like going to, the willingness to change. But it's work that pays off. Not just in security and comfort... but in passionate, intensely emotional, highly charged, mind-blowing sex that feels new every single time.