A controversy is brewing across the pond about the value of maintenance sex—sex you don’t feel like having but do for the sake of your relationship. In a recent British OK! Magazine interview, celebrity model Caprice Bourret advised women to dispense with the excuses and just do it. “Take one for the team. It’s five to ten minutes of your life,” she says. “If the sex goes in the relationship, it’s done and dusted. You have to keep it alive.” Her breezy advice sparked some serious debate.
Dr. Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral scientist and author, rejects the notion that a woman should be expected to passively submit to her husband’s desires. In an op-ed for the Independent, she says it’s an outdated idea based on antiquated gender roles and systematic ignorance about female desire. “Such advice is targeted always at women, but never ever at men. This reinforces the idea that women’s sexuality or desire is never placed on par with that of men’s desires,” writes Agarwal. “These ideas have no place in modern society.”
But many couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, do experience differences in desire which can be painful for both partners. Jennifer Levy, a Chicago based Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and Certified Sex Therapist says it’s one of the biggest reasons couples come to her. “It isn’t always that men has stronger libidos,” she says. “I work with couples where women have stronger desire.” Under the right conditions, she believes maintenance sex can be a healthy and pleasurable part of a couple’s intimate life.
“Number one, it must be consensual,” says Levy. “You’re both open and willing to do this for the health of the relationship. Feeling connected, feeling close and cared for, and caring for the other—all of these things strengthen the relationship.”
Also, she says, the whole concept of sex needs to be expanded beyond intercourse and even orgasm. “Sometimes it’s better to have the experience not be about orgasm. It’s too much pressure, especially for the low desire partner,” she says. “Sex is anything you do with a partner that is sexually arousing. Like full body touch, manual, oral, one-sided, two-sided. Anything that brings pleasure and arousal, keeps you connected, and is agreed upon.” This definition opens up a whole range of sensuous possibilities for couples to enjoy.
Engaging in maintenance sex may start off as an obligation for the lower desire partner but turn into something more gratifying. People get turned on differently. In her book, Come as You Are—the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, author Emily Nagoski describes the differences between spontaneous and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire is the out of the blue, “hey, I feel horny” anticipation of sexual pleasure. Responsive desire shows up as a reaction to something pleasurable that’s already occurring. Both types of desire are healthy. “Wanting sex is not the central feature of sexual well-being. The central feature of sexual well being is: Liking the sex you have,” writes Nagowski on Medium. The model who started the conversation seems to agree, “If you can settle down from your day and enjoy it, it’s fricking awesome,” says Bourret.
The choice isn’t really between “taking one for the team” or being a good feminist. The thing that matters is the connection between you and your partner. “Every relationship creates its own sexual dance. There’s no right. There’s no normal. What will keep your relationship satisfying for you?” says Levy. If maintenance sex helps you both feel closer and more fulfilled, go for it. “Caring about your partner isn’t sexist,” says Levy. “If it’s important to my partner, it’s important to the relationship.”
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Marjie Killeen is a freelance writer and speaker specializing in communication, relationships and lifestyle. She’s the author of Better’s award-winning Sex & the Suburbs column and has worn many hats during her career including marketer, corporate trainer, actor and two-time mom. Now an empty nester, she and her husband split time between downtown Chicago and Bonita Springs, Florida. Read more of her work at stylechallengers.com and subscribe to the Better Letter to read her monthly column on sex and relationships in Better.