50-50 sex

Well I mean OF COURSE I’ll write a post about the NYT Sunday cover story about how straight couples with more gender equity have less satisfying sex lives.

I’m going to skip over the things I think the article misses and gets wrong. I’m going to skip over the historical forces in the English-speaking world that have constructed and eroticized the narrative of gender-based power differentials. I’m going to skip over the difference between wanting and liking, the difference between “sexually relevant” and “sexually appealing,” and the difference between “hitting the gas pedal” and “taking off the brake.” There’s really too many problems to address these things directly without, well, writing a whole book. Which I’m doing.

No, for today, I’m going to go right to what I think the article ought to have said:

Sexual arousal and desire are context-dependent. Sometimes Stimulus X turns you on, sometimes it doesn’t, depending on context. Take tickling: when you’re feeling cuddly and affectionate and flirty, and your Certain Special Someone tickles you, that can be fun and feel good and lead to nookie. But when you’re feeling pissed off at the Certain Special someone and they tickle you… you want to punch them in the face. Same stimulus. Different context. Different experience.

“Gender equality” in marriage is like tickling. In some contexts, it leads to hot hot sexity sex. In other contexts, not so much. And I think a marriage with a high degree of gender equality, where both partners have strong ideas about what marriage is Supposed To Be Like, may be a context prone to partners have strong ideas about what sex is Supposed To Be Like, too.

(“I know what a 50-50 marriage should be like,” says the dude in the article so clearly. “But what is 50-50 sex supposed to be like?”)

And the SINGLE MOST SEX POSITIVE CONTEXT is one where both people are open to the sensations and experiences of sexuality, without judging them as right or wrong, without worrying about whether they’re doing it the way they’re supposed to. In other words, the best sex happens when you enjoy the sex you are having, rather than trying to make it what’s it’s Supposed To Be.

In short, 50-50 sex is not Supposed To look like anything. And the very process of comparing what you’re experiencing to some external standard is, in itself, antithetical to great sex. The very concern that you might be broken is the very thing that most often causes people to experience sexual difficulties.

I realize that the original article is more, I guess, fascinating and puzzling than my fairly simple (though not easy) solution. I realize that people have a hard time letting go of external standards around sex – in fact, I have an entire chapter (Ch 9) in the book specifically about how to let go of external standards. I realize that fear and angst around sex have somehow become middle class markers of status and belonging – the way women are culturally mandated to believe they’re ugly and to deride themselves, so middle class couples are mandated to fear that they’re sexually inadequate.

But if you’re willing to trade in (or, as I think of it, trade up) your worry for pleasure, you can do that. You have permission to create a sex life that is unique and right for you, without reference to anyone else. Not even to the New York Times.

I’ll just add one more thing – this bit of wisdom from my grandmother, married more than 40 years to just the one husband. She said, “If both people give 50-50, you have half a relationship. Both people have to give 100%.”

Ruth Una Leonard, folks.