Withholding Sex and Other Lies

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You all might have seen the recent story going around about the man who put together an excel spreadsheet of all the times that his wife said no to sex with him. Niki has a great takedown of a lot of the issues with this, focusing specifically on the fact that no one can ever owe you sex. I’d like to take that idea one step further and look at the concept that seems to be encapsulated in this story, which is that this man’s wife was withholding sex in some fashion. After quickly google searching “withholding sex” and being highly disturbed at the huge number of advice columns about reasons women (always women) withhold sex, it appears obvious to me that there is a common trope in our society that this is not only possible to do but also something that happens on a regular basis for some common reasons.

The underlying idea is that women have no other way to get their husbands to do what they want, so they have to punish them by not having sex (because of course it’s their only source of power). This stupid trope goes all the way back to Lysistrata (which is a damn amusing play even for its issues). Apparently men will get really angry and apologetic and do anything to get laid, especially because being married/in a longterm relationship is apparently supposed to be a “have sex whenever the hell you want” card.

Here’s the dirty little secret about this though: there is no such thing as withholding sex because there is no situation in which you owe another human being sex. Ever. Your body is 100% your own and you get to consent or not consent to other people doing things to or with your body for whatever the hell reason you would like. This includes because you’re pissed off at the person, because they did something you didn’t like, because you just don’t fucking feel like it, because you’re tired, because you don’t feel attractive, because you’d rather read a book…any of the above. And not wanting to have sex with someone because you have negative feelings towards them at a given moment is not in fact punishment. It’s actually a very natural human feeling not to want to be physically intimate with someone when you’re annoyed/angry/hurt/sad with them. Oddly enough letting someone be close to your body when you don’t feel emotionally close to them doesn’t always feel great (if that’s your thing then go for it, but for those who don’t like it then there is no fucking reason to apologize).

But the idea that you can pull some sort of power play in a relationship by not giving the other person something which you don’t owe to them in the first place makes no sense. It would be like telling your partner that you’re going to punish them by not baking them chocolate chip cookies every day: sure, maybe they would like those cookies but in no way are you obligated to bake them cookies anyway, so they should probably be just fine getting along without it. The idea that you should feel as if the only way you can express that you’re angry or upset or unhappy in your relationship is by taking ownership over your body in a way that is so basic it should never have been a question is somewhat disgusting. If your partner has you so convinced that you owe them sex, no wonder you feel a little angry or vindictive towards them.

The myth of withholding sex falls into the same category of horrible relationship advice that such gems as “have sex with him whenever he wants or he’ll cheat”, “Men need sex more often than women” and “there’s no such thing as marital rape” do. Sexuality is not the same for any two people, and gender does not determine sex drive or preferences, but underlying all of these myths is the assumption that sex is about ownership rather than about a mutually pleasurable experience and that the man in a relationship owns the right to sex with “his” woman. The concept that sex is a bargaining chip, a way to argue, or something that another person can demand are all great ways to ignore consent and traumatize the person you’re in a relationship with. So please, stop talking about how someone in a relationship should have more sex or needs to do x, y or z with their sex life because a. it’s none of your business and b. if their partner can’t respect them when they say no, the problems in that relationship are not their fault (or at least not exclusively).

I’m done with the idea that sex is the way to express all your feelings in a relationship. Use your words.