Marriage, monogamy and compulsory sex(uality).

I tend not to involve myself in debates around marriage, commitment and monogamy. Moral arguments don’t do it for me and I have little to no interest in arguing for monogamy (if you are into it, don’t care, if not, also don’t care). Since marriage is, as far as I’m concerned, a useless remnant of the days when women were chattle, which people continue to cling tightly to because they desire to project meaning onto their intimate relationships which could be just as meaningful without marriage if we had not decided, as a culture, that marriage made a relationship more valid and more important than any other relationship, I’m not all that interested in conversations about what we should or should not do within marriage.

BUT I am interested in this idea that is so hotly debated, often instigated by one of Dan Savage’s columns, that sex within marriage is an obligation, a right, and something that, if it is missing, justifies going outside said relationship, honestly or dishonestly.

Again, I’m no ‘monogamust’ (as Savage calls it), at least not for moral reasons, but if folks agree on monogamy then I figure they should stick with that, unless they make some other kind of agreement. I think it’s a trust thing and a respect thing and, if we are assigning special meaning to particular relationships specifically because of intimacy and commitment, then I do believe that trust and respect is probably central to that relationship. If you agree not to be monogamous, then super. I am monogamous in my own domestic partnership because that’s what seems to work for us/me. But I’m not particularly attached to monogamy just for the sake of itself or because I think it’s ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’. That said, if one were to ‘cheat’ on me (so, you know, like, we didn’t agree on that) I may or may not threaten to cut off some of said individual’s favorite appendages. So it’s not like I don’t get why people do monogamy. Or why it matters to some people. But the reason why people agree on monogamy is, in the end, because of trust and intimacy. Not because sex must be done in a relationship in order for that relationship to be healthy or meaningful. I believe this to be a myth. A myth that is based on patriarchy, heterosexism, and compulsory sexuality.

The point here is that monogamy is not sacred nor is marriage. Regardless of the levels or fluctuations of your own personal sex drive, or lack of sex drive, or any of the other myriad of factors which might lead one to not or no longer desire to engage in sex with their partner, many men tend to treat sex as something that they are entitled to. And we, as a culture, tend to treat and view men in the same way – as though sex is something that they must have and, if they don’t have it they may / must do ‘whatever it takes’ to get that very specific kind of fulfillment.

Lindsay Beyerstein wrote a post in response to Dan Savage’s advice to a particular man in a sexless marriage arguing, as I do, that this man’s wife ‘has no obligation to be sexual with him,’ but also that Savage’s advice to ‘do what you need to do to stay sane’ was not sexist because ‘he gives the similar advice to letter writers of all genders and orientations.’ But is that really true? I understand that yes, Savage does, of course, prescribe the same advice to men and women when it comes to monogamy and that he, himself may not technically be giving sexist advice, but I also think that we may be ignoring the sexist ways in which male sexuality is viewed and the sexism which is foundational to the institution of marriage itself.

Heterosexual relationships never exist outside of sexist ideals and patriarchal gender relations. Marriage, in particular, is a relationship that exists because of and in congruence with patriarchy. Sure, women are not considered goods to be traded back and forth between men, from father to husband, in the same way that they were a few hundred years ago (though this is certainly arguable) but it is undeniable that the institution of marriage exists based on these grounds. Women continue to take on their husband’s names in marriage, representing this symbolic trade – they no longer belong to their father, but to their husband. They are no longer a part of their previous family, but now have joined a new family. There is absolutely no rational or necessary reason for women to change their names in marriage, and yet they do. And this is very much representative of the roots and meaning of marriage, as a patriarchal, heterosexual institution.

Now, Lindsay argues, as I probably would also, that ‘if your marriage is threatening your sanity, you should probably end that marriage,’ and I would argue the same thing of any relationship, marriage is not different, nor is it necessarily any more special or any more important than any other meaningful relationship or partnership. She then goes on to say that ‘Marriage is, unless otherwise explicitly stipulated, a sexual relationship’ and I think that, probably many people would agree, but why is that? Is it possible that we view heterosexual marriage as a) the most sacred and valuable of all relationships and b) as a necessarily sexual relationship, because this is an institution that was created for the benefit of men?

I’m not arguing that women don’t value sex and sexual relationships or that many women don’t see sex as being an integral part of a marriage, but I am arguing that we view sex as something that men are particularly entitled to within marriage. When women agree to marry must they also agree to ‘sex for life’? I do think that we, as a culture, see sex as ‘part of the deal’ in marriage and, as Thea Cacchioni writes in her paper Heterosexuality and the Labour of Love, that women often engage in a kind of ‘sex work’ that Cacchioni likens to the ‘emotional work’ women often do in marriage, in this case referring “to the unacknowledged effort and the continuing monitoring which women are expected to devote to managing theirs and their partners’ sexual desires and activities.” (301). There is, whether or not it is acknowledged or agreed upon, an expectation that women must engage in sex (generally, PIV, in heterosexual relationships) with their male partners in a marriage. It is also, I would argue, generally agreed upon that men mustn’t suffer through sexless marriages and that if a man is deprived of sex in his marriage, it is justifiable that he would go outside his marriage in order to find somewhere/way to satisfy himself (read: put his dick in something).

Dan Savage clearly believes that, if a man is trapped in a sexless marriage, a man has the right to ‘do what he needs to stay sane’, and Lindsay Beyerstein writes that, in a marriage, if a woman “chooses to opt out of the sex part, that’s as serious a breech of the marriage as adultery” and that “You promised you wouldn’t have sex with other people and you promised to keep up a sexual bond with your spouse.” I don’t necessarily agree with either of them. I do believe that these assumptions are very much based on the patriarchal institution of marriage and on the underlying belief that men need and are entitled to sex with women. We excuse male infidelity if his partner is so horrible and cruel as to have left him without a sexual outlet (this outlet being, literally, her body) and we view sex as part of the marriage contract because it is an institution built by and for men.

It’s not that I don’t think it would be perfectly reasonable to end a relationship you were unhappy in and that, if you were unhappy in this relationship specifically because you weren’t sexually fulfilled, that you are perfectly entitled to leave that relationship, but rather that sexual access is part of the marriage ‘deal’ because men think that should be part of the ‘deal’ and that we, as a culture, think that, once locked into the marriage contract, women are obligated to do this form of ‘sex work’ in order to both prevent their partners from straying as well as to keep their partners feeling sexually satisfied.

If marriage, like any other long term relationship built on love and trust and companionship and commitment (and I do, for me personally, believe in commitment and trust, believe me, just not marriage) then I would have to disagree that it “is, unless otherwise explicitly stipulated, a sexual relationship.” Sex is a sexual relationship. When I decide to have sex with another person that is a sexual relationship. Committed relationships between two people who are partners in life (or whatever you want to call it) does not necessarily have to have anything to do with sex. The idea that marriage = sex originated because men felt that they owned women in marriage and that they were entitled to access their bodies whenever they so desired, but also because marriage = baby making and, whaddayaknow, women, in marriage, were responsible for making the babies. Either way it was work, it wasn’t an agreement that women had any say in, and either way, sex or babies, women had little choice in the matter. I doubt that if marriage was a contract invented to benefit women, sex would be a stipulation. Again, not because I think that women don’t like sex (though it is true that many women are asexual or don’t enjoy PIV), but because compulsory sex(uality) doesn’t benefit women.

So the fact that we view marriage as a necessarily sexual relationship is, most certainly, because marriage is an institution that exists to benefit men and is, most certainly, because we view men as ‘needing’ sex in order to ‘remain sane’. Yes, some women like sex too and see it as integral in their lives and in some of their relationships, but that’s not why we think men deserve sex in marriage, why women do this ‘sex work’ in their marriages, or why we see marriage as a necessarily sexual relationship. Particularly when, in reality, if a marriage were actually a valuable and strong relationship based on equality and mutual respect, it is more likely that it would be because of deep friendship and trust and not because of a sex contract.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.