Can ‘maintenance sex’ ever be gender neutral?

Ah, “maintenance sex.” That good old fashioned idea that we are obligated to satisfy our partner’s sexual desires lest they leave us or cheat on us.

Tracy Moore wrote about it for Jezebel on Monday, arguing that, eventually, in all relationships, there are going to be times when you’re having sex, not because you want to, but for the “good of the relationship.”

“If you’re in a relationship in which you agree the sex matters, eventually you will have to expend more effort to have the sex you both agree should happen. Sex drives will not always magically align. When they don’t align, somebody will be horny and the other somebody will not. Then what?”

Now, I don’t particularly disagree with the above. It’s true for the most part. To assume that, throughout a long-term relationship, you and your partner’s libidos and desires are always going to naturally match up, is ridiculous. People get lazy, libidos change for a variety of reasons, things become less exciting as they move past the first year, we develop “relationship issues” (and, regardless of what media and pop/porn culture would like us to believe, sex, sexual desire, and sexual satisfaction are not merely physical) that interfere with our ability to have a happy and carefree sex life, social issues such as misogyny play a role in heterosexual relationships, sometimes there are medical issues, sometimes we aren’t getting enough sleep, sometimes we are busy, sometimes we are stressed, sometimes we don’t feel loved or respected, sometimes our male partners use or have an addiction to porn, sometimes we are being emotionally, physically, or verbally abused, sometimes we are depressed, sometimes we are on hormonal contraceptives which have lowered our sex drive, etc., etc. In other words, there are a myriad of factors that impact sexual desire and many of them are personal and many of them are social and many of them are medical or biological and many of them are reasons I’m not aware of because I am neither you nor am I a psychologist or a doctor.

What I do know is that, as a heterosexual woman who has been in a number of heterosexual relationships and has many heterosexual female friends, the message that we must “keep our man happy” is ubiquitous and that message doesn’t seem to go the other way. This is to say that it doesn’t make sense to treat “maintenance sex” as a gender neutral issue because society doesn’t treat it as a gender neutral issue and because it is not, in fact, a gender neutral issue.

Moore writes:

“I’m writing this gender neutrally. This issue could just as easily apply to a man who doesn’t feel like sex and caves for his lady, or a man for another man, or a woman for another woman. But in reality, of course, maintenance sex is almost exclusively discussed in terms of something a woman does to keep a man happy and faithful, and it’s deeply rooted in the notion that men have a higher sex drive than women, who must be cajoled and coaxed into putting out, or else risk him going elsewhere.”

She’s right. There have been times I’ve wanted to have sex and my partner was too tired or lazy. I know men who’ve had female partners who wanted to have sex far more than they did and I know women who have been left feeling unloved, undesired, and unsatisfied because they wanted to have sex way more than their partners did. This kind of dynamic can cause serious problems in relationships. It can cause fights and resentment and unhappiness. Seriously mismatched libidos can be totally destructive when there is one person who never wants sex and another who wants it every day. I get that.

Moore is also right that we tend to believe men are the ones with insatiable desire and that women are constantly groaning about being pestered for sex and trying to avoid it at any cost. And, honestly, I’ve been in those relationships too and feeling pestered for sex when you’re not in the mood is awful, especially when there are serious reasons you’re not feeling “up to it,” like, for example, your partner keeps using porn despite the fact that you’ve explained a number of times that porn is bad for women and that his use makes you feel disrespected as a human and as his partner or because he doesn’t treat you with respect in other ways or if there is a lack of trust, for example, because he cheats or lies or because he doesn’t treat you as a friend or an equal. There’s this thing bro culture teaches men and it’s that girlfriends and wives are “the old ball and chain” and that men must constantly escape their uptight, no-fun wives in order to have real fun with the boys. They learn that it’s ok to lead a double-life of sorts where they treat their wives and girlfriends one way at home, but then when they’re out with male friends, it’s ok to behave like frat boys. These dynamics do not inspire trust nor do they make women feel loved and respected and like, you know, real people. But it’s a real mystery as to why your wife isn’t eagerly fucking you the second you walk in the door, isn’t it.

These are only some of the reasons that the conversation around “maintenance sex” is not at all gender-neutral despite the fact that it can go both ways. There are more reasons…

As I mentioned, women learn that it is their “job” to keep men happy. We are told over and over again that we must perform sexuality or porny fantasies — wear lingerie, role-play (Oh what, you don’t think it’s sexy that your boyfriend is turned on by schoolgirls?? You’d think pedophilia would totally put you in the mood…), try New And Exciting Things Like Anal And Threesomes!, try out BDSM, put on strip shows, etc. — in order to keep our male partners happy and to keep them from straying. Men are not sent these same messages. I have literally never heard of someone saying to a man, “You know, if you don’t make her orgasms a top priority, wax your bikini line, and wear sexy underwear, she’ll leave you for a younger, hotter man.”

I often reference Thea Cacchioni’s work in these conversations. In her paper, Heterosexuality and the Labour of Love, she points out that women often engage in a kind of “sex work” in heterosexual relationships that she likens to the emotional work women also do in relationships with men, meaning “the unacknowledged effort and the continuing monitoring which women are expected to devote to managing theirs and their partners’ sexual desires and activities.” Like, not only are we expected to be responsible for nurturing the emotional side of our relationships, trying to teach our partners how to express feelings and forcing conversations about emotions from men who never learned how to have these conversations and never learned that talking about their feelings in an honest and respectful way mattered, but we are also expected to be responsible for ensuring our partners don’t cheat on us. When and for what are we holding men accountable for in relationships?

Men and society don’t seem to take into account the ways in which feeling disempowered and objectified in your daily life and then feeling disempowered and objectified in your home might not lead to women feeling particularly fucky. Knowing that our partners are out there objectifying women at the strip club, in porn, or on the street, is unlikely to inspire feelings of love or respect despite the fact that most men seem to think those behaviours are perfectly normal and have nothing to do with their intimate relationships with women.

The level to which women are expected to compartmentalize their realities and their intimate relationships is not conducive to a happy, fulfilling, relaxed, loving, and respectful sex life. There is often a lot women have to shut out in order to have sex with their male partners (not least of which is past trauma). Do we tell men to start treating women as though they are valued beyond their physical desirability and ability to provide men with orgasms if they want a fulfilling sex life? Do we tell them to stop using porn? Do we tell them that their ability to emotionally and mentally connect with their partners is equally as important as those orgasms? Do they tell them to treat us as friends instead of enemies? Rarely. But we do tell women to work at their sex lives.

There is also the fact that our understanding of “sex” is extremely heteronormative. I am (luckily) a woman whose libido is (currently) well-matched with my partner’s and who orgasms easily through penetrative sex. (I also love and respect my boyfriend and feel loved and respected by him, so that helps.) But for many women this isn’t the case. Many women don’t have orgasms from penetrative sex and some women find it painful, yet this is what is expected in terms of heterosexual sex. We’re expecting women to keep up a practice that isn’t necessarily satisfying for them and may even be uncomfortable or painful and we’re completely ignoring all the social, cultural, political, physical, and personal factors that might make it difficult or impossible for women to relax and enjoy sex with men. Like, oh, maybe she just birthed some human beings and is now caring for said beings day in and day and out and also feeding and changing and entertaining them. Maybe expecting women to reproduce and raise children and then also expecting them to take care of their partner’s sexual needs on the side isn’t all that realistic?

In my past long-term relationships, the sex has been frequent at first, and then dwindled because I no longer was interested. In retrospect, this was most-likely because of emotional, verbal, or physical abuse or because I couldn’t trust my partner (for reasons such as his lying or cheating) or because my partner used porn/was addicted to porn and refused to stop/lied to me about it. Yet, at the time, I thought my sex drive had simply disappeared for some unknown reason and I continued to be pestered for sex by my partners who complained “but we used to do it three times a day!”

There is no big mystery as to why I no longer felt up to it, except in the minds of these men. Likely because they’d been sent the message all their lives that they are entitled to sex from their female partners regardless of their behaviour.

Sex is supposed to be mutually enjoyable. It feels gross to have sex with someone when you don’t want to. It should feel gross to your partner, too. I do not want to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with me. This isn’t to say I don’t think that, eventually, couples may need to both “work” at their relationships and, in turn, their sex lives, but I don’t think that is the same as telling women they are obligated to have sex with their husbands or boyfriends if they want to have a healthy relationship. The healthy relationship part comes first. Not the make-sure-he’s-getting-laid part.

Moore does touch on issues such as “don’t have maintenance sex if you don’t want to” and I actually didn’t find her piece to be particularly offensive, despite the fact that, based on the headline, “How to Have Maintenance Sex,” I assumed I would. I am willing to acknowledge that both parties are not always going to be totally turned on and, like, “Yeah! Let’s fuck!” every time you do it. And that this can go both ways, gender-wise. Often you kind of get into it once you start (and please don’t take this to mean that if you really don’t feel like having sex you should just “push through,” but rather that sometimes one or both parties are going to have to make an effort, despite the fact that they’d rather be watching TV, if sex is an important part of your relationship). Sometimes men are going to have to do things like eat better, get some exercise, and quit smoking if they never feel like having sex and their partner really wants to. Men also might consider cutting out porn and other misogynistic behaviours if they want their partners to feel like and enjoy having sex with them… Just a thought. Essentially, what I’d like is that we talk about “maintenance sex” within the context of patriarchy and that we start holding men accountable rather than pretending as though women’s experiences as women in a male dominated culture doesn’t factor into heterosexual relationships and penetrative sex. If you think a lifetime of being exposed to misogynistic and objectifying imagery isn’t going to impact women’s relationships with men, you’re not going to get very far in terms of the “sex drive” conversation.

To talk about “maintenance sex” as though it’s gender neutral is pointless. There is an entirely different context for asking women to have sex with their male partners when they aren’t feeling it. It’s called porn culture and rape culture and male entitlement and we-live-in-a-culture-that-hates-women-and-treats-them-as-less-than-human. Women are very good at imagining that all away because we have little other choice, but sex is an intimate act and that’s a lot to ignore when you’re trying to relax and coax an orgasm.

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.