Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hungering for Intimacy, Settling for Crumbs

Polymer clay sculpture "Petit Plat" by Flickr user sk_, used under a Creative Commons license.

Via Blue Gal and figleaf, I just read Lauren Slater's essay in the Sunday New York Times on her almost total lack of interest in sex. I've known Slater's work for about 15 years now, and try as I might to avoid it, it holds a trainwreck fascination. Long, long before there was Emily Gould and Philip Weiss, we had Lauren Slater's literary excursions into the most private, painful aspects of her life. Like Gould, she has a flair for entertaining us while she bares her underbelly. She can sometimes be lyrical. I feel compassion for her struggle with depression.

But Slater's charms rarely include wisdom. She's too busy looking in the mirror for that. Her latest essay is no exception.

Slater describes herself as having almost no desire for sex. Of course we all have times when we lose our groove, but what Slater describes is a permanent state of affairs. This is not a matter of acceptance of asexuality as an orientation; this is a situation that’s deeply affecting her marriage. And Slater's essay is an extended justification of why she has no obligation to try to change it. As a personal choice, that's for her to work out with her husband. As an ethical program, it's seriously wrong.

While Slater's self-absorption is her own unique gift, the problem is not hers alone. An estimated 20% of married couples have sex ten or fewer times per year, which is what sexologists define as a "sexless marriage." Nor is this a matter of women going "frigid." Our culture tells us repeatedly that women are less interested in sex than men, that women only do it for love/affection/diamonds, that it's women who stop feeling juicy once married. In truth, men are nearly as likely to lose their mojo. This is a gendered issue mainly on the level of cultural attitudes, though those attitudes skew our perception of who's actually affected by loss of libido.

It's natural for people to go through occasional slumps. We're pregnant or breastfeeding. Kids deplete us. A career sucks all the energy out of one or both partners. That's not what Slater is describing. Nor is this a situation where partners' libidos are mildly mismatched - where, say, one wants it daily, the other once a week, but both basically do want it. Nearly all couples have to reach some compromise on frequency. That, too, is a normal and inevitable challenge in any long-term relationship.

What Slater portrays instead is a sexual relationship that has basically ceased because one partner doesn't want intimacy for months and years on end. Sometimes this can be due to physical causes - hormone levels, disease, etc. - but Slater has had enough of doctors and insists that her state is simply her normal. I can empathize with her need to protect one area of her life from being pathologized (she's already had to deal with cancer and depression). Still, by simply declaring her state "normal" - and doing so in the New York Times! - she's drawing a line in the sand and refusing to even try to revitalize her connection to her husband. Again, that's her personal choice, but when you publish it in the Times, even as a highly personal essay, it becomes a rationalization with broader cultural import.

It's one thing if a person declines to marry in the first place, realizing they just don't like sex. This, by the way, is one reason everyone has a stake in asexuality being recognized as a legitimate orientation. It could save a lot of heartbreak. Closeted asexuality is analogous to closeted homosexuality. No one wins when someone chooses marriage on false pretenses or in part to prove their sexual "normalcy." In both cases, the unsuspecting spouse can be deeply hurt, and the marriage is unlikely to survive. (Think "Brokeback Mountain" except entirely without the sex.)

Slater, however, understood her libidinal economy before she married her husband. She knew she couldn't stay sexually interested in a man for more than six months. She married her husband anyway. Whether he knew that about her or not (and the essay doesn't tell us), he's clearly not okay with the lack of sex.

Here's where Slater's self-justifications kick in. She writes that she's just wired in such a way that she can respond to a brand-new partner, but the thrill quickly fades and she'd rather play checkers. I'm not knocking checkers, but her partner could play that with anyone. There's only one game he's promised to play with her, and her alone.

The problem in valorizing asexuality within a previously sexual relationship is that it basically gives one partner license to say, "OK, we're done with sex now," and expect the other partner to be faithful and essentially celibate. If you're in a committed monogamous relationship, it's passive aggressive to expect your partner to quit caring about sex on cue. Unfortunately, unless the partner goes on anti-depressants, there's no spigot they can turn to switch off their sex drive.

If this situation turns permanent and the no-libido partner refuses discussion or compromise, it's a cruel trap for the partner. He or she has three options: 1) Resignation to a life without sex. 2) Cheating. 3) Or trying to negotiate an open relationship. The first option is very painful. The second is broadly regarded as immoral. As for the third? For all the blog chatter about polyamory, I can't see how that could constitute a real solution to a sexless marriage. What incentive does a sexually disinterested partner have to consent to an open relationship? Either they have no libido, period, and thus nothing to gain personally. Or opening the relationship reveals that they still have desire, all right, just none for their partner - which is liable to blow everything sky high. So the partner is left with no reasonable solutions. Oh, and let's not forget that the partner may not want to have sex with anyone other than the person they loved and desired enough to promise fidelity.

Slater opts for a version of openness that's yet another double bind. She tells her husband he can do other people, he just can’t care about them. He sensibly realizes that his heart doesn't work that way; if he has sex, he can't just treat his partner as a blow-up doll. (My phrase, not his. One problem with this essay is that we get very little sense of his feelings, other than that he's evidently aggrieved.)

In trying to empathize with his situation, I think the old food-sex analogy works pretty well, even if, like any analogy, it has its limits. We all know people who don't particularly care about food, who take little pleasure in eating, who wolf down whatever's placed in front of them. This is not pathological. It's normal variation. I'll gladly grant Slater that point.

However: Imagine your spouse skips most meals due to dieting or just a lack of enthusiasm for food. And then imagine he or she expects you to adopt the same eating habits, renouncing breakfast and dinner and subsisting on 600 calories a day for the rest of your life. Those meals you eat together may be pleasurable or rancorous; you probably won't physically starve; but you will in any event be seriously deprived. Oh, and remember: you don't get to eat out in this regimen - or if you do, you aren't supposed to converse with your dining partner (in the scenario Slater offers her husband) and afterward you'd better feel guilty.

And so the hungry partner is left with crumbs. Slater doesn't tell us how often she and her husband have sex, which is probably just as well. We already know more about Slater than I really needed to know. (I'm not gonna even touch her anecdote about claiming sexual trauma when she just wanted to stay a virgin a while longer! Go read the essay; it really is a trainwreck.) Slater hints that they still couple occasionally. I don't know how her husband perceives these encounters. But I'd sure feel like it was pity sex - especially if my partner had written that essay, and I'd read it.

Slater writes of her hopes that they’ll eventually emerge from their conflicts over sex and be a happy, harmonious couple again:
A gulf of loneliness enters the marriage; the rift it creates is terribly painful. My sincerest hope is that once we make it through these very stressful years, assuming we come out the other end, my husband and I will be able to reconnect.
But when would she expect that beautiful new era to dawn? When will those stressful years come to an end? When her husband is too physically infirm from old age to want it anymore?

The sad thing is that both partners suffer from the rift. She admits her own loneliness. Her husband's cannot be less than hers.

Again, this isn't just Slater's problem, and not just her husband's, though her version of it is particularly complicated. It's widespread. It plays a big role in the American divorce rate. Kids and extended families suffer along with the couples involved.

I don't have any easy solutions. I realize that physical, psychological, and relationship issues all can play a role when libido dies, and each couple faces a unique constellation. I also see that it's a couple's problem and not just an individual's.

Still, I hate to end a post in a hopeless key. Not to drive the food analogy into the ground (okay, I will anyway), but I really like what Dr. Ruth has to say about flagging desires:
Sex is the glue that holds a relationship together, so couples need to maintain their sex lives. Just because one or both partners don't really feel "in the mood" is no excuse to abandon hope. Be persistent.

The French have an expression, "L'appetit vient en mangeant," which means "your appetite comes as you eat." Even if a couple doesn't feel like making love, they should make an appointment, take their clothes off and climb into bed together. Most of the time this will be enough to get them started.
Dr. Ruth's advice isn't a substitute for wanting your partner to want you. I doubt that it's adequate to Slater's relatively extreme situation. It won't magically resolve long-term fears of intimacy, which Slater admits to having. She closes her essay with an extended metaphor about how she prefers granite to sex; she means to convey her plan to build a solid and beautiful home for her family, but the symbolism of cold stone gets away from her and loops back - whether she wants it or not - to her fear of too much closeness, too much vulnerability.

As Blue Gal said, it's not our place to try to fix Slater. (If we did, she'd be out a career. And we bloggers would have to find someone else to vent about.)

But we can set a banquet in our own lives. We can lay the table. We can do it often, not just on special occasion. We can invite our partners to feast. And when they do, we can be mindful that it's an honor and a blessing.


Blue Gal said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response and the linky love. I love the food analogy, too. xo

habladora said...

Good post about a complex and sometimes painful issue. While I don't feel like it is a wife's 'duty' to have sex, one would expect two partners - who presumably love one another - to show more compassion. By so publicly announcing her 'that's just how I'm wired' justification, Slater is profiting off her husband's pain and confusion. Many men have used the 'I'm just wired this way' line to justify infidelities. You are right that she seems too self-absorbed to realize that she's not treating him like a full human being.

Sungold said...

Hi Blue Gal - thanks for stopping by. The food analogy doesn't always work for sex but I think it works well in this case.

I was responding partly to you but more to Slater, I think. She is so irritating, in every sense. I wouldn't have felt compelled to respond if her tone hadn't been so self-justifying.

You mentioned in your post that one of your reactions was anger, and I have to agree. I mean, she didn't choose her libido. But she did make a choice to say, basically, that her husband is just gonna have to suck it up.

Sungold said...

Hi Habladora - welcome back from your travels.

It's tricky, isn't it, because you and I agree that everyone should always feel free to say no. Marriage doesn't negate that. It's just that when you only ever say no, it's going to corrode the relationship. This is less of an issue when both partners have a low drive, but even there I tend to think Dr. Ruth is right: in the long run a sexless partnership can become hollow and brittle even if there's not overt conflict.

"Compromise" is tricky on this issue, too, because it can easily devolve into pity sex, which can be even more corrosive than abstinence. I think Dr. Ruth's advice can only work when there's basically good faith between the partners. That can be elusive once the whole topic of sex becomes fraught and conflicted.

We do all have our basic wiring and we have to take that seriously. And yet, a relationship calls for compromise and consideration. I like your analogy to how some guys justify infidelities. Monogamy is obviously harder for some men (and women!) than others.

But in a partnership, if you disrespect the basic connection, you're not really partners. And I think infidelity and long-term sexual refusal are both ways of disrespecting that connection, though society is much more tolerant of refusal than of infidelity. This comes back to Esther Perel's contention that there's more than one way to break faith with a partner; adultery is not the only form of infidelity.

It's sort of a pity that Slater is the person who put this issue on the table, because she makes it so hard to empathize with her position. And in fact, in most such situations, both partners deserve compassion and empathy. It's just that Slater totally squanders the reader's compassion, starting with the lie she tells about having been abused. She reveals so much manipulation of her current and former partners that you have to wonder how much of her withholding (emotional and sexual) is for manipulative purposes. I'm sure that's not unique to Slater, but I'm equally sure that she's not *typical* of low-desire partners.

Smirking Cat said...

A stance or situation that is in place from day one is quite different from putting a partner in a position to become emotionally attached, then withdraw part of the relationship. No one is entitled to sex, or obligated to have sex, but relationships are physical as well as emotional, and something would be direly lacking if, say, my boyfriend suddenly announced "I just don't like sex" and then left me to deal with that as best I could. If I felt that way, I would want to know why, and how to resolve it.

Sungold said...

Yes, I agree with everything you say - especially with there being neither obligation nor entitlement. But if there's love, there also needs to be mutual accommodation.

There's more than just two categories - clarity from day one versus a later change of conditions - although for the sake of simplicity I divided them into two in my post. For instance, both partners may be aware from the get-go that they have disparate and basically incompatible drives. In Slater's case, she knew this; it's less clear that her husband did. Or the partners may have an inchoate realization of their differences, but their incompatibility only becomes totally obvious once they're committed for the long haul. There's also a distinction between deliberate withdrawal (to manipulate or punish, say) and a change that simply *happens,* leaving both partners disoriented. I could go on.

But ethically, the main point is that partners have a mutual obligation to know themselves as well as they can, to be as honest and communicative as they're able, and to make efforts to compromise, even though, as I said in a previous comment, compromise is no easy feat.

hesperia said...

Hi sungold - such an interesting post. One thing I notice is that Slater has sexual feelings for a few months with a new partner - meaning she's not asexual. There's something going on there, I'd say, that she's not aware of or prepared to admit. All the stuff about declaring herself "asexual" after marriage is a smokescreen, carefully composed. That's what I think anyway, Queen of Sex Therapy!

Sungold said...

Oh, yes - I noticed that two, Hesperia. There's definitely something afoot beyond a tepid libido. What she describes is actually akin to what many men describe. Playboy had a feature on this awhile ago - which I stumbled on via another blog. Basically, a lot of guys reported losing interest in sex within a relationship because of boredom. The same woman wasn't enough as time went on.

It's not just men who can be afflicted by a loss of interest anywhere between 3 months and a year. What we know about the brain chemistry of sex indicates that a different set of chemicals predominates after several months - there's a shift from dopamine (which produces a feeling of excitement) toward oxytocin and vasopressin (which foster feelings of attachment). Women undergo the same shift as men, so we're not immune to it.

The question then becomes, what do we do once the initial excitement fades? Do we just keep bouncing from one new partner to the next? Or do we look for ways to keep desire alive?

There's potentially a whole 'nother post in this part of Slater's story. It wasn't what I wanted to write about this time - her husband's quandary and her callousness toward it were what struck a nerve with me. But her abundant issues provide lots of food for thought. Maybe that's one reason she keeps getting published in high-profile publications.

hesperia said...

Your reply makes me think of my son, sungold. When he was twenty-two, his girlfriend of less than a year clearly wanted to get married. He almost told her it was a ridiculous idea. He said to me, "Do you know there are still chemicals holding people together within the first year? You have to wait for those to wear off and then see what you can do with the other stuff you've got going for you." Blew my mind! They waited several years more and did get married, now having their first child in very early February and, as these things go, doing very well.

I'm wondering if the worlds of pornography and movies don't contribute to unrealistic expectations about what a sex life is going to be, and by "sex life" I mean, lifelong sex.

Sungold said...

So cool that your son had good sense. Whether it's the hormones or not, we don't think straight in those early heady days of love. But I'm also enough of a romantic to think it's lovely that they did end up together. Congratulations on the impending grandbaby!

Porn and movies both convey the idea that we should be swept off our feet. I saw Ron Jeremy (the porn star) speak on campus last spring as part of a debate on porn, and while he said a number of things I disagreed with, he made a convincing argument that porn and movies aren't very far apart when it comes to selling unrealistic fantasies. I think that's about right. However, he also insisted that fantasies remain just that, and don't really shape our *expectations.* That's where I thought he was wrong.