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.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.
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.
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.