Women Are Having Unwanted Sex to Maintain Their Relationships

"It's something people are agreeing to," one expert says. "There's a willingness there, but there's not sexual desire."

Maintenance Sex
Photo: Huong Anh Trinh

Let me set the scene for you. There I am, wearing gray pajamas that are actually long johns, sitting up in bed, three cats pressed against my legs as I try to read a book. I feel heavy from the takeout empanadas I had earlier, fuzzy from having watched a movie that went on too long. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see my husband watching me.

"Soooooooo…" he says, stretching out the word until I give up on reading and look over at him. "You want some of this?" He's half-kidding but, still, he flexes his biceps and does that thing I hate where he makes his pecs dance. I flare my nostrils. Raise my eyebrows. "Um…"

At which point I'm forced to determine what choice would be more exhausting: to have sex with him, or to spend 10 minutes convincing him that, no, really, I'm not in the mood. Many women go through this same mental gymnastics repeatedly through the course of a relationship. It’s the moment when they decide — should I take one for the team? Should I say "yes" to maintenance sex?

If you haven't heard the phrase before, this put-upon act of intimacy is a willing acquiescence to sex that, at least for the less randy half of a couple, is undertaken for the good of the relationship. The concept seems benign enough, until you realize that it falls under the umbrella of sexual compliance, which is when a person willingly engages in sex they don’t actually want.

Sexually compliant behavior is troublingly common, particularly among women. In one study published in The Journal of Sex Research, for example, it was found that among 1,519 unmarried college students, 55 percent of women reported that they had consented to unwanted sexual intercourse. Other studies have yielded similar results. Since then, what researchers have struggled to determine is — why?

Natalie*, a 28-year-old writing instructor in Pittsburgh who's been married for a year and a half, says she regularly engaged in maintenance sex early on in their relationship. At the beginning, Natalie explains, her libido was quite high. "But then I had a flare-up," she says, referring to pain she experienced, presumably as a result of endometriosis. "But I felt like I had to keep up with that expectation I had set, which is gross."

She was later diagnosed with pelvic floor dysfunction; her pelvic floor muscles contracted in anticipation of pain, which — in a self-fulfilling prophecy — led to actual pain during intercourse. "I had no good sexual experiences," says Natalie, "because I was forcing myself. I felt obligated to do this thing even though it was painful for me. But there's a sense that this is what you have to do to be a good wife," she says.

But where does that sentiment — that one has to close their eyes, hold their nose, and just get through it — come from? In studying sexual compliance within the context of young adults’ committed relationships, researcher Sarah Vannier, Ph.D., found numerous reasons why one might engage in unwanted sex. Some do so out of fear that their partner will lose interest in them if they don't put out. Some just don’t want to deal with the verbally coercive behavior they’ve come to expect from partners met with a "no." Others report that they comply with their partner's sexual requests in order to fulfill what they see as the obligations of their relationship. Still others have maintenance sex in order to boost intimacy in their relationship. The list goes on.

"It's an interesting idea because it's something people are agreeing to," says Vannier. "There's a willingness there, but there's not sexual desire."

Vannier explains that, when we're in a committed relationship, we agree to do things that make our partner happy and keep our relationship strong. Sometimes, we order in a certain type of cuisine, even when we're not in the mood for it. Other times, we have sex, even when we're not in the mood for it. "Are they two sides of the same coin," asks Vannier, "or something more problematic?"

While Natalie’s experiences with maintenance sex have been negative, Carley*, a 25-year-old customer service representative in Florida who has been with her present boyfriend for six months, has seen hers as a force for good; in fact she goes along with maintenance sex quite often to keep her partner happy.

"I don't have a very high sex drive, and my partners usually do," she says. So even when she's not in the mood, if she's not completely against it, she'll give it a go.

Carley explains that, in the past, she’s engaged in sexually compliant behavior that ended up being detrimental to both her relationships and to her well-being. After surviving sexual assault, she found herself unable to talk about her discomfort around sex with new partners. “I felt it was my job to have sex with [my partner] to keep him happy,” she says. “I set his expectations unrealistically compared to what I was mentally able to do.” Since then, she’s learned that in order to be sexually happy and healthy, it’s essential to have open communication about both partner's comfort levels, limitations, expectations, and more.

At the same time, she prioritizes intimacy within her relationships, and knows that if she waits to be in the mood before agreeing to sex, she might never have it at all. “I dated someone who only wanted me to have sex with him when I wanted to have sex badly,” says Carley. It was well-intentioned, but, “We went from having sex very often to very rarely.”

And so, Carley does what she does in order to maintain a certain level of sexual intimacy. And when she's really not in the mood for penetrative sex? "I will offer things instead of sex," she says. "Blowjobs. We'll fondle each other. We'll make time for each other." She says this intentional approach to building intimacy sometimes even operates as a sort of foreplay. "I end up realizing I did want it," she says.

Carley’s experience speaks to misconceptions around how sexual desire actually works. While there are those who are able to experience spontaneous desire — which is when you get turned on in anticipation of sexual pleasure — many more women experience responsive desire, which occurs in response to pleasurable stimulation. For the latter group, "maintenance" sex can be a helpful step because, to some extent, they have to be intimate in order to begin enjoying intimacy. Of course, that can get complicated: How much should we have to push ourselves in order to get into it; and when should our partners just lay off already?

While conversations around sexual violence and coercion have increased in recent years thanks in part to movements like #MeToo and #YesAllWomen, we’ve only just begun to peer into the gray areas that exist around consent.

There was the seismic reaction to the publication of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker in 2017. There was the uproar around one woman’s account of her sexually coercive experience with Aziz Ansari in 2018. More recently, on February 21, Minnesota made the decision to outlaw marital rape, which made us all do a double take because — wait a second — Minnesota hadn’t yet outlawed marital rape? All of these incidents have forced us to interrogate our own sexual experiences, and how we define them. When does an encounter shift from benign to problematic? After all, something does not have to be illegal to be wrong. How do we determine what consent should look like within relationships, and where does maintenance sex fall within that discussion?

Further, is maintenance sex good or bad? According to Vannier, it depends. "If sex is an important part of the relationship that you value," she says, "you'll feel better about it in the long run,” she says of the decision to engage in maintenance sex. “But if there's a history of your partner pressuring you, and that's why you're agreeing, it might hurt your relationship in the long run." In other words, it comes down to whether you're being pressured, or even forced, or if you're truly making a choice, and getting into it.

Natalie, for one, is much happier since she stopped forcing herself to engage in penetrative sex she didn't actually want. And she says the ubiquity of this kind of maintenance sex makes it harder for women like her to stop.

"There's a feeling of, like, if so many people were experiencing this, wouldn't we be angrier about it? It either gets ignored or accepted. I think the comparison that people are afraid to make is that maintenance sex can be like sexual assault or a form of it. You don't want to come out and say it but, I don't know, I think the universal acceptance of it as this joke, this thing we roll our eyes at, makes it harder to equate. I wish it were easier to have this conversation."

The more we talk about consent, though we continue to hear the same old jokes, not as many of us are laughing.

*Names have been changed or identifying details withheld.

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