SWM 125 – Rethinking “Duty Sex”

I’ve had a lot of conversations with couples as well as husbands and wives individually lately about what often gets called “duty sex” or “pity sex.” For those who don’t know, duty/pity sex is when one spouse gives in to sex, not because they desire it themselves, but because their spouse does. They might have sex for many reasons, including feeling obligated, pressured, guilty, to keep the peace or to “get them off their back.”

Why people tend to think duty sex is bad

The problem is that these negative reasons are often the only ones considered, and so any situation in which one spouse wants sex and the other agrees to it without having an internal desire of their own is seen as unfavourable.

This belief is compounded by our society constantly telling people that they shouldn’t have sex unless they are in the mood – which I think is a deliberate attack against monogamy.  

It’s easy to say that to people who are using apps for hooking up, going to bars looking to have sex, and constantly jumping from one partner to the next. When all you know is infatuation, new relationship energy, or being able to find someone else who is in the mood whenever you are, then it’s easy to abide by that.

But what happens when you’re in a long-term relationship? When you have children, the stresses of life, when your hormones shift, when you don’t have the option to find someone else who happens to be in the mood the same time you are because you’re committed to a monogamous relationship? When you can’t just put your relationship in the closet until you’re ready to take it out again because you’re in the mood, like an outfit for clubbing. What about when you have a spouse who isn’t in the mood when you are? Or they’re always in the mood, or maybe never.

Suddenly, the “don’t have sex unless you’re in the mood” rule turns into a burden – because it’s not designed for relationships – it’s designed for those who want to destroy the concept of relationships. It’s incompatible with the Christian worldview.

It’s also part of a larger move in our society to move us away from intentionality and consideration and towards being wholly focused on emotions, feelings, pleasure, and reactions. This mindset should come as no surprise to those who read books like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – a dystopian philosophical novel in which drugs and sex control society. Similarly, Juvenal, a Roman poet, criticized his society for their willingness to be distracted from serious concerns by simple distractions such as those held in the Colosseum.

The Bible also warns us to focus more on thoughts, choices and thoughtful decisions rather than emotional reactions.

A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back.

Proverbs 29:11 (NKJV)

So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

James 1:19-20 (NKJV)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such, there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23 (NKJV)

It consistently teaches us to act not in response to emotion but in self-controlled love and intentional responses.  

This push to make decisions based on feelings runs along the same lines – it’s a systemic attack on thought, marriage, God and more. Now, I don’t think most who push this rule of “don’t have sex unless you’re in the mood” know that that’s what they’re doing, but it still ends with the same result.

So, this push prioritizes personal desire and gratification over more thoughtful consideration. It rejects concepts like neuroplasticity, willingness over desire, sacrifice, and more.

Sometimes, duty sex is bad

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times when duty sex is not good. Like those times I mentioned above, when it’s coerced or pressured, when you do it out of guilt, when you feel like you have to when you are just trying to get them to shut up about sex for a while. Those are not good reasons. They point to a more significant issue in the marriage, your spouse, or yourself.  

Sometimes, that issue is simply that you believed that “you have to be in the mood to have sex” lie. We lived this paradigm for years until we learned better. Do you know what happened?  

We both were waiting for her to magically be “in the mood .”Guess what – it never happened. 

Do you know what did happen, though? She’d feel guilty for not being in the mood, and so we’d have sex, and it would be good for both of us, but then she’d feel guilty still for not wanting it more often, for not knowing why she didn’t want it, for only having sex when the guilt became too much to bear.  

She enjoyed sex and would say things like, “Why don’t we do this more often?” but the next time that I initiated by asking something like, “Hey, are you in the mood for sex?” the answer was always “no.” As a result, we had a clinically sexless marriage (less than once a month) for years until we realized the lie.

So, don’t believe the lie. Have sex, even when you aren’t necessarily in the mood, and change your mindset from asking, “Am I in the mood?” to “Am I willing to be in the mood?” And don’t ask your responsive desire spouse if they’re in the mood for sex. Instead, initiate precursors to sex, not sex itself.

As for duty sex itself:

Often, we just need to reframe duty sex

There are some excellent reasons to have what’s commonly considered “duty sex” or “pity sex,” and often, the conflicts I see in marriages are not that it’s because of those reasons I mentioned above but instead about something positive and loving.

Often, the lower-drive spouse is trying to do something loving and caring. They recognize the need for sex in the relationship and the desire in their spouse and want to meet that need. So, despite not feeling any particular desire themselves, they engage in a loving gesture.

In many cases, this leads to a good time for both spouses because, in many cases, the lower-drive spouse experiences largely responsive desire. So even though they aren’t “in the mood” for sex when it starts, they manage to get in the mood, enjoy themselves, and maybe even have an orgasm.

Or maybe they don’t, but they enjoy the closeness. Or perhaps they merely enjoy doing something loving for their husband or wife.

In all of these cases, there is nothing wrong with this. It is a loving gesture given to your spouse, and spouses who engage in this sort of loving gesture often get quite frustrated when it is then rejected.

Their spouses will tell them that it’s not good enough, that they need to have or initiate sex because they themselves want it, not because the spouse wants it. This view of needing to initiate or have sex only when you want it has the entire paradigm backwards.

Why is it seen as loving if it’s selfish but not if it’s selfless?

Think about it: if you both want sex and then have sex – that’s a lot of fun, but it’s just both of you getting what you want out of it. While it can be lots of fun, pleasurable, and indeed can be loving, there is nothing inherently loving in agreeing to do something you want for yourself.

On the other hand, if you, with a loving heart, agree to do something for your spouse and choose to do it happily because you know they love it and you love them – that is a genuinely loving act.

So, why do we elevate the scenario where both spouses are meeting their own desires and denigrate the other where a spouse is being loving?

There are four reasons why this is the case.  

Our society tells us that being “in love” means you desire sex with them

It doesn’t matter if you’re single or married; all the movies, TV shows, etc., out there tell us that the way to know if you’re actually in love with someone is if you want to have sex with them. If you’re single, that means you should be in a relationship. If you’re in a relationship and you’re attracted to someone else, that means you should leave. If you are in a relationship and are not attracted to your partner, you’re no longer in love. Everything is based on the whim of attraction and feelings rather than choosing to love and commitment.

It is ingrained in us that if we want sex with our spouse, but they don’t with us, then we love them, but they don’t love us.  

If they have sex out of a choice of love and commitment as a gift rather than because of some internal desire, that is then interpreted as not being loving.

Our egos want us to be attractive

The other reason is that we feel that if we’re attractive, then people will want to have sex with us. Again, this is an unambiguous societal teaching. Many people make jokes (or are serious) about having a hall pass when it comes to celebrities – as in if you ever actually have a chance to have sex with your celebrity crush, then that’s not considered adultery. Of course, it still is, but that’s a prevalent trope.

So, when your spouse doesn’t want to have sex with you out of an internal desire, then it must mean they’re not attracted to you, which means you aren’t attractive to them. We can handle not being appealing to the world, but generally, we want our spouses to be attracted to us, and we gauge that by how much they want to have sex with us.

It’s not a good metric, but it’s in the minds of many spouses.

We don’t want to be the weird sex addict

I think many of us fear that if we’re always the one initiating sex if we’re the only one who ever wants it – does that make us a sex addict? What if they’re normal and we’re weird? What if I’m not supposed to enjoy sex this much. What if it’s something I’m supposed to grow out of. What if there’s something wrong with me psychologically?

If our spouse wants sex as much as we do, then we don’t feel alone. We don’t feel weird. We don’t feel broken.

We remember them wanting to have sex with us

Lastly, for many in this dynamic, the higher-drive spouse remembers the other wanting to have sex more often. Or at least being more interested in being physical.

For many couples, things started off hot and heavy, and then it changed. Similar to some of the ideas above, the worry is that it signals a loss of love.  

I mean, if they wanted to have sex all the time when things were great and amazing at the beginning of the relationship, and now they don’t – what does that mean? Does that mean they don’t feel the relationship is great anymore? Do they regret marrying you?  

These are the fears I hear from spouses who are introspective enough to look at their frustrations and dissect them.

There’s a simple answer to address all of these:

Honour the sacrificial love your spouse is offering

Firstly, you must recognize that they are doing it out of love. I won’t say they aren’t doing it out of duty because there’s a lot of overlap between the two concepts. If we love someone, we care about them, which comes with a sense of responsibility.  

I love my kids, and I feel responsible for them. I am duty-bound to care for them. And when they’re young and just starting to learn to play cards and want to play “war” (which I find a very dull game that’s 100% set by the shuffle of the deck), I’ll play with them because it’s fun for them, even if it’s not challenging or that much fun for me. But I love to see them smile when they win the big stack of cards from a triple war. Should they reject my willingness to play war with them? Of course not. Now they’re older, and we play much better games (we have quite a few) that we all enjoy. I’ve been enjoying One Deck Dungeon with my younger two because they’re not quite ready to tackle Gloomhaven yet, which my wife, my two eldest and I play – any other fans out there of either game?

The point is—there’s nothing wrong with doing something with someone just because you enjoy being with them, seeing them enjoy it, and knowing you will enjoy it as well once you get into it.

These days, I appreciate it when my wife is willing to invest time and energy into sex, even when she’s not feeling it at the moment. I treat these as opportunities to get her aroused. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. When the opportunities are more frequent, it’s much easier to cut a night short when it’s not working out. Because just because you’re willing doesn’t mean you’re necessarily able to either.

It becomes a team effort – both of us working to wake up her sex drive. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose – but we win or lose as a team. There have been many times when we say, “Let’s try again tomorrow.” – and you know what – sometimes tomorrow doesn’t happen either because life has a way of changing our plans, and it’s okay to be frustrated and disappointed by that change – so long as you’re not frustrated and disappointed in your spouse.

It is not okay to be frustrated and disappointed in not receiving a gift they are giving out of love.

Rethinking "Duty Sex" - Why is selfish love more valued than selfless love?

How to move forward if you have fights about duty sex

Share this post with your spouse. Ask them what they think of it. Use it as a conversation starter.  

If you’re having duty sex for the wrong reasons – work to change the reasons. Choose to have sex for your own reasons – even if that reason is to be loving and caring. Any situation where you feel like you have to do something due to external influences will make you feel bad about it, less in control, and less likely to lead to a positive outcome. In contrast, decisions you make yourself for internal reasons, whether that’s due to sex drive or being loving, are more likely to lead to positive outcomes, and you are likely to look back on it positively.

If you’re frustrated because you’re getting what you’ve been calling duty sex or pity sex, but now you realize it’s a loving gesture – apologize and work to change your mindset.

It can be hard to change this mindset, and if you need help, I do marriage coaching to get past it. We can talk through it, find a practical solution that fits your marriage and help you move forward.

But often, people need a paradigm shift – to see it from a new perspective. I hope this helped give you that.

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