You may have seen pieces online in the last few days about a husband emailing his wife a spreadsheet of all the times he has initiated sex over a 6 week period, whether they had sex and if not what her excuses were for not wanting to. The wife posted this to reddit and it ‘went viral.’ Since then the reddit post has been locked and the image removed. I feel this means that consent to discuss this in detail has been revoked (so I won’t), however I do want to reflect on some of the issues that it raises.
Let’s Show Compassion
Sending a blaming and shaming spreadsheet in a petulant and angry email and posting this on reddit for everyone to see are both pretty unfair. We may all feel a sense of shock that a couple can behave this way to each other and feel smug about how we conduct our disagreements (past, present or future) but can we all honestly say that we all demonstrate kindness and fairness when we fight with a loved one? Perhaps we haven’t resorted to spreadsheets and public forums – but we may have criticised people behind their backs, or made an unfair judgement about what someone is thinking, or get into the “I’m right, you’re wrong” row.
Whatever we think about their behaviour towards each other we only know what we are being presented and although feel we are being invited to stand in judgement over a couple we should remember that may well both be really struggling and hurting right now (particularly now that this has been so widely reported). I hope that they are now using this as an opportunity to re-engage with each other to talk frankly about how they are feeling about each other and themselves. I think it would be good to show compassion and empathy when we are talking about them on reddit, or facebook or in newspapers.
Communication: Are Emails So Bad?
Conflict in relationships isn’t easy: seeing an other as an individual with their own ever-changing wants and needs is scary as it might mean that they might not want or need us (or that we can’t provide them with what they want or need). We often expect so much from another in a romantic relationship that these conflicts can feel like we might risk losing nearly everything.
There’s been a lot of opinion about emails, spreadsheets and posting on forums is not the best way to communicate about this. However I think it’s the unfairness, the lacking in consent and the lack of compassion that is the problem. How we ‘should’ deal with conflict is to talk it out in person, but doing so requires acknowledging our own flaws, seeing that the other person is hurting too and letting go of the narrative that we are right and they are wrong. This is hard stuff and might not be something we have learnt how to do.
Being able to be specific about what the problem is, whilst being careful not to use language that is judgemental, inflammatory or blaming is hard. An email or a text might be a start and might be the only way that some people may be able to address that they have wants or needs that are not currently being met by the other. It may also help seeing something in black and white – over at my website for young people I created the relationships graph as a tool in order to help people figure out what needed work in their relationship.
It might not replace the human interaction (looking into the eyes of the other person and seeing that they actually do care and that they are hurting too) but it might give a couple the breathing space and time to say what they mean and not to lash out.
Talking about sex in a long term relationship can be particularly difficult – especially as the vocabulary and stories we have about sex are so limiting and unhelpful (not to mention our own experience of sex education).
What Sex Are We Talking About?
There are so many stories about what kind of sex we ‘should’ be having rather than the kind of sex we might actually *want* to have. It feels like this story fits into the same narrative. The messages we receive about what counts as ‘sex’ (particularly heterosexual sex but not only) means intercourse – particularly penis in vagina intercourse. For some people that’s great, but not for everyone all the time.
Penis in vagina sex is usually more stimulating for the penis than the vagina/vulva (as the glans of the penis gets much more stimulation than the glans of the clitoris) as such around 70% of women can’t orgasm from just penis in vagina sex (more on that here). But also not all men (with penises) enjoy this kind of sex either. Many people prefer very different kinds of stimulation such as masturbation, oral sex, massages or non-genital contact. As ‘sex’ is framed in such a narrow way it’s perhaps no surprise that 42% of men and 51% of women reported at least one sexual difficulty (see more at Natsal 3).
Why Is The Measure Of Sex Frequency?
Despite this very narrow kind of sex not necessarily being very pleasurable for many people, around 60% of people report having vaginal sex in the last 4 weeks (see more at Natsal 3). Despite there being an increase in non-genital sexual contact and an overall decrease in frequency of intercourse (which perhaps suggests more couples are talking about the kind of sex they might want rather than what they think they should have) – vaginal sex is the most popular form of partnered sex.
So many couples measure their sex lives in terms of frequency of sex – sex which may not be very pleasurable (or sometimes even wanted). We can find ourselves in trapped in another unhelpful script of what couples ‘should’ be doing. We imagine what might be happening in the bedrooms of other couples we might know and we compare ourselves to them unfavourably. Because we may have had the sex education which doesn’t recognise that sex can and should be pleasurable and mutual the only metrics we are left with is frequency.
When we talk about this we could consider whether frequency is the best measure. Is 3 times a week ‘going through the motions’ sex better than a planned afternoon of mutual sexual touching once a month? Who decides what is ‘better’? Indeed, who are we measuring sex for?
Did We Have Sex?
This focus on sex being one very narrow act means that we can get into a ‘we had sex/we didn’t have sex’ narrative which I don’t think is very helpful and closes down lots of the activities that can help people to feel more sexually fulfilled. Sexual pleasure can come from stroking, pinching, masturbation, rubbing, grinding, lotions, sex toys, words, thoughts, fantasies, what we read/watch/listen to – some of these we can do with a partner and some we can do by ourselves. We only know a fraction of a partner’s sexual turn ons. Partly because there’s so much at stake revealing something that might seem out of the ‘ordinary’ or ‘kinky’ but also because our own turn ons might always be in a state of flux. Knowing all of this can take pressure off a particular sexual behaviour but also from the idea that it only ‘counts’ if someone else is doing it with us.
Paying more attention to what is happening now is much more helpful than being goal orientated because it accepts that how horny we are feeling is always changing. How much sex and what kind of sex we want relates to how we feel about our bodies, our health, our relationship, our stress levels and loads of other factors. It’s about accepting where we are now and seeing what sexual pleasure we can have rather than forcing our bodies into something they aren’t willing to do. Ironically focussing less on frequency of sex and more on the quality of our sexual interactions, how mutual they are and how much pleasure we might have in taking part in them may also increase frequency.
So I really hope that this couple manage to find some kind of reconnection. However I also hope that they are able to do some of the work in challenging some of the limiting and suffocating rules about how we are meant to do sex and relationships.
Some resources that I think are great and useful here:
Rewriting The Rules by Meg Barker (and member of Sense About Sex)
Mating In Captivity by Esther Perel
ACT With LOVE by Russ Harris
Thanks to Petra Boynton for her interesting thoughts about this.