Can feelings of sexual obligation affect your libido long-term?
This month we’re talking about obligation sex. We started last week by noting 10 things to understand about obligation sex, when I wrote the definitive post of everything that I tend to talk about with obligation sex!
As I noted, obligation sex was the worst belief that we measured in our survey of 20,000 women for The Great Sex Rescue. When she believes the obligation sex message before she’s married, her chance of sexual pain increases to almost the same statistical effect as if she had been abused, because the body interprets obligation sex as trauma.
We had some discussion over the last week about marital rape, too, especially on social media. Marital rape is a huge problem that obligation sex often feeds. Obligation sex teaches that men are entitled to sex, and when he also believes that, all too often sex becomes coercive. I have written about this before, and we’ll address it at the end of the series, too.
But I want to talk about obligation sex outside of marital rape, because that’s also very common.
Sometimes sex isn’t necessarily coercive, but she does feel a lot of obligation, and he also feels a lot of entitlement. That dynamic, even if it doesn’t turn into rape, can have horrible effects on libido long-term.
What does obligation sex tell you?
Let’s look at the messages you’re telling yourself when you believe the obligatioin sex message: that you are obligated to give him sex when he wants it. What are you now believing?
- Sex is no longer intimate, because my needs don’t matter. It’s not about two people “knowing” each other; it’s about him having access to my body even if I don’t want it. So I am erased.
- Sex isn’t about me. It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling; it matters what he is feeling. So he is the focus of sex.
- My feelings during sex are irrelevant.
- His need for sex must be so great that I will never understand it.
- His need for sex is so great that it must trump all of my possible needs.
- He has the right to use me.
- If I don’t let him use me, he will lust or have an affair or watch porn. I’m the only thing standing between him and sin.
In Love & Respect, Emerson Eggerichs tells women that if a husband doesn’t ejaculate frequently, he will come under satanic attack. And he tells women that they do not understand how much a man needs sex.
To give this message without acknowledging any of the legitimate reasons why she may want to say no gives the impression that no matter what I am feeling, his need for sex must be so much greater.
You have a migraine? His need for sex is even worse.
You’re absolutely exhausted? His need for sex is even greater than your need for sleep.
Postpartum and depressed and desperate? His need for oral sex or a hand job is so much greater than your need for help and support and compassion.
Feeling used and discarded because of his porn use? His need for ejaculation is so much greater than your need for love and loyalty and fidelity.
What do you think the cumulative effect is of these messages over time?
Sex will become a threatening experience for her, because every time you have sex, you feel: “I don’t matter.” It’s inherently depersonalizing and dehumanizing.
And this is true even if you DON’T have sex when you have a migraine, when you’re exhausted, when you’re postpartum, etc. It’s not that these effects are only true if you go through with sex; it’s that the guilt that you feel when you say no makes you feel dehumanized regardless.
The belief that these things are true impacts you whether you act on that belief or not, because this is the story about sex that you tell yourself and that you internalize.
As we explained in The Great Sex Rescue:
Much current teaching, though, elevates his need for intercourse above any of her needs. Even look at the subtitle of bestselling Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs. In this book, sex is included as a component of respect but not as a component of love. What he wants (sex) is a need, then, but whatever she wants is merely a desire.
The message that whatever you are feeling doesn’t matter, you need to have intercourse with your spouse erases you as a person. It says that who you are, including your wants, desires, and feel- ings, doesn’t matter. Then sex, which is supposed to be this deep knowing, becomes something far different. It’s saying, “I don’t want to know you, because your needs and desires are actually unimportant to me. I only want to use you.”
What sexual dynamics does obligation sex create?
Let’s say that you believe that his need for sex is so much greater than your need for anything else.
And so you have sex when you don’t want it. What does this do?
- It makes it harder to get aroused during sex
- It makes it less likely that she will reach orgasm
- It makes it more likely that she will experience sexual pain
So sex is objectively worse. Maybe he wants to make it good for her, but she just doesn’t want that because she can’t get in the right head space to enjoy sex. She’s only doing it for him.
I have lots of men send comments like this:
I would love to give my wife pleasure! I want to spend time doing anything that will make her feel good, but every time I try she stops me and tells me to just go ahead. If I try to stimulate her, she won’t let me for more than a minute or two. I’ve asked her to help me figure out how to make it good for her, but she just won’t. She doesn’t understand how much I want to see her feel amazing!
So she just doesn’t want him to try to arouse her, which makes sense, because she’s been told she’s doing her duty by “letting him” have sex. She likely doesn’t want to do this, so the faster it’s over with, the better. Because she doesn’t want to do it, it’s going to be very difficult to get aroused, no matter what he does to her (because arousal isn’t just about his technique; it’s also about where her brain is at the moment).
(Incidentally, I get frustrated with men when they send comments like this, because if they really valued their wife’s pleasure, they wouldn’t have sex with their wife for 15 years when it wasn’t feeling good for her. Even men like this believe that sex is okay if it’s just for him. If you want to get rid of obligation sex, you need to show her that one-sided sex isn’t okay! But more on that later in the series.)
When he internalizes that sex is primarily for him, he’s likely to “let her let him.”
Sure, he may prefer that she feels pleasure too, but if he also believes that sex is about his need for ejaculation, then when she offers sex when she isn’t aroused and doesn’t want to, he’s likely to take it. He’ll let her “let him have sex.”
In some cases, he may even pressure her to have sex, and complain about how long it’s been, or just act put out. And so she has sex because she feels like she has to, and he “accepts” it.
Both of them have now confirmed that sex is for him and not for her.
Her body will store these obligation sex messages.
This dynamic of having sex when she doesn’t want to results in over and over again her telling her body (and him telling her body):
This is something you don’t like. This is something you won’t enjoy. This is something that is for him.
Because it’s for him and because he gets such pleasure when you’re not even wanting it, sex becomes something really icky. How can someone get that excited about using you when you don’t even want it? This is something pathetic. This makes me lose respect and interest and sexual appeal for my husband, because his sex drive is so infantile and divorced from relationship.
This is something that is threatening. This tells me, I’m not important. I don’t matter. I’m erased.
Think of the effect of that message, being told to your body over and over and over again.
Your body will believe that sex isn’t for you. And so for many women it will be very difficult to get aroused or reach orgasm. Or, even if they can reach orgasm when they do want to have sex–they just don’t want to have sex very often. Their libido has disappeared.
These effects on libido can last beyond the belief in the obligation sex message.
In our focus groups for The Great Sex Rescue, we heard from a lot of women who were able to regain their libido and their sexual response when they let go of the obligation sex message with their husbands’ help. That was actually such an encouraging finding that we kept hearing again and again.
But we have also heard from many women who desperately want to get rid of obligation sex, and who understand that it isn’t true, but their libidos have never returned.
Please understand that this is normal. Your body keeps the score, and many of these messages are stored in the body, not just the brain.
We talk about getting to the other side of obligation sex in The Orgasm Course, and I hope that can help!
And we’ll be talking later this month about how to move beyond obligation sex.
But for today, I wanted you to understand something: The obligation sex message affects not just our beliefs about sex, but our experience of sex.
And it does this because of the messages that the body has learned. The body’s job is to try to protect you from things that harm you. When you sense that sex is harmful of your personhood, the body won’t desire it. Won’t want it. May even tighten up and experience sexual pain.
We need to get beyond obligation sex if we’re going to have people enjoying thriving sex lives in marriage. My books The Great Sex Rescue and The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex I hope will do that (and we wrote so much against obligation sex in the Guy’s Guide!). I’m so passionate about this. We need to spread the word that talking about sex like this in terms of obligation hurts women, and it isn’t okay. It’s not what God desires. It’s not right. It needs to stop.
I’ve got handouts in my Great Sex Rescue toolkit about all of our findings on obligation sex, and you can pick that up to share with your pastor or small group leader or counselor!
And this month, we’ll unpack more of this message so that hopefully you’ll be able to put it behind you for good!
What do you think? Does the body keep the score about obligation sex? Have you come out on the other side? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Obligation Sex Series
- 10 Things to Know about Obligation Sex
- Why Obligation Sex Destroys Libido (and how it affects us long-term)
- Are Obligation Sex and Marital Rape the Same Thing?
- A Way Forward to Recovery from Obligation Sex (coming soon)
- You Don't Need to Consent to Being Used (coming soon)
- When Your Husband Won't Let go of Obligation Sex (coming soon)
- The Obligation Sex podcast (coming soon)
Previous Posts on Obligation Sex
- Can We Honor our Bodies' Rhythms?
- Does 1 Corinthians 7 Mean that Women Have No Sexual Autonomy?
- What Happens When Men Believe the Obligation Sex Message?
Previous Podcasts on Obligation Sex
- New Research on the effects of Obligation Sex
- The Myth of the Magic Penis
- Marital Rape, Consent, and the Problems with Obligation Sex
Plus please see our Great Sex Rescue Toolkit for handy downloads about the effects of obligation sex that you can give to your pastor, counselor, small group leader--anyone who teaches it!
And see chapters 9 and 10 in The Great Sex Rescue for all our charts, stats, and commentary!