Every now and then I read something that suggests that if you’re not on the giving end of sex, you’re doing it wrong. The argument follows a few leaps of logic:
- It’s better to give than to receive;
- Therefore, to desire your own pleasure is to put yourself before your intimate partner;
- Therefore, if you’re not giving, you’re abusing.
Now OK, if you’re in a sexual relationship and you’re giving not nearly as often as your intimate partner, then that points to an imbalance and raises questions about the overall health of the relationship. But I can’t reconcile myself to the idea that a healthy sexual relationship means you should always be contributing to the pleasure of your intimate partner.
My husband and I were very much in love and committed to each other when we married, but for the first three years our sex life was largely pleasure-less. Even when we had an enjoyable experience, I came away as if I had no memory of it. There was no joy of anticipation, only dread and weariness, conjured from the memories of failed encounters and the shame of counting the days – even weeks – between each sexual attempt. I was filled with uncertainty and confusion over my body, as it refused to make up its mind about what it liked it, but kept responding with pain and awkwardness.
Throughout this time there was definitely a problem in my lack of desire for sexual pleasure, but I think the bigger problem was that I was unable to receive it: I was indifferent to my husband’s touch.
So when things did change – and that was with the help of professional psychosexual therapy, after I finally believed I wasn’t being whiney – it was unsurprising that being able to receive my husband’s affections was one of the things that I treasured very highly.
However, even as things in the bedroom improved, we still fumbled about each other’s bodies and only rarely were we able to contribute to the other’s pleasure at the same time.
And this is why I have such trouble with the notion that if you’re not giving/contributing during sex, you’re doing it wrong.
It sounds noble. After all, if you’re giving, then you’re “other-centred” and not “self-centred”; if you’re giving, you’re not focussing on pleasure itself, but on another person. I don’t have a problem with either of these ideas as general principles for relationships and living, but I do think that if you apply them too seriously when it comes to sex, you’re fundamentally missing the fact that sex is meant to be a form of play.
Yes, there is always a place for self-control in the bedroom, but the act of sex is not about self-denial. Each person needs to be allowed to feel focussed on and enjoy pleasure. And if both parties can get that at the same time, fabulous; but if they can’t, let’s not get hung up about it.
Having one-sided sex doesn’t mean your sex life must become an exchange of obligations. Sometimes people talk of ‘give and take’, using the phrase to promote balance between people. However, this can encourage thinking of marriage – or sex – as a contract, which in turn can foster a feeling of entitlement, and that can lead to… bad stuff. It’s a good thing that you hear Christians emphasising the giving side of sex or that marriage is a covenant, but that doesn’t mean you always have to be giving.
Each time my husband and I came to sex, we actively chose to see it as a gift given, not a payment made. I stopped counting how often I did things for my husband, and how often he did things for me, and how long it had been since each sexual encounter. There was no need; we knew that if either of us asked, we would receive. (And we had already proven that even if one of us did go through a dry patch, they still loved the other and were loved by them.)
It is better to give than to receive. Far be it from me to argue with Jesus on that. Though, instead of saying that a person must always be giving, or that they may only receive if they are giving at the same time, I say let a person receive. Why else are gifts given?