The covert ops of long-term intimacy
Do you and your partner have a disparity in your sexual drives and habits? Is this a subject you find it easy to talk about or tend to keep to yourself and struggle with? Have you found your sexual needs have changed over time and altered the dynamics in a long-term relationship? Have you ever felt covert pressure to satisfy your partner? How do you keep the flame burning? This is the subject I want to share with you in this blog post and, because I’m not going to ask personal questions without sharing too, I’m going to start this off with a personal story.
Last night, I woke from a particularly disturbing dream about my partner and my brother discussing the demands of male sexual desire whilst I tried to argue the toss about their desire not being my responsibility and could I please just get into the goddamn bed and go to sleep?
Now there’s a whole host of stuff in here to make me wake in a heightened state of anxiety. The fact that my bed had changed, the room had changed, the chair in the corner my brother was perching on is actually an antique belonging to my mother-in-law, or that I was suddenly both privy to and the focus of discussions best kept between blokes, but that wasn’t what woke me with a lightbulbish clarity. Whenever a brother or father figure pops up in my dreams it’s a sure sign I’m trying to step beyond the immediate relationship with my partner to a more overarching relationship with masculinity as I experience it. Here, in the oddity of a dream, was a connection between issues that have eluded me for so long and caused me so much stress in long-term relationships.
Thankfully, at long last, women are beginning to talk about their negative sexual experiences; as children, during dating, in social groups, at work, in the community, etc. But an arena that remains closed is that of the long-term relationship. To talk honestly about our sexual experiences in this area is too close to betrayal. Often our troubles feel like a failure to, or a trial by, the person we love most and wish to sustain closeness to. Talking about them can feel like opening a can of worms. After a conversation with an IG buddy today about how sex scenes make her go ‘eww, yuk!’, eschewing the intimate details for the grander picture of love, the ghosts of past relationships seemed to rise in my bed and ask, ‘d’ya still need a hand understanding this, or you got this yet?’
Brother, I got this.
As a writer, what do you do when a dream kicks you out of sleep? You get the heck up and write some notes for a blog post. Because I want to ask both women, men, non-binary, queer and transgender, in all combinations of long-term sexual relationships how they cope with the dichotomy in their desires in a healthy, open, loving way. And I want very much to hear about this from BOTH sides of the bed.
In thinking about why the hell my brother (and which of the brothers three will remain nameless FOR. LIKE. EVER) was in this dream observing me and my partner negotiating sexual duties whilst adding in his two-pennies worth, I came to understand that male sexual desire is all too often perceived as a burden women have to alleviate. The flame of love that often carries us through the early years of a relationship without needing to worry about our differences can be dampened or extinguished by many trials in a long-term relationship, leaving sometimes only a flicker on one side or the other. In these times the desire felt so easily before can be reframed as a need for one party. In the same way that women are conditioned to believe that they must provide for the needs of others throughout life whilst also being responsible for their own needs, men are conditioned to believe that their need for sexual release is just one other of the many needs that are in some way their significant others’ duty to assist them in. From little boys to grown men, the difference in the satisfaction of their needs is just whose duty it becomes. And whilst, yes, in the world of social media and news, women are out there, fighting the fight and pushing us forward, and whilst, yes, there are boys out there who are being raised by sound women to understand that they are responsible for themselves, and whilst, yes, there are men out there who don’t fulfil this stereotype, still, yes, these conditioned patterns exist. At a recent wedding I attended there was a strained moment when three couples stood together and the men talked about their need for sex in the morning being something they regularly tried to get action on and something the women ran from as readily as possible, the blokes using the company of others to raise a subject more neatly avoided at home. The blokes were vocal in voicing their desire. The women awkward, guilty and annoyed in voicing their discomfort. All three couples being long-term relationships. In the same way that the voices of #metoo are highlighting the rife sexual harassment at work and in life, there is also, still, rife sexual stereotyping impacting many long-term loving relationships. Often passed off under the guise of healthy joking at parties.
There will be plenty who will protest that such sexual bullying is irrelevant compared to sexual harassment. That we must focus on the worst cases. But all too often the worst cases are symptomatic of an attitude that is the breeding ground for severe offenders. This is when we tend to hear the ‘not all men’ argument. No, not all men are rapists. But are all of us truly open and clear in the nature of our sexual relationships and desires? What happens on the front line takes a long, long time to filter down through the social strata. I consider myself to be a progressive, educated, self-motivated and determined woman. But I’m still a woman existing within a society that is shaped by the force of male sexual desire. Whilst many of my friends through the years have faced overt sexual aggression and left me riddled with guilt for not having to live with the consequences of being that one-in-three, I have suffered continual covert sexual aggression within my most loving relationships. Believing that it is only us who are experiencing this, believing that it is in some way our fault, is what has kept women silenced and enduring overt sexual aggression. But that same false belief also keeps women from being able to say, about the good men they love and are committed to, that the experience of their sexual relationship can also be difficult. This is not a matter of there being a hierarchy to negative sexual experiences, it is about recognising that overt and covert forms of oppression exist hand-in-hand and must be acknowledged together.
The number of times I have wanted to go to bed, exhausted from my day for so many different reasons, and felt the pressure of my long-term partner’s desire coupled with the sense that it is my responsibility to alleviate it. Too worn out to have to do one more chore, and unable to say that this is how sex feels in this moment. The number of ways in which this pressure has been couched to me: love, intimacy, desire, health, sleeping pill, stress reliever. The number of ways in which my options have been counted out: full sex, mute acquiescence, a blow-job or, at least, a hand-job. The number of ways in which I have had to bat off the request: headache, backache, gutache, heartache, stress, exhaustion. Like, literally, in my dream, all I wanted to do was get in the goddamn bed and get my head on my own pillow.
The very idea that, at least, we owe our partners a hand job to alleviate their needs, is the sentiment I want to drive home here. Tell me, when women are crabbing their way to the toilet at 5am, a hand cupped to catch the flow of blood as their period starts, are you free to give a hand then? When a woman’s period starts five minutes before a big meeting and she realises she changed handbags and left the tampons in the other one, are you free to give a hand then? When a woman is trying to juggle career, motherhood and homemaking, are you free to give a hand then? When a woman faces the glass ceiling at work or endures sexual harassment or gender stereotyping, are you free to give a hand then? But, at the end of the day, when your sex drive rears its head, it’s her responsibility to give you a hand if she’s not feeling like it?
Let’s look at the other side of the bed for a moment here. Why do men feel unable to speak openly about their sexual desire? Why do men end up resorting to covert manipulation to secure the intimacy they need? When did men learn that it was wrong to say, ‘excuse me darling, I need to masturbate, would it be okay for me to do it beside you, or would you rather I took a moment elsewhere for myself?’ Who taught them it’s much better to say, ‘well at least give me a hand if you can’t do anything more?’ Or turn the wounded shoulder lined with a guilt trip and a silent ‘you don’t love me’? At what point is a healthy discussion about disparity in sexual desire and the means to healthily self-love given to young people in understanding their own responsibility to manage a desire that may become disparate at times during a long-term relationship? Women got the lion’s share of physical workload when it comes to procreation and mostly manage their way through that mixed bag on their own. Why are we not with men who understand, or have been taught, or had healthy discussions with their peers, that their own burden can be an intensive, often relentless sex drive that needs to be managed by themselves, so that their shared sexual experience can be a mutually satisfying one that doesn’t overwhelm or oppress their partners? How many long-term relationships suffer and/or fail because the conversation is so difficult to have it’s easier to have an affair or find a new partner? How many partners fear that not fulfilling an oppressive sexual desire will lead to the loss of everything else about their relationship that they love?And how many long term couples think that the loss of sexual compatibility is merely the end of love, only to be replaced by the fresh flush of a new partner?
Instead, how about we both begin expressing our true feelings, Partner A: my sex drive is punching a hole in my gut, I need to do something about it but I’d much rather you did. Partner B: my own sex drive is non-existent right now, I’d much rather you did something about it yourself. A working towards understanding of both parties needs, not a priority of one over the other? Ignoring your partner’s sexual needs is being called the number one cause of divorce in recent times. But this doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of the partner with the higher sex drive, it means ignoring both partners’ needs.
There are so many ways in which gender fluidity can contribute to this debate, and this is such a huge topic to discuss without first acknowledging that my own, singular experience does not extend into stereotypes about all women, all men, or only women or men. What of men who are in the reverse situation? I’ve talked to blokes who have struggled with the demands put on them to perform sexually. To give total satisfaction to a woman with a higher sex drive than them. Or men who struggle with their partner’s desire fluctuating with hormones or contraceptives. What about people who have had their sexual appetite impacted by health? So, I’m not asking this question just of women, but sharing my questions from a woman’s perspective. The question I am asking here is; do you feel in some way responsible for the sexual contentment of your partner? And does that burden feel overwhelming to you? Or, do you feel unfulfilled by your partner? And does the burden of your desire seem your partner’s duty to handle? If the answer is yes, then I so want to hear from you. If you’ve been through these problems in a long-term relationship and found answers then I also want to here from you. You can email me at [email protected], to share your own experiences in this realm of sexuality and long-term relationships. I can then add the content as comments to this post (with your permission) to share with other readers.
I’m often asked why there seems to be such a lot of sex in my novels. I’m often bemused at how little sex is written about in a lot of novels, when it’s such a huge part of our lives. Exploring how healthy sexual intimacy is experienced opens up for me the ways in which unhealthy sexual experiences impact people. If we can’t talk, read, write and share about something so crucial to our health and happiness, how do we understand the ways in which trauma influences us? Writing is a way for me to understand sexuality, and to explore its permutations, in a society that all too often doesn’t want to have those discussions. So, let’s have a conversation, peeps. As we head into the next decade of the 21st century let’s open up the ‘eww, yuk’ ways in which we’re communicating and not communicating about sexuality. Let’s start admitting we both need a hand here.
And bro, get the heck out of my dreams, dude!