A few years ago, a gaggle of female coworkers and I were eating lunch together. One woman, whom I’ll call Jessica, paused from eating her dinner-leftovers-cum-lunch and heaved an exaggerated sigh that reeked of exhaustion and annoyance with a hint of melodrama. It was clearly our cue to inquire as to what ailed her.
“It's Valentine’s Day,” she complained, dramatically rolling her eyes.
As someone who hates Valentine’s Day with an ire usually reserved for major offenses like sandals on callused feet and coffee breath, I empathized with her complaint.
When I advised that she simply ignore the pseudo-holiday, treating the day like any other, she looked at me like I’d just spit in her Tupperware filled with last night’s meatloaf.
“No. You don’t understand. It’s Valentine’s Day. We have to have sex. And I’m not in the mood since I’ve put on some weight.”
At the rate she was shoveling in the meatloaf, it looked like she wouldn’t be in the mood for a long, long time. But that wasn’t what bothered me. It was the fact that on certain days sex became some kind of obligation. Worse still, was that the other married co-workers nodded in agreement as if this was an all-too-familiar scenario.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t this be something you do because you want to?”
I asked. “Can’t you take a rain check tonight and put it off until tomorrow?”
Jessica stared incredulously. “But tomorrow’s not Valentine’s Day.”
I wasn’t picking up what she was putting down.
“It has to be today,” Jessica insisted. “Tomorrow isn’t Valentine’s Day. Everybody knows you have to have sex on Valentine’s Day. It’s like, the eleventh commandment.”
Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Nearly every year since I have been alive.
As I’ve gotten older and have begun watching those around me become harried with careers, kids and other time-consuming undertakings, the obligatory sex session — not being in the mood to have sex, but doing it anyway out of a feeling of obligation due to a specific event or celebration where sex is generally expected — has been something I’ve seen more and more of, and have even experienced myself once or twice. Interestingly enough, in many cases I heard while researching this phenomenon, obligatory sex took place as early as a couple’s wedding day.
Karla recalled the following exchange between herself and a friend prior to her nuptials.
“[My friend told] me when I went off to get married, ‘you have to promise me one thing.’” When Karla inquired about the promise, her friend replied that she had to have sex on her wedding night. Karla was godsmacked.
“Of course I’ll have sex on my wedding night,” she recalls saying.
Her friend shook her head. “ ‘No, [she said]. You’re exhausted. Trust me. Worn out after throwing a wedding. But if you don’t have sex, you’ll regret it.’ ”
Karla admits that her friend was right. By the time the wedding was over, she was bone-tired. “[My husband] was sick and it was late.” Although neither was in the mood, because it was their wedding day, they had sex purely out of obligation.
Other stories I heard involved obligatory sex on birthdays and anniversaries. “Anniversaries are the worst,” complained Ryan in his email. In a long-term, committed same-sex relationship, he confirmed that obligatory sex is not something exclusive to straight couples. “It’s not that I don’t want to have sex with [my partner], and I know this sounds like a bad excuse, but when our anniversary falls on a weekday—which it always seems to, by the way — I am just so tired. I work long, intense days. When I come home sex is usually the furthest thing from my mind. Most days this isn’t a problem. But on our anniversary it is.”
When I asked if his boyfriend pressures him to have sex on their anniversary or if the obligation is self-imposed, Ryan replied that “it’s self-imposed really. And I guess society-imposed, too. I would feel guilty if I didn’t have sex with him on our anniversary. I think other people would look at us weird, too. Like who doesn’t have sex on their anniversary? I think abstaining on that day would look like some kind of relationship failure.” When I argued that no one has to know what days of the year he and his partner are having sex, he responded “That’s true. But if they did know, they’d look at me weird. That alone is enough to make me feel I have to do it.”
Perplexed, I consulted an expert, Alex Katehakis, MFT, CSAT, CST. A psychotherapist specializing in sexuality and the founder and clinical director of Los Angeles’ Center For Healthy Sex, Ms. Katehakis has a wealth of knowledge on the topic and advice for partners dealing with obligatory sex hang-ups.
“Having sex when you don’t want to means you’re lying to yourself and to your partner. Lying means you’re compromising your integrity because you’re accommodating your partner at your expense, usually so as not to ‘hurt their feelings,” Katehakis explains.
Does that mean if someone is not in the mood he/she should absolutely abstain?
“There’s nothing wrong with making a choice to have sex when you’re not in the mood, because you know that having sex will ultimately be in service of what’s good for the relationship,” Katehakis advises. “You may start out luke warm but once things get going you know your body will respond, you will connect to your partner in a positive way, and then be glad you had sex afterward. The key here is whether you are in your integrity and being honest with yourself and your partner about your intentions or whether you are grinning and bearing it.”
When asked why sex is expected in our culture on certain days, Katehakis acknowledges, “People can have immature expectations and fantasies about what designated days mean. We have to remember that many of these holidays are contrived ‘Hallmark’ occasions reduced to consuming cards and gifts without much sincerity behind them.” Her solution? “People need to make their own rituals and agreements in their relationships. If one member of the relationship is tired, sick, or not feeling genuinely connected to the other then why should they lie and act like they are?”
Katehakis advises partners to be honest with each other, creating actual intimacy, instead of the pseudo-intimacy of an obligatory sex session. She notes the importance of empathy in mature relationships and says that loving relationships involve mutual respect. She also counsels not to take the situation to heart, as often, a partner’s lack of desire is not a personal slam.
“We have to learn to tolerate our partner’s differences and not make it about being unloved or unappreciated.” Ultimately, Katehakis believes sex out of obligation isn’t part of a healthy relationship. What is healthy? “Having sex because you want to connect and because you know it’s in the best interest of the relationship is [healthy].”
This past Valentine’s Day found me ensnared in a bad case of deja-vu. As a friend made self-deprecating jokes about shaving her legs for the first time in a week due to the sex “she had to have” that evening, I gently reminded her she didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t seem convinced. Through writing this article, however, I’ve gained a better understanding of the dynamics of obligatory sex and how to handle the situation in a constructive, healthy way. I will absolutely be better equipped to respond to friends and co-workers the next time I find myself being confided in about this all-too-common scenario. Healthy sex is about creating true intimacy; it’s not about lies, guilt-trips or compromising one’s integrity.
Sweetest Day, you’ve been warned.
For more information on Alex Katehakis’ stance about sex and sexuality, check out her book: Erotic Intelligence: Igniting Hot, Healthy Sex, While in Recovery From Sex Addiction.