The Human Spark

The science of human development

Hyping Sex

The obsession with sex in marriages is creating tensions

Dissatisfaction with the level of sexual gratification each partner is receiving in a marriage is posing a threat to contemporary marital bonds. Although the unique pleasures of sexual intimacies have always contributed to the strength of the marital relationship, this class of pleasures has assumed a prominence in the marriages of the last half-century that might be unique in human history. A number of novels, films, television dramas, and documentaries imply that a marriage ought to dissolve if the partners do not enjoy mutual orgasms on a regular schedule. In the film House of Sand and Fog, a middle age husband says to his wife after a sexual intimacy, “We are blessed”. 

The new sexual imperative is even penetrating some Muslim nations. Shereen El Feki in “Sex and the Citadel” describes married Egyptian women who worry excessively over failing to be sufficiently satisfying to their husbands and married men who behave as if frequent sex and six glasses of water were the recommended minimal daily requirements for good health.

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The ascent of sex to a position next to food and water at the top of the pyramid of human needs, which had its birth with Freud early in the twentieth century and was elaborated by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues in 1948 and by William Masters and Virginia Johnson in 1966, assumes that  mutual sexual pleasure is, like freedom from performing any house chores, a marital right rather than a privilege. Psychiatrists legitimized this ethical assumption by inventing a historically new diagnosis which made weak sexual desire or an inability to have orgasms during  most intimacies  a mental disorder.

Men over fifty secrete less male sex hormone than they did in their twenties and, therefore, some  find it difficult to maintain every erection. Although this is a normal feature of aging, men have been told, and many believe, that they have an erectile disorder. These aging men would laugh if they were told that they had an endurance disorder because they can no longer jog a mile without feeling fatigued.                   

The broad dissemination of the notion that a healthy marriage requires regular, satisfying sex makes an unknown number of couples who are not meeting this criterion nervous. Of course, good sex, like good meals, good holidays, good parties, and good children, contribute to the marital bond, but none  is absolutely necessary. Marital bonds survive on the pleasures that arise from mutual laughter, describing the day’s frustrations to an attentive listener, sharing the beauty of a full moon, enjoying the same recreational activity, pride in children, and the understanding that each will be there should the  other be in need. The Japanese term “amae” captures this latter understanding. When orgasms are added to this list, so much the better.         

I suspect that sex was promoted to its current position as the bedrock of a stable marriage because historical events removed other traditional sources of pleasure that are enjoyed outside the home.  Married men and women used to participate on a regular schedule in varied recreations with same sex friends. Weekly gatherings to play poker, bridge, mahjong, bowl, or attend meetings at the local  Elks or Masons lodges have vanished in many cities and towns, leaving the marriage to pick up the lost moments of joy through better and more frequent sex. The conditions of contemporary life force many couples to withdraw into the home at the end of each work day and to place on the marriage  the responsibility for generating the majority of happy moments. It is not surprising that sexual pleasures would be nominated as a primary source of the expected bouts of joy.

The role of sex in marriage was less significant when America was born. George Washington, in a letter to his step-daughter who was considering marriage, told her that mutual felicity was the criterion to use in selecting a husband. The love that blossomed from sexual pleasure was a “mighty  pretty thing but, like all other delicious things, it is cloying; and when the first transports of the passion begin to subside, which it assuredly will do….it serves to evidence that love is too dainty a food to live on alone.”     

Relevant is a modern sentiment, amplified by the media, that a primary concern with one’s pleasure is the only rational strategy to follow, given the fact that natural scientists tell us that life has no ultimate meaning or purpose, other than reproducing the next generation. Economists say that self-interest ought to guide all decisions, and astrophysicists warn that in about three to four billion years the sun will expand in size, its heat will dry up all the planet’s water, and life on earth will disappear. Anyone absorbing this message even indirectly would be tempted to adopt a philosophy of “go for it”  now. If no metaphysical power  is looking and no one in the neighborhood cares what anyone does,  it seems foolish to deny the self what is advertised as life’s greatest pleasure and supremely clever to get as much sex as possible before the gauge on the store of libidinal energy says empty.

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

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