Almost everything around us – movies, magazines, social media, even our friends and relatives – approach sex as something we ‘do’. In other words, sex is seen primarily as an activity. There are serious implications for this mindset.
If sex is merely something we ‘do’, it can be reduced to an action we do to someone or have done to us. At some point, both men and women are likely to feel used and guilty. This attitude that ‘sex is just an activity’ is responsible for most of the loneliness and isolation in marriage. Here’s how:
- Performance pressure. Most people never question the assumption that ‘sex is an activity’ and naturally assume that if it is something that we ‘do’, we should ‘do’ it well. Thus, prowess and performance creeps into our expectation of sex, with a focus on techniques and positions. Couples thus become performance orientated and develop a self-conscious or self-centred disposition. It can result in pressure to perform or experiment sexually, preoccupation with how we look and a loss of confidence in our ability to be attractive to our spouse. More significantly, it works against an other-centred orientation which is the essence of genuine love and the foundation of the deeply satisfying and intimate communion that sex is intended to be.
- Trivialisation. Another consequence of the ‘sex is an activity’ mindset is that we reframe sex as recreation. Because we think of sex as something fun to do, we can treat it as just another form of recreation, like playing sport or doing a hobby. Sensible people tend to put off recreation until the serious responsibilities of life are taken care of so sex gets relegated to the bottom of the ‘To Do’ list, after everything else is done. Seeing other activities as more serious or compelling will result in a lowering of the priority of sex in our relationship. Moreover, we will tend to put conditions on being sexual to ensure that it fits the ‘recreational’ stereotype: we have to be ‘in the mood’, it must be during leisure time, and everything has to be amicable between us. Net result: lovemaking happens less often.
- Objectification. The most devastating consequence of the ‘sex is an activity’ belief, is that it leads us to objectify each other. If sex is just an activity – a recreational activity for our pleasure – our spouse can easily be reduced to the ‘thing’ that gives us that pleasure. And if he or she does not satisfy us sexually, we feel justified in finding someone, or something, else that will. Both men and women can be guilty of this and unwittingly cause our spouse deep pain. Even when the objectification is mutual, the pain and guilt remain and corrode the tender heart of respect and cherishment at the centre of a thriving marriage.
The Pleasure Principle
All animals, human beings included, are wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Clearly, sex is one of the most pleasurable activities in which humans engage, but it would be wrong to conclude that pleasure is the purpose of sex.
This not to say that the pleasure of sex is bad or to be avoided. Far from it! Sex is intended to be pleasurable to encourage husbands and wives to engage in it... and often! It’s good for us and our marriage.
Consider this analogy. Eating is generally a pleasurable experience. The aromas, presentation of the food, the tastes, the atmosphere, the company all combine to create a delightful and pleasurable experience.
But it would be incorrect to say that the purpose of eating is pleasure. Rather, the purpose of eating is nutrition. The purpose of eating with others is relationship.
Both of these aspects of eating give us pleasure and that’s a good thing, but it is not true to say that pleasure itself is the purpose of eating.
The same applies to sex. Pleasure is a by-product but is not the core purpose of it.
Rather, sex is for life-giving union; to bond husband and wife and to facilitate the creation of new life. The pleasure we associate with lovemaking, is one of its gifts, but if pleasure comes to dominate our thinking and reason for lovemaking, we set ourselves up for trouble.
The Sex-Starved Marriage
In combination, these manifestations of the attitude that ‘sex is just an activity’, result in sex becoming less frequent, more impersonal and eventually soulless.
It also gives rise to the phenomenon of ‘sexless’ marriages – marriages when sex is so infrequent that it is virtually non-existent.
A sexless marriage is defined as one in which spouses have sex less than 10 times a year. And even in our sexually liberated society, there is a surprising number of sexless marriages – a whopping 15-20% according to some sources.
We’re not fans of setting standards of expected frequency and we’re well aware that there can be legitimate reasons why couples may not be having frequent sex, even for significant periods, including, for example, advanced age, health issues or work-related absence to name a few.
Other contributing factors to the sex-starved marriage are the increase in male impotency and the rise in general exhaustion among women working outside the home in conjunction with demanding family responsibilities, both of which are aggravated by the stress of modern living.
The reality is, all too often sex becomes the casualty of over-stressed couples locked in a ‘sex for recreation’ mindset. After all, if we’re busy and stressed, who has time for recreation?
The porn factor
How did we get here? We live in a sexually liberated culture yet more and more couples seem to be sexually unfulfilled. A big contributor is pornography which is corrupting the minds of the younger generation before they even have the chance to pass through puberty, let alone experience falling in love and marrying.
The ubiquitousness of porn is something that should concern us all. It ensnares men and women in an addictive habit that shapes our attitudes to ourselves, to the other sex and to marriage.
Porn perpetuates the ‘sex is just an activity’ myth. Its influence in our culture makes it harder for us as husbands and wives to maintain the authentic intimacy that is the foundation of tender, fulfilled lovemaking.
Why should this concern us? Is it really any of our business what couples do, or don’t do, in the bedroom?
Actually, it is our business. Sexual intimacy is one of the key indicators of marital satisfaction, so sexless marriages are more vulnerable to breakdown than sexually vitalised ones. Every divorce is a tragedy – not just for the spouses, but also for their children and the broader community.
Every marriage matters and that means that what happens in the bedroom is definitely a concern for the community.
Living in Love, With Love, Through Love
A short course exploring the application of the Theology of the Body to spiritual exercises for the married.
- Intro to key themes in St Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body
- An exploration of the role of sexual intimacy in marriage
- Five spiritual exercises designed specifically for married couples