The Wifely Duty

Marriage used to provide access to sex. Now it provides access to celibacy

During two strange days in New York last winter, three married people—one after another—confessed to me either that they had stopped having sex or that they knew a married person who had stopped having sex. Like a sensible person, I booked an early flight home and chalked the whole thing up to the magic and mystery that is New York. But no sooner had I put my coat on the peg than it started up again. A number of the mothers in my set began making sardonic comments along similar lines. The daytime talk shows to which I am mildly and happily addicted worried the subject to death, revived it, and worried it some more. Dr. Phil—who, like his mentor Oprah Winfrey, has an uncannily precise sense of what American women in the aggregate are thinking about—noted on his Web site that "sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic." Mass-circulation magazines aimed at married women rarely go to press these days without an earnest review of some new sexual technique or gadget, the information always presented in the context of how to relight a long-doused fire. (And I must say that an article in Redbook that warns desperate couples away from a product called Good Head Oral Delight Gel—"the consistency is like congealed turkey fat"—deserves some kind of award for service journalism.) Patricia Heaton, a star of Everybody Loves Raymond, has published a memoir called Motherhood and Hollywood, in which she observes, "Sex? Forget about it. I mean that literally." Books with titles such as Okay, So I Don't Have a Headache and I'm Not in the Mood have become immediate hits, and another popular book, For Women Only, lists various techniques that married women use to avoid sex, from the age-old strategy of feigning sleep to the quite modern practice of taking on household night-owl projects. And Allison Pearson's much loved novel about a busy working mother, I Don't Know How She Does It (which opens with the main character engaged in just such a late-night project), features a woman so tired that she's frantic to escape sex with her husband, prompting Margaret Carlson, of Time magazine, to observe, "Sleep is the new sex." It has become impossible not to suspect that a large number of relatively young and otherwise healthy married people are forgoing sex for long periods of time and that many have given it up altogether.

And so we turn our curious attention to the marital therapist Michele Weiner Davis, whose new book, The Sex-Starved Marriage, is so well timed and so aptly titled that it is primed to become a cultural sensation. Davis is not particularly interested in the cause of this strange turn of events, though she tosses around the expected observations about the exhaustion that dogs contemporary working parents and the reduction in lust that has always gone along with marriage. Hers is not a deep-thinking, reflective kind of book but, rather, a get-cracking-and-solve-the-problem kind of book. Solutions? She's armed to the teeth with them. She has created a "passion-building toolkit" filled with "field-tested" techniques—none of them bad. Although I found Part IV ("Doing It Together") far more appealing than a scary mini-chapter called "The Do-It-Yourself Solution," her notions about how to jump-start the old hanky-panky seem eminently reasonable. Make "romantic overtures," she counsels. A wife might buy some new lingerie; a husband might wear flattering clothes. Most important, though, is a recommendation based on exciting new "research" revealing that for many people, waiting for the urge to strike is pointless; better to bash ahead and hope for the best. Davis asks, "Have you ever noticed that although you might not have been thinking sexual thoughts or feeling particularly sexy, if you push yourself to 'get started' when your spouse approaches you, it feels good, and you find yourself getting into it?" Many of her clients have received this counsel with enthusiasm. "I really wasn't in the mood for sex at all," reports one of her advisees after just such a night, "but once we got started, it was fun. I really enjoyed it."

What's odd here is not the suggestions themselves—each seems quite sensible, and I myself can vouch for more than one of them—but, rather, the generation that apparently needs them. American adults under the age of fifty tend to know more about sex and its many delightful permutations than did streetwalkers of an earlier century. When Davis describes the process of arousal ("You notice a feeling of fullness in your pelvic area as your genitals become engorged with blood"), you might think she was addressing a seventh-grade health class rather than adults of the post-sexual-revolution era. Yuppies, with that winsome arrogance that is all their own, proudly describe the nature and frequency of their premarital couplings with a specificity matched only by advanced seminars on animal husbandry. The reason abortion rights hold such a sanctified position in American political life is that they are a critical component of the yuppie program for maximum personal sexual pleasure. But let these inebriates of nooky enter marriage, a state in which ongoing sexuality often has as much to do with old-fashioned notions of obligation and commitment as it does with the immediate satisfaction of intense physical desire, and they grow as cool and limp as yesterday's Cobb salad.

All of this makes me reflect that those repressed and much pitied 1950s wives—their sexless college years! their boorish husbands, who couldn't locate the clitoris with a flashlight and a copy of Gray's Anatomy!—were apparently getting a lot more action than many of today's most liberated and sexually experienced married women. In the old days, of course, there was the wifely duty. A housewife understood that in addition to ironing her husband's shirts and cooking the Sunday roast, she was—with some regularity—going to have relations with the man of the house. Perhaps, as some feminists would have us believe, these were grimly efficient interludes during which the poor humped-upon wife stared at the ceiling and silently composed the grocery list. Or perhaps not. Maybe, as Davis and her "new" findings suggest, once you get the canoe out in the water, everybody starts happily paddling. The notion that female sexuality was unleashed forty years ago, after lying dormant lo these uncountable millennia, is silly; more recent is the sexual shutdown that apparently takes place in many marriages soon after they have been legalized.

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Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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