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.
Jane Greer, Redbook's online sex therapist, has a thriving midtown-Manhattan practice. When I asked her about what I had been hearing, she told me that she has seen many married couples who have gone without sex for periods of time ranging from six months to six years. Why? "Marriage has changed," she told me. "In the old days the husband was the breadwinner. The wife had the expectation of raising the children and pleasing him. Now they're both working and both taking care of the children, and they're too exhausted and resentful to have sex." I asked Greer the obvious question: If a couple is not having sex because of job pressures and one partner quits working, does the couple have more sex? The answer was immediate and unequivocal: "Absolutely!"
And this, of course, is the general plot of I Don't Know How She Does It, which has the heroine, Kate Reddy, playing dead in the sack for a world of nights until, at book's end, she resigns from her job and runs into her husband's arms. (We have been pointedly instructed by the author not to imagine that this character is based on her own husband, Anthony Lane, but it's just about impossible not to do exactly that.) "The hug wasn't that dry click of bones you get holding someone when the passion has drained away. It was more like a shadow dance: I still wanted him and I think he wanted me, but we hadn't touched in a very long time." Let us get one thing straight from the outset: despite its rapturous reviews, the book is not artful or literary or—to borrow Time's thunderously wrong adjective—"sparkling." It's full of stock characters, including a wise minicab driver who is forever making insightful remarks about the meaning of life. A pigeon family constructs a nest outside Kate's office window and teaches her valuable lessons about motherhood. "Phones may have become cordless," we are lectured, "but mothers never will." When Kate and her husband reconnect in a London coffee shop after a brief, miserable separation, "we both laugh, and for a moment Starbucks is filled with the sound of Us." (Funny, I thought that grating, deafening sound was the coffee grinder.) Still, though, the book has struck a chord—on an episode of Oprah devoted to the book Oprah Winfrey introduced it as "the new bible for working mothers." In particular, droves of readers report that the nature of Kate's marriage mirrors theirs exactly.
The dominant feature of Kate's attitude toward her husband—that is, before they resume making the sound of Us—is blistering contempt. Contempt for his work: he is a quietly successful architect, given to building whimsical little structures like Peace Pagodas, a pursuit that leaves him time to make pesto and watch Disney videos with the kids while she strides off to her high-paying, high-pressure job. Contempt for his inability to notice if the family has run out of toilet paper or whether the children are properly dressed for a birthday party. Contempt for his very existence in the household: when he wonders whether it would be such a bad thing if their uncooperative nanny quit, Kate tells him, "Frankly, it would be easier if you left." That the man entertains even a single amorous notion about this ball-breaker—much given to kittenish, come-hither comments along the lines of "Richard, I thought I asked you to tidy up?" and "Why the hell can't you do something that needs doing?"—is testament either to a libido of iron or to an erotic sensibility that leans toward the deeply masochistic. If best-selling novels succeed because they "tap into" something in the culture, surely this woman's helpless anger at the man who she thought was going to share her domestic burden accounts in part for the book's immense popularity.
Pearson told an interviewer, "Until they program men to notice you're out of toilet paper, a happy domestic life will always be up to women"—a sentiment almost unanimously held by the working mothers I know. What we've learned during this thirty-year grand experiment is that men can be cajoled into doing all sorts of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would. They will bathe the children, but they will not straighten the bath mat and wring out the washcloths; they will drop a toddler off at nursery school, but they won't spend ten minutes chatting with the teacher and collecting the art projects. They will, in other words, do what men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential. And a lot of women feel cheated and angry and even—bless their hearts—surprised about this. In the old days, of course, men's inability to perform women's work competently was a source of satisfaction and pride to countless housewives. A reliable sitcom premise involved Father's staying home for a day while Mother handled things at his office; chastened and newly admiring of the other's abilities, each ran gratefully back to familiar terrain. Nowadays, when a working mother arrives home after a late deposition, only to find the living room strewn with Legos and a pizza box crammed into the kitchen trash, she tends to get madder than a wet hen. Women are left with two options: endlessly haranguing their husbands to be more womanly, or silently fuming and (however wittingly) launching a sex strike of an intensity and a duration that would have impressed Aristophanes. The men who cave to the pressure to become more feminine—putting little notes in the lunch boxes, sweeping up after snack time, the whole bit—may delight their wives but they probably don't improve their sex lives much, owing to the thorny old problem of la difference. I might be quietly thrilled if my husband decided to forgo his weekly tennis game so that he could alphabetize the spices and scrub the lazy Susan, but I would hardly consider it an erotic gesture.
It turns out that the "traditional" marriage, which we've all been so happy to annihilate, had some pretty good provisions for many of today's most stubborn marital problems, such as how to combine work and parenthood, and how to keep the springs of the marriage bed in good working order. What's interesting about the sex advice given to married women of earlier generations is that it proceeds from the assumption that in a marriage a happy sex life depends upon orderly and successful housekeeping. Marabel Morgan's notorious 1973 book, The Total Woman, has lingered in people's minds because of the seduction techniques it recommends to unhappy housewives. They ought to consider meeting their husbands at the front door in sexy costumes (heels and lingerie, that kind of thing), calling them at work and talking dirty to them, seducing them beneath the dining-room table. (Morgan does not, however, recommend that women nurture a burning intelligence. In a list of unconventional locations in which to make love, she includes the hammock, counseling her readers, "He may say 'We don't have a hammock.' You can reply 'Oh, darling, I forgot!'"). But long before she describes any of these memorable techniques, Morgan gives a quite thorough accounting of how a housewife ought to go about "redeeming the time" and the energy so that she is physically and emotionally able to make love on a regular basis. A housewife should run her household the way an executive runs his business: with goals, schedules, and plans. She should make dinner—or at least do all the shopping and planning for it—right after breakfast, so that she isn't running around like a madwoman in the late afternoon with no idea what to cook. She should take time to rest and relax during the day so that she is not exhausted and depleted come whoopee hour. With the right kind of planning, "you can have all your home duties finished before noon." In a household run by an incompetent wife, however, "by the time her husband enters the scene, she's had it," Morgan writes. "She's too tired to be available to him." This seems a fairly accurate depiction of many contemporary two-career marriages, in which dinner is a nightly crisis (what to eat?) and an endless negotiation (who to cook it?) entered into by two people who have been managing crises and negotiating agreements all day long and who still have the children's homework and baths and bedtimes to contend with.
A document in circulation on the Internet purports to be a list contained in a 1950s home-economics book and announces that it is designed to offer future wives "preparation for married life." I recently attended a dinner party at which this list was read aloud by the hostess, to general hilarity, and I know of at least two classrooms (one at a prep school, the other at a graduate school) where it was read and received in similar sidesplitting fashion. The book advises the housewife to prepare for her husband's arrival at the end of the day: to have dinner ready, to minimize household noise and clutter, to avoid assaulting her man with a list of domestic problems and disappointments, and to inquire about his day. There was a sense back in those innocent years that a day at the office was a tiring event that required a bit of recuperation: a cold drink, a sympathetic companion, a decent meal—all of which, I suspect, functioned as a sexual tonic. The modern professional workday, as we all know, is far more demanding than its predecessors: it lasts much longer, and the various technologies that were supposed to liberate workers from the office have in fact made the whole world an office. (I recently sat on an otherwise deserted tropical beach, a few minutes after a spectacular sunrise, and watched a middle-aged American man march grimly through pellucid knee-high surf, barking commands on a cell phone.) When a professional person crosses the threshold at the end of the day, the commute hasn't provided a transition from work; it has been a continuation of it, thanks to the array of pagers, phones, and even Internet connections available to the modern driver. And—here's the kicker—there isn't just one spouse who has had such a punishing day, there are two of them. No one has spent even a moment planning a gentle re-entry into home life, let alone plotting a thrilling seduction.
Adding to a modern wife's reluctance to seduce the old man on a regular basis is the fact that her job outside the home has conferred on her a power that housewives simply didn't possess. In The Total Woman there's a quite frank acceptance of the fact that keeping a husband sexually happy is a direct route to a measure of economic power for the wife. A couple of days after Morgan's first night of giving her husband "super sex," he calls her to make sure that she will be home at three o'clock: "I couldn't imagine what was coming and I was stunned to see a truck pull up with a new refrigerator-freezer ... Now, without being nagged, he was beginning to give me what I yearned for." Later he lets her redecorate the family room. The women with whom Morgan shares the secrets of super sex (which, in case you are wondering, include not only making dinner early but also moaning a lot during sex and keeping your hands moving on your husband's body throughout intercourse) also get their share of perks. One delighted postcoital woman breathlessly reports to her classmates in a Total Woman workshop, "He has never brought me a gift before, but this past week he bought me two nighties, two rose bushes, and a can opener!" (Ah, would that Dr. Freud were still with us to contemplate that can opener.)
Although I have an amused tolerance for books like The Total Woman, I am not entirely incapable of good, old-fashioned feminist rage. The notion that even educated middle-class American women had to put out in order to get a damn refrigerator—even that they might "yearn" for one—just steams me. However, I would not advise against using sex for more subtle marital adjustments, of a type described in The Sex-Starved Marriage. Davis reminds women that one of the more effective ways to get a husband to be more considerate and helpful is to seduce him. She counsels a group of female clients who complain of angry, critical husbands to "pay more attention to their physical relationships with their husbands," to "be sexier, more affectionate, attentive, responsive, and passionate." Darned if the old bag of tricks doesn't work like a charm—the ladies arrive at the next therapy session giggling and thrilled with their new powers. To many contemporary women, however, the notion that sex might have any function other than personal fulfillment (and the occasional bit of carefully scheduled baby making) is a violation of the very tenets of the sexual revolution that so deeply shaped their attitudes on such matters. Under these conditions, pity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day's end. He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual maneuver, and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids' dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night.
A final, less quantifiable development has served to snuff out marital sexuality, and it has to do with the way middle- and upper-middle-class adults think about family life and their role in it. There are many indications of this, but let us simply glance at the Disney catalogue. Not surprisingly, in addition to toys and figurines the catalogue features Disney-themed clothing: bathrobes with Winnie the Pooh appliqués, stretch knit pants with a small Mickey Mouse at the hem, quilted "Magic Winter Jackets" featuring a choice of Eeyore, Mickey, or Pooh. Here's the problem: all these items are for adults. In fact, I was horrified to discover that it would have been possible for my husband and me to spend last Halloween trick-or-treating in matching Tweedledum and Tweedledee costumes—a pretty far cry from Marabel Morgan's idea of a good costume.
For many couples child-rearing has become not merely one aspect of marriage but its entire purpose and function. Spouses regard each other not as principally lovers and companions but as sharers of the great, unending burden of taking care of the children. And make no mistake about it: American middle-class families have made child-rearing a dauntingly complex enterprise. My children are still very small, but it has been made abundantly clear to me by friends and acquaintances that I had better get in the market for an SUV or a minivan, because I am soon enough going to be shuttling the children and their friends to a bewildering series of soccer games, soccer parties, soccer tournaments. Already I throw birthday parties with guest lists and budgets that approximate those of a wedding-rehearsal dinner. The curious thing about this labor-intensive variety of parenting is that it has arisen now, when parents—and specifically mothers—have less time to devote to their children than ever before. One can't help finding in these developments a frantic attempt at compensation for the hours some professional-class mothers spend away from their children. Mothering, which used to be a rather private affair (requiring, principally, a playpen, a back yard, a television set, and a coffeepot), has now adopted a very public dimension. Why, of course Sarah So-and-So is a good mother: little Andrew is at Gymboree, Music Rhapsody, Bright Child, and Fit for Kids every week! All of domestic life now turns on the entertainment and happiness not of the adults but of the children. At vacation time my husband and I don't drag our little boys through the Louvre, as I was dragged at a tender age (because my parents wanted to see it, and it would never have occurred to them to consult their children about where to go on holiday). Rather, we check into hotels with elaborate children's pools and nightly fireworks and huge duck ponds. It's all very jolly, but it is entirely possible, I suppose, that some parents will overidentify with the whole thing, will forget that they are in fact the adults and not the children. And if your conception of yourself is as a great big eight-year-old, you're not very likely to have sex on your mind come the end of the day.
When I was a teenager, in the 1970s, I was always quite happy to accept a baby-sitting job, because I knew that once I got the kids to sleep, I could read The Joy of Sex for an hour or two; I don't think I baby-sat for a single family that didn't have a copy. There was a sense that young parents of that generation—granted, I grew up in Berkeley, which may have skewed the sample considerably—were still getting it on. Similarly, the characters one encounters in Cheever and Updike, with their cocktails and cigarettes and affairs, seem at once infinitely more dissolute and more adult than most of the young parents I know. Nowadays, American parents of a certain social class seem squeaky clean, high-achieving, flush with cash, relatively exhausted, obsessed with their children, and somehow—how to pinpoint this?—undersexed.
If I Don't Know How She Does It, a book about a working woman who discovers deep joy and great sex by quitting her job and devoting herself to family life, had been written by a man, he would be the target of a lynch mob the proportions and fury of which would make Salman Rushdie feel like a lucky, lucky man. But of course it was written by a with-it female journalist, so it's safe, even admired. Allison Pearson, we have been given to understand, is telling it like it is. And what she's telling us, essentially, is that in several crucial aspects the women's movement has been a bust, even for the social class that most ardently championed it.
Given the curious alchemy of feminism, which transforms absolutely anything women choose to do into a crucial element of liberation doctrine, confessing that one has given up sex has become a very right-on and empowering act. A hot new collection of essays (all of them interesting and one of them—by Ellen Gilchrist—exquisite) titled The Bitch in the House is filled with such gleefully tendered admissions, including that of the writer Jill Bialosky, whose account of a long lunch with an old friend is featured on the book's jacket: "My friend asked me about my marriage. 'Are you guys having sex?' she asked bluntly ... I wanted to laugh." What's interesting about these public confessions—and, I suspect, what makes them so satisfying to women—is that they are utterly humiliating to husbands. Granted, Bialosky has protected her husband's privacy by referring to him as "D." throughout the essay—but perhaps, if her heart had really been in it, she would have written under a pseudonym. Clearly, sticking it to D. was part of her intention when she wrote and published the piece. Every account I've ever read in which a married woman admits she's not having sex anymore begins with a red-hot account of the sex she used to have with her husband before they had children. Before Jill Bialosky decided to cut off poor D., he was having the time of his life.
He pressed up against me in dark alleys. I gave him blow jobs as he drove on one of our weekend treks. We made out in taxicabs. There was a kind of volatile tension wired through our relationship that set my body on fire feeling his arm resting against mine in the dark cavern of a movie theater.
But now? "A little faucet had turned off inside my body. My veins were cold. I didn't want to be touched." And here—with that little faucet—is the heart of the matter. The Jill Bialoskys of the world may feel that they belong to the most outrageously liberated group of women yet to stride the earth. These women assume that in the very act of confession they are wearing the mantle of freedom. They are not only free enough to perform oral sex in a moving car—a bit of cutting-edge eroticism that, I believe, dates back to the Model T—but also free enough to admit, in tones of outrage and bewilderment, to the abrupt waning of their desire. What they don't understand, and what women of an earlier era might have been able to tell them, is that when the little faucet turns off, it is time not to rat out your husband (is there anything more wounding to a man, and therefore more cruel and vicious, than a wife's public admission that he is not satisfying her in bed?) but rather to turn it back on. It is not complicated; it requires putting the children to bed at a decent hour and adopting a good attitude. The rare and enviable woman is not the one liberated enough to tell hurtful secrets about her marriage to her girlfriends or the reading public. Nor is she the one capable of attracting the sexual attentions of a variety of worthy suitors. The rare woman—the good wife, and the happy one—is the woman who maintains her husband's sexual interest and who returns it in full measure.
Sex therapists concur that sexless marriages are not inherently problematic; if both partners are satisfied with a passionless union, the marriage is said to be in fine shape. But I'm not so sure. Marriage remains the most efficient engine of disenchantment yet invented. There is nothing like uninterrupted cohabitation and grinding responsibility to cast a clear, unforgiving light on the object of desire. Once children come along, it's easy for parents to regard each other as co-presidents of an industrious little corporation. Certainly, all sound marriages benefit from sudden and unexpected infusions of good will—What luck! Here we are, so many years later and still as happy as ever! But the element that regularly restores a marriage to something with an aspect of romance rather than of collegiality is sex.
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