In my late 40s, when I discovered my libido was on the wane, along with my hormones, I searched for a "fix." I read dozens of sex therapy books, wrote countless articles at my elephant journal column about my increasingly sluggish sex life, and even at one point journaled a 30-day daily sex challenge to see if I could jump-start my desire to a level remotely near my husband's.
Now, as a 52-year-old woman who has "been there, done that" when it comes to every sex variation possible (kink, same-sex sex, sex toys), I sometimes get a weary feeling when I read hugely popular articles on how to spice-up, jump-start, and repair flagging sexual activity. Here is why:
The underlying assumption never questioned in any of these articles, or in the culture at large, is the assumption that a good love relationship must have a healthy sexual component -- ideally, if you read Cosmo, a sexually sizzling one. Lack of sex is being treated like a nutritional deficiency to be resolved by more doses of hormones, drugs, and therapy sessions.
Often the subtle message being conveyed by sex therapist writers is that we must have a "sex life" rather than a life with sex (or without it). It's the difference between identifying as a "sexual being" or being sexual. The latter is about choice. The first is about compulsion and how we self-identify. (That I was a sexual being was surely true during my fertility years. But post-menopause, that is the last way I would identify myself).
I'd like to see a sex or relationship therapist, for once, champion the possibility that celibacy or infrequent sex is not a pathology. Because, of course, there are times in life where celibacy happens to be what is happening for various reasons.
For instance, menopause can be a factor for women (lower desire, decreased arousal, painful intercourse) or prostate surgery for men (that can involve erectile dysfunction). Both scenarios can lead a couple toward a more celibate union. Sometimes, too, in a spiritual awakening there is a natural draw (which looks like a drop in desire) to conserve vital force energy rather than expend it through orgasm.
A telling factor about how the culture pushes the sex life thing: When I went to a hormone clinic two years ago to discuss perhaps doing hormone replacement therapy, the doctor asked me: "Are you unhappy with your lowered libido?"
I said "No, why?"
She replied: "90 percent of the time women come in for HRT because their male partners are unhappy with the changes she is going through." In effect, in order to be lovable, a menopausal woman has to repair her sex drive, at a time when nature naturally is phasing it out.
Despite the societal thrust to make sure we are all having a rip-roaring sex life, sex and emotional well-being can be uncoupled -- they are not necessarily linked, as the cultural imperative would have us believe. Simply, the culture reveres sex and orgasms as if these two "gods" must be worshipped. What about the celebration of celibacy as an equally healthy option? I'd love to see sex therapy include celibacy on the menu of choices for a couple instead of diagnosing a non-sexually active couple as needing a remedy.
Of course, if one partner is miserable with an infrequent or non-sex life, then that needs to be addressed (perhaps an open relationship as an option, or other avenues for intimacy, such as cuddling and massage). But there are couples who are happily non-sexual -- and yes, these are mostly couples who've had children already and are well past the stage of wanting more (because let's face it, hormones do play a big role in sexual desire levels).
Finally, articles like this recent well-written but predictable hit "Doing Your Partner and Letting Your Partner Do You" that suggest zapping the sex life with a dom-sub twist can get things revving short term. But that too, will eventually become old news, not to mention the toll of the neurochemical 'sub drop' on a relationship that goes deep into the pleasure-pain games.
For a change, I'd like to see a sex therapist write about the upside of sex sabbaticals and how well-being can coexist in a union without the focus being all about "a healthy sex life."
In the meantime, I'll keep writing hugely unpopular appeals like this one that that question the idea that a deficiency of sex must be treated by a diet of more sex. Rather, what if times of celibacy can be an option for growth -- both as a couple and as an individual? What if in encountering who we are without a sex prescription, we discover who we can become beyond our habitual and culturally reinforced notions of how things should look?
It's in this spirit of discovery, I'm giving myself permission to step outside the sex-life box. I'll let you know where that takes me. (And I don't anticipate it's a monastery!)