In our culture, a satisfying marriage equals good sex. To have a fulfilling union— we’re told— we must have mind-blowing, multiple orgasm-inducing coitus. Sex columnists inform us there’s a “normal” number of times “happy” couples have sex.
Yet most of us fall short of these expectations. Compared to Samantha’s evermore scandalous sexcapades on Sex & the City and the glossy pages of Cosmopolitan, our erotic rendezvous seem shamefully tepid. Usually after work, we’re not racing to hit the sheets with our husbands— we’re looking forward to dozing off with some NyQuil and heading to bed. Our time in the bedroom isn’t an X-rated porno— it’s most often as routine as reciting a grocery list. After the blissful honeymoon phase, our lovemaking becomes more and more mundane and less and less frequent. We make less of an effort to seduce our partner; we no longer surprise them with racy lingerie or experiment. Our most imaginative sex position is missionary. There’s no more provocative dirty talk or tantalizing foreplay. The majority of our conversations circulate around practical, business-like things: who’s going to get milk from the store, who’s going to pick up Sarah from her soccer game.
For many, this shift in our sex lives is a source of endless doubt and insecurity. Have we— god forbid— become boring? After twenty years of marriage, have we let the fire of our lovemaking fizzle out? Have we lost the lust and longing of our younger days? Is something irreparably wrong with us if we’re not red-hot with desire for our partner or having sex the recommended once a week?
In her paradigm-shifting interview in Conversations on Love, writer, researcher and sex educator Emily Nagoski debunks many of the myths surrounding sex and normalcy. According to Nagoski, desire isn’t the most important thing in a relationship. In fact, biologically, our bodies only want sex because it’s a way to form attachment. In the early stages of a romance, we feel more carnal longing for our lover— not because we’re so head-over-heels or because they’re so attractive— but because we’re trying to solidify our union. Our desire is directly proportional to the instability of a connection. If, for example, we’re dating an emotionally unavailable guy who showers us with affection one minute only to forget to return our call for six days, we’ll lust after him because, from a biochemical perspective, we want to secure the connection. Ironically, the more safe and secure we feel with someone, the less we want to have sex with them.
“This is at the core of why desire is bullshit,” Nagoski says. A decline in desire does not spell the doom of a relationship. Our libido naturally wanes once we’re in a committed, long-term marriage.
In our rose-colored culture, we’re obsessed with romance. Jack & Rose. Rick & Ilsa. Romeo & Juliet. We want passion and infatuation and drama. We hunger after whirlwind wedding proposals and bold proclamations of devotion. We think that if we “loved” our partner as much as Jack loved Rose, we’d be overcome with all-consuming, uncontrollable longing. Our midnight romps— we imagine— should be as fervent and frenzied as their steamy sex scene.
When our sex lives aren’t as explosive as the ones we see on the silver screen, we feel like failures. Why, we worry, don’t we ever just want to rip our partner’s clothes off? Why do we so rarely feel filthy, primal hunger?
Surely, there’s something wrong with us.
For Nagoski, the only thing wrong is our culture. Though movies portray love as a heady, passionate affair, in real life, we rarely feel spontaneous desire. After several years with the same partner, we seldom want sex out of nowhere; we feel what Nagoski calls responsive desire— we want sex in response to the act itself. It’s like writing: when we first sit down at our desks for the day, we’re almost never in the “mood” to write. However, the act of writing inspires us to write one sentence after another (“Writing will create the mood,” the phenomenally prolific Joyce Carol Oates once assured blocked writers.)
In the same way, sex creates desire. We might not be in the “mood” when our husband first longingly looks into our eyes, but— if we’re open— his amorous kisses and playful flirtations will often whet our sexual appetite. If we want to sustain a relationship over the long haul, Nagoski suggests, we need to take a decidedly unromantic approach to sex. Rather than wait until we’re magically “in the mood,” we must make the mood: light some candles, pour a few glasses of red wine, wear our raciest lingerie to bed. The reality is our desire won’t always be a blazing flame— sometimes it will only be a few glowing embers. But love means reaching for our partner time and time again and trying to fan the fire.