Marriage and Sexuality: The Development of Healthy Sexuality within Marriage, and Boundaries to that Development Essay

Introduction:

 

Culturally, sexuality is a big deal.  The current North American society is obsessed with sex, both within marriage and outside of it.  Society portrays sex frequently as a means of expressing oneself, a way of dressing or acting (like wearing tight, brief clothing or lots of make up), as well as a way of connecting emotionally with a partner.  However, there are other social constructs, like religion, where sexuality is viewed quite differently.  People who define themselves as Christians will view sexuality in a very different way than those who do not.

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With all of these mixed messages about what sexuality is, married couples may find themselves struggling to develop a real sense of sexuality.  They may feel it is supposed to be the same as it was prior to marriage: exciting, spicy, frequent, etc., because this is how it’s frequently portrayed.  They may also see sexuality as something that is ‘dirty’ or ‘wrong,’ if they were raised with a strict religious view where sexuality is never supposed to be practiced outside of marriage.  However, married couples will then often run into a wall, because married sexuality is often quite unlike what society shows.  It is difficult for them to construct a sexual identity within marriage with so many conflicting images.

Sexuality is also a very personal issue, which every individual must struggle with.  Religion may be a part of a person’s sexual identity, or it may not.  A person’s early sexual experiences, or an interest in porn or other sexual symbols in society may be a part of it.  Each individual must evaluate these possibilities for him or herself.  Within a marriage, each individual must come up with a sexual identity, and these identities must be compatible with one another in order for the marriage to survive and be healthy sexually.

 

Part 1: Sexuality in Marriage

 

Marriage is a social situation in which two people are committed to one another “forever,” or until “divorce do us part.”  Marriage today is a way for people to pool resources, raise children, and gain sexual satisfaction.  Each person comes into the marriage with their own ideas about life and about marriage, which may or may not gel well with their partner’s.  This can lead to interesting conflicts and barriers to good sexuality within marriage.

There are plenty of books devoted to fixing broken marriages, many of them sexually-related.  This is because men and women both have unique sexual needs in marriage.  In fact, a lack of a sex life or a sex life that just “isn’t what it used to be” is almost always at least part of the reason for a divorce, which is an interesting notion.  So, obviously sexuality is important to husbands and wives.  According to a divorce lawyer who has learned quite a bit about what makes marriages fall apart (and what keeps them together), “…I can’t recall anybody ever telling me that they wanted a divorce even though their sex life was going great” (Cohen 65).

Sexuality has become such an important part of society and marriage that people are willing to end marriages over it.  Obviously, society believes that a strong, happy sex life is a key part of a marriage.  In non-Western cultures, this would not be considered a reason for divorce, as sexuality in marriage is simply a given.  Marriages are made for other reasons (arranged marriages for princes/princesses, etc.) and sexuality is not given a second thought, except for producing children.

Cohen continues, “The connection and intimacy that a good sex life affords plays a critical role in the well-being of any marriage.  In the early stages of relationships, couples sometimes have a harder time expressing their feelings, and often use sex to communicate positive emotions” (65).  Sexuality is a prime way to communicate in marriage.  Sex is something that married people only share with each other, while every other form of human communication – talking, hugging, etc. – are shared with nearly every other human.  Sex is the most intimate way of communicating.

This can be true even in non-Western cultures, where some couples find that sexuality is a satisfying way of expressing their emotions.  However, in some societies or some marriages, sexuality is entirely the man’s domain.  Sex happens only if and when the man decides he needs his wife, and she is forced to submit to him.  Although this a less common view of sexuality in Western worlds, some women today still feel that they should submit to their men as good wives.  This is more common in old-fashioned or Christian women.

Marriage therapist Michele Weiner Davis has ideas about why sex is important. She says: “Sex is an extremely important part of a marriage.  When it’s good, it offers couples opportunities to give and receive physical pleasure, to connect emotionally and spiritually.” (Weiner Davis, 8).  Physical pleasure and emotional connection are prime reasons why sexuality is important in marriage in the Western world.  Physical pleasure is something that people seek out quite often in North America.  People go to great lengths to find it, both within and outside of marriage.

A person’s sexual identity may stem from desiring pleasure, or wanting to give pleasure.  It may also stem from a belief that within marriage, sex is supposed to happen.  It may also stem from the belief that sex is only for procreation.  In the Western world, it tends to be more about the first idea rather than the later ideas.  A person’s beliefs about sexuality will affect his or her ability to be sexual within marriage.

In the following sections, women’s roles and men’s roles will be discussed, as well as how these needs play into marital sexuality and satisfaction.  Another section on barriers to sexual satisfaction will be discussed, and the final section will look at solutions and development.

 

Part 2: Women’s Roles

 

In the Western world, women have lots of reasons why they may not enjoy or want sex.  Weiner Davis says, “If you’re like many people who are lukewarm toward or even turned off to sex, relationship issues might be a big part of what’s standing in the way of your wanting to be close physically.  For you, emotional disconnection to your spouse is a real libido buster” (Weiner Davis, 11).   This is, in our country, a big reason why women may not choose to have sex, even within marriage.

In other countries, this is not an excuse at all.  Sex has nothing to do with love or connection, and instead requires women to submit to and fulfill their husbands’ needs.  A woman who is not faithful and does not allow her husband to have her whenever he wishes is not fulfilling her role in the marriage.  This is true in many Middle Eastern countries.

Perceived or real physical problems can also be an issue for women.  For women, pregnancy is a real possibility every time they engage in intercourse.  Once they have become pregnant, they go through immense physical changes which can seriously affect their libido.  According to Lewis et al, “Pregnancy is a time of change. Women’s bodies change, and relationships change as women and their families make plans to incorporate a new arrival into the family structure.”

In the Western world, pregnancy is very much out in the open, and women are not as affected by it as they once were.  Women celebrate their condition, and some feel decidedly more sexy than ever.  In other countries, pregnancy is shameful and needs to be hidden, or a pregnant woman needs protection.  It is possibly that a husband would not touch his pregnant wife in some cultures, and that she would be kept in the house.  In Middle Eastern countries, women are often kept in the harem as soon as they are pregnant or have children, which is a vast difference for some in comparison to their younger, pre-baby days.

Women in all countries struggle with this role, and how it affects their sexuality.  Motherhood no doubt changes things for all women.  In the Western world, it is common for women to believe that mothers are no longer sexual creatures, and to refuse sex for that reason.  In other countries, women may still have sex for procreation within marriage, especially to produce sons, but will not be viewed the same way as the proverbial ‘virgin’ is.

Women may also worry about being able to satisfy or please their husbands.  If they cannot do so, they may either avoid sexual contact or try to seek help.  According to Elizabeth Stanley, women tend to present these problems as gynecological issues if possible, assuming they discuss the matter with their doctors at all.  However, because the problems are embarrassing, women often don’t discuss sexual matters with their doctors (Stanley 39).  That means that if a woman is experiencing dryness or another physical symptom that is getting in the way of desiring intercourse, she is not getting help, and is only perpetuating the cycle.

This poses a different problem in different societies.  In North America, it may cause a spouse to feel hurt or rejected, and it may cause the woman to feel like less of a woman, because her sexual identity is a part of who she is.  A woman who cannot give or receive pleasure may feel like she’s failed as a woman.  A more old-fashioned woman may feel like she is actually happy that she is unable to have sex.  In the Victorian era, when sexual urges were considered bad, and reducing sexual frequency was primarily the woman’s job, any excuse – true or not – was good.  A woman who still feels this way may be pleased with her inability to have sex.

In other countries, women may feel poor and ashamed, and their husbands may turn them away.  In countries where polygamy is allowed, a woman’s lack of sexual ability may lead her husband to marry another, younger wife.  A woman’s sexual identity is extremely complicated.

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Part 3: Men’s Roles

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Men, too, have sexual needs.  While men are often touted as far less complicated than women, that is not always true.  Men can have complicated physiological and emotional needs, just as women do.  While men don’t have the same hormonal fluctuations that women do, they can still have hormonal issues.  Low testosterone can lower a man’s libido, making him uninterested in sex (Weiner Davis).  In almost every culture, a man who does not desire sex is seen as less of a man.  His sexual prowess is a large part of his identity.  Men in the Western world are ‘supposed’ to sleep with lots of women, or want to.  Even men who subscribe to religious philosophies saying that sex is only okay within marriage usually still want to satisfy their wives, and feel badly if they are unable or unwilling to do so.  For many men, the ability to satisfy their wife is a big deal, and they can feel like a failure if they cannot do it (Cohen).  This flagging sexual prowess has led to drugs like Viagra and Cialis, so that men can regain their virility.

This is often true in other countries as well.  Men who dominate women and who are sexually potent are seen as stronger men.  In many countries, including Eastern and Middle Eastern countries, the number of sons a man has is a sign of his sexual prowess.  If his wife is unable to produce sons, this reflects badly on him, and his pride suffers.

Emotional closeness plays a role in men’s sexuality in the Western world, although it is a subject that is often hidden and rarely talked about.  In public, most men would never admit that they enjoy sex on an emotional level; this is not a man’s traditional role.  However, in private, within marriages, this is absolutely a part of men’s sexuality.  Weiner Davis discusses this in her book, as married men say they don’t feel close to their wives, and so do not want to attempt sex with them.  As society is slowly changing to accept different views of men’s sexuality, this emotional man view is becoming more acceptable.

Some men may also be unable to perform if they feel that they are not “men.”  That is, if they are unable to succeed at work, or unable to provide for their families.  Men have been taught, growing up, that it is their job to be strong providers and to be successful, and a man who is struggling in these arenas of his life may also struggle in the bedroom (Weiner Davis).  This is true across many societies, although in slightly different ways.  In the Western society, a man must take care of himself and his family, or at least contribute to it.  In other societies, men must not only take care of their families, but must make sure they act appropriately in public.  If he cannot control his wife or his children, he is looked down upon.  All of these issues can make a man feel like less of a man, and therefore feel less sexually virile.

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Part 4: Barriers to Healthy Sexuality and Solutions

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People who come into a marriage with different expectations may be in trouble when it comes to healthy sexuality.  It is common for one person to desire sex more often than another.  This can be difficult and frustrating for both partners, because the more highly sexed partner feels rejected, while the lesser sexed partner wishes the other would understand and just leave him or her alone (Weiner Davis 4).  In the Western world, where sexuality is so highly valued, this is seen as a major problem that requires a solution.

In other countries, if the woman has the lower desire (which is stereotypically true), she will have to put up with her husband’s needs and allow him to have his way with her when he wishes.  If the man has lower desire, the woman will have to do without, because the man sets the tone in the relationship.

Weiner Davis’s solution to this problem is “Just do it” (12).  If spouses are not feeling very sexy, it can be easy to simply refuse sex over and over.  Often, she has found, spouses who allow themselves to relax and enjoy sex even if they were not feeling particularly sexy still enjoy the experience.  This is a solid solution in the Western world, where sexuality is important.  Being willing to engage in it even without feeling it is actually a good solution in almost every country, since in the Middle Eastern area, women will have to do this often whether they like it or not.

Because sexuality is such a big deal in North America, Cohen offers a sexual compatibility quiz (68) that allows partners to note how, and if, their needs are being met.  When shared, it can allow partners to communicate more openly about their sexual desires and needs, and have a greater chance of having those needs fulfilled.  This will lead to greater sexual satisfaction, and probably also more happiness in the husband and wife roles.

With communication also comes happiness within the relationship, as both partners feel emotionally closer to each other, and as they feel their needs are being adequately met.  Sexuality and the emotional relationship are completely tied together, and cannot be separated in a loving, fulfilling marriage.  If both partners are committed to making one another happy, and to fulfilling each others’ needs, no matter what sacrifices they both might need to make, then the marriage will be a fulfilling, loving, and happy one, as both partners feel good about themselves and their relationship.

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Conclusion

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Sexuality is a complex issue.  In different parts of the world, and even between different people in this country, it means different things.  For some, sexuality is the single most important variable.  For others, it is relatively unimportant.  For most, it is important, but not necessarily in the same way.

Men and women both have unique roles in sexuality, which may change depending on their own feelings or situations.  Men may feel impotent if they are unable to provide for their families.  Women may feel pressure to perform whether they want to or not.  Men and women may both feel differently after children enter the picture.

So many things affect sexuality, so the best advice for the Western world is communication.  That is, according to many sexual gurus, the answer to all problems here.  In other countries, “just do it” is often the answer (here, too, sometimes).  While the answer doesn’t matter, constructing healthy sexuality in a way that meshes for both partners is, so however both people agree (tacitly or otherwise) that their sexual relationship should happen, that is how it should be.

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Bibliography

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Cohen, Robert Stephen (2002).  Reconcilable Differences.  Simon and Schuster, New York.

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Lewis, Judith A., PhD, RNC, FAAN and Black, Jennifer J., MS, RNC (2006)

“Continuing Education Module: Sexuality in Women of Childbearing Age.”  J Perinat Education Spring; 15(2): 29–35.

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Stanley, Elizabeth (1987).  “Psychosexual Problems.”  British Medical Journal.

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Weiner Davis, Michele (2006).  The Sex-Starved Marriage. Simon and Schuster, New York.

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