Love & Sex

Please Stop Having ‘Sympathy Sex’

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Throwing someone a bone won't save your relationship. It will make for a miserable sex life.

In the oddly compelling Reddit forum Dead Bedrooms, a support group for Redditors who are suffering in relationships with a lack of physical intimacy, there's been a lot of discussion about sympathy sex lately. Sympathy sex, duty booty, pity pussy, whatever term you want to use, is an umbrella term to describe the uncomfortable experience of having a partner or being a partner who only engages in sex with their lover out of guilt.

Whether it's a reluctant husband rolling over as his wife suggestively strokes his penis or a girlfriend submitting to the stalwart prod of a boner against the small of her back, it's an unspoken agreement to engage in a sex act—not because you both want to, but because one partner is trying to accommodate the other's greater desire. As Redditor bmunny1963 writes, "We've gotten to the point where the only sex that happens is when I initiate and she submits, usually out of obligation and duty. It's not the kind of sex I want, but I'm so desperate for intimacy." What results is perfunctory sex for both partners, and even if one of you orgasms, there's a lack of happiness and probably very little post-coital high-fiving. In fact, I'm fairly certain duty booty more closely resembles a business handshake, but with genitals. 

Sympathy sex is problematic in that it breeds insecurity about all other sex. It keeps a penetrating lubey band-aid over a festering wound that would be better served with a hearty long-overdue conversation. Communication is integral to a good sex life, any sex expert or subway psychologist will tell you that. But pity pussy treads right over communication and beelines straight to resentment, "just lying there," and the perpetuation of a terrible no-good very silent sex life.

Author Tracey Cox is notably in favor of sympathy sex, saying that it's a sacrifice we all must make in order to have successful long term relationships. She argues, "Let's be realistic here: you might not say 'to love, honor and shag' but that's what's implied when you make a commitment to only sleep with each other." But with the implication of pity sex comes the very troubling and incredibly dangerous implication that, sometimes, sex is owed to us.

Take, for example, another Redditor's admission: "Quite honestly, there's a part of me that no longer cares about what she feels about submitting out of obligation. I feel owed and I want to collect. Kinda like a creditor that will take partial payments." Listen folks, we're in trouble when we start thinking of ourselves as "creditors" while we're inside our loved ones. Sex in a relationship is not an act of commerce. The last time I heard that kind of bedroom talk was when the Wife of Bath discussed "marital duties" in Chaucer. But we don't live in 14th-century Europe, we don't practice bloodletting, and we aren't throwing our chamber pot slop out the bedroom window because that stuff was real old, nasty, and needed to die. So does sympathy sex.

Sympathy sex isn't sex-positive. Pity sex isn't the meeting of two fleshy bodies psyched to be near one another. The third G in Dan Savage's GGG theory is being game, after all. Treating sex as an errand also raises major gray area when it comes to questions of consent. When do the expectations of joy and pleasure become a part of our consent process? Even if we are willingly doing the deed, it's not really explicit whether the absence of our interest and pleasure also means the other person is taking advantage of us or if we're letting ourselves be taken advantage of. If there's not at least some promise of pleasure, some scent of sexual fulfillment wafting in the air, we probably shouldn't be putting our boners and vaginas near it.

Surveys say 25 percent of us are submitting to the doldrums of sympathy sex on a regular basis, but it doesn't mean we should be. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. There are just some nights when period cramps render you unfuckably in the fetal position, times when you've honestly just masturbated before dinner, or even nights when this new Zadie Smith book is just way too good to put down, one more chapter, please. But if we've having sex for the chore of it, despite the look of vacancy in our partner's eyes, we probably need to evaluate why we're inside of this person and have a long, long talk with them about it. Because sex should be fun, exhilarating, pleasurable, satisfying, and a two-way street. And we all need high-fives, damnit.

Image via Flickr.