On Reasons to Have Sex, and on an Ill-Defined Relationship

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe,

I’m a 35-year-old woman and have been with my wonderful husband for seven years, married for four. During a recent conversation with one of my close friends, I told her that while my husband and I have a very enjoyable and active sex life (usually about three times a week), I do occasionally have sex with him even when I’m not at all turned on.

My friend was aghast, implying that this was unhealthy and that not only must I be deeply unhappy, but I am being emotionally coerced into having sex with my husband. I know my friend means well and is trying to protect me so I’m not angry, but she’s single and very into mad sexual escapades, and I did find it difficult to articulate why having sex isn’t always a 50 Shades of Gray fantasy without reverting to the old “You’ll understand when you’re married” trope.

I don’t want to be patronising but would also love some help explaining why I’m not in need of saving, and that actually, within the context of my gloriously happy marriage, I’m quite happy with occasionally having merely okay sex. Thanks!

Dear Letter Writer,

Firstly: thank you. You have officially fulfilled my lifelong dream of explicitly being requested as an outside consult during a strangers’ debate, helping me to satisfy my nosiest desires.

Secondly: on behalf of single women everywhere, another thank you for not being the “You’ll understand when you’re married”-type of friend. Because those types of friends make me want to become the “You’ll remember when you’re divorced”-type of friend, and then all the friends get violent and soon all of the friends are dead and there are morticians pronouncing the cause of death as unbearable shade, and all of the friends’ mothers are grieving and deeply confused because they never watched RuPaul’s Drag Race and the whole thing just isn’t worth it.

Thirdly: a final thank you for asking this question, because it’s important.

There’s an interesting catch-22 of modern discourse surrounding sex. We’re increasingly becoming more comfortable admitting that having sex is physically pleasurable, and so we should be able to enjoy and celebrate that without shame. This is an incredibly important social development (particularly for women), and is promoting far healthier attitudes and more honest discourse about sex.

However, despite having built a culture on the premise that sex often fulfills more purposes and needs than just physical pleasure, sometimes the sex-for-pleasure focus of modern discourse leaves us loath to admit that sex often isn’t about indulging rip-your-clothes-off levels of desire or automatically resulting in multiple orgasms for everyone involved – and that having sex without that level of high-velocity desire and physical pleasure is not only okay, but possibly very healthy for your relationship.

Having a healthy relationship depends on having an honest one, and if we’re all being honest, we need to admit that that sexual desire is not always a simultaneously occurring phenomenon, that both being rejected by and rejecting your partner can be a fraught experience, and that you can absolutely be open and receptive to having sex without necessarily being hugely turned on.

Now, I love and appreciate your friend for being protective, and for knowing that many people – particularly women – can often feel physically and/or emotionally coerced into having sex. Those sexual experiences can thus be hurtful, violating, and/or non-consensual, and need to be addressed, urgently. So good on her for looking out for you.

However, what she’s missing is the difference between having sex when you’re not turned on, and having sex when you don’t want to – and that difference is very important.

In a study by Cindy Meston and David Buss, they report 237 reasons that men and women cite for having sex – unsurprisingly, not all (or even close to all) of these were to do with sexual desire. The reasons ranged from “I wanted to show my affection to the person” and “I wanted to express my [emotional] love to the person” to “I was afraid to say no.”

Now, obviously even in the above examples there is a huge chasm between understandable and even good reasons to have sex, like when you want to provoke positive feelings in your partner or you both, and scary reasons, like when it feels coercive, non-consensual, or like a way to avoid negative consequences.

The latter can obviously be harmful, and the difference between these categories has also been studied. Amy Muise, Emily Impett and Serge Desmarais examined people’s motivations for having sex, and divided these reasons into two categories: approach goals and avoidance goals.

Approach goals essentially refer to having sex with your partner to experience or provoke something positive. Examples could include “I want to feel close to my partner,” “I wanted my partner to feel good about themselves,” and “I wanted to show my gratitude for something my partner did.”

Avoidance goals, on the other hand, refer to having sex with your partner to avoid experiencing or provoking a negative feeling. Examples could include, “I wanted to prevent my partner from getting angry with me,” and “I didn’t want to ruin the mood.”

The researchers found that when people had sex for approach reasons, they felt more sexually and emotionally satisfied – even if they didn’t have a huge amount of purely sexual desire before and during the sex.

In contrast, when people had sex for avoidance reasons, they reported being less sexually and emotionally satisfied.

It’s fairly common-sense really. If sex is allowing you to experience, communicate and express positive emotions, the benefit of doing so can feel worth not having the most physically enjoyable sex of your life.

But if sex is a way of temporarily avoiding a negative emotion or situation, it’s likely that the negativity will arise again in your relationship, so the underlying issue is still there – and you’ve compounded that issue by having physically unpleasant and emotionally unconnected sex.

Given that you’re pretty happy with your sex life and your husband, I’m guessing that your reasons for occasionally having sex with him when you’re not feeling “Just watched Magic Mike” levels of friskiness are on the approach side of the spectrum, and are communicating contentment and happiness and closesness and all that good stuff.

And that’s okay. And you can tell your friend I said so.

But also tell her that she’s a good friend for worrying about you, and that you support her mad sexual escapades, and that she should write in to me about them because she sounds like she has some GREAT stories.


Dear Roe,

I’ve been with my “boyfriend” for just over three years, although I spent last year in a different country and it became a long-distance kind of thing, a very difficult thing. We didn’t want the burden of the “boyfriend-girlfriend” label. We want to be able to go to a party and not feel the niggling need to mention to a person we’re having a conversation with that we have a boyfriend/girlfriend. We want to feel as free as possible, independent of each other, and simply love each other.

And we do. We are both very independent people, travelling a lot and we have talked about how this relationship is a constant, evolving, intrinsic part of our lives that will always be there no matter where in the world we are. But I’m beginning to think that this is an all-too-rosy, contradictory, and unrealistic way of seeing things.

Last summer, when I was away, he met someone and had an instant connection. They had an affair for a few months. It was something that was intense, short-lived and very secretive, which was part of the excitement/lust. I am the only other person who knew about it, as well as the friends I confided in. They don’t speak anymore, and he assures me that what it was wasn’t even close to what we have, and that he was in a confusing frame of mind at the time.

It broke me for a few months and I only emerged from that darkness of paranoia and social-media stalking around March, although I do find myself typing her name into the search bar automatically every now and then. Not out of spite, but just as a catch-up. I feel like I know her now through social media, and I find myself liking her.

With my “boyfriend” we are closer than ever, and I am happy with him. But I do get niggling feelings at times that something is not right, like when the odd thing reminds me of her, and I get a sickness in the pit of my stomach. I think I’m still slightly paranoid and maybe not as free as I could feel.

Do these things just take time? Am I naive in thinking that the idea of us that we have always and continue to talk about will last? Or is it time for me to move along and get on with it?

Dear Letter Writer,

Darling. Here’s the thing. You feel paranoid, and sometimes sick to your stomach, and not very free right now for one simple reason: you’re in a relationship and your boyfriend cheated on you.

He doesn’t want to be called your boyfriend and you don’t publicly refer to him as your boyfriend. But you think of him as your boyfriend. Wanna know how I know? Because in your very first sentence to me, you call him your boyfriend.

Sure, you put some punctuation around it, as a nod to your alternative arrangement. But in reality, the punctuation around the word “boyfriend” does as much to distinguish it from the commonly accepted concept of boyfriend-ness as your alternative arrangement does to distinguish itself from the commonly accepted concept of a relationship: fuck-all.

Let’s look at the traits of your relationship that you describe:

You both travel a lot (aka a Long-Distance Relationship). You refer to him being with another woman as an “affair” (aka a Monogamous Relationship, or Open Relationship with Certain Expectations of Trust and Fidelity).

“We have talked about how this relationship is a constant, evolving, intrinsic part of our lives that will always be there no matter where in the world we are” (aka a Healthy Relationship with Long-Term Goals).

“We want to be able to go to a party and not feel the niggling need to mention to a person we’re having a conversation with that we have a boyfriend/girlfriend” (aka a Relationship Between Normal People Because If You Feel the Need to Mention You Have a Boyfriend/Girlfriend in Every Conversation You Have You’re an Insecure and Exhausting Individual and I Bet You Always Hold up the Line at Starbucks With Your Inane and Unsolicited Babbling to the Barista About Your Relationship Status).

Nothing you’re doing is inherently radical or revolutionary or different to other people’s relationships. So I don’t know why what you have is really different to anyone else’s relationship – and I don’t think you do either.

It’s important to you, and affects you, and you’re thinking about a future together, and you had an expectation around fidelity that he broke, which left you hurt. You’re in a relationship. And he cheated.

But because you two don’t call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, you don’t feel truly able to own the experience of being cheated on – even though you’re living the experience of being cheated on.

And you don’t know if he felt more justified in cheating because you don’t call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, and because that hasn’t changed you don’t know if he’ll feel justified in cheating again.

And even though you thought not calling him your boyfriend would help you avoid the pitfalls of other relationships, here you are, having fallen into the pit, and so the basic premise of your label-free relationship has failed.

And of all that is hard, and scary, and difficult to express because you haven’t given each other the language to do so. While most people have the shorthand of boyfriend/girlfriend to clarify the meaning and expectations of their relationship, you don’t have such clarity, let alone the shorthand for it.

You don’t know what exactly your relationship is, but you know he has betrayed it, and to feel safe again you’re going to need to believe that he won’t betray it again. But how can he promise to be something you haven’t defined, or live up to expectations that aren’t explicit, or follow rules that have never been stated?

I don’t know whether or not you should stay with this man. I think couples can experience cheating and move on from it, and I believe that he is an important part of your life.

But I also know that you’re confused, and hurt, and that you’re unclear about what your relationship means for you both, now and in the future. And I know that this state of confusion and uncertainty is not the basis of a lasting relationship, label or no label.

So talk. Ask him what he feels and wants and needs, and tell him what you feel and want and need. Be specific. Talk about fidelity, and commitment, and how you see your future evolving together.

Talk about what you need from your relationship now on a day-to-day level, and how you want to approach the big-picture future issues like monogamy, finances, living arrangements, kids.

Talk about the labels often attached to relationships, like boyfriend and girlfriend, and what they mean to you both. Talk about why you might want to avoid them, and why you might want to adopt them.

Talk about what avoiding them so far has been like, and if it’s actually benefiting your relationship or hindering it.

Talk about the differences between meaningful relationships and romantic relationships and committed relationships, and how you would categorise yours, now and in the future.

And then stop talking. Be by yourself for a while. Listen to your gut.

It’ll tell you if it’s right. If you want to stay. If this relationship has a future. What kind of future it is. If it’s the right one for you.

Know that you deserve one label in particular: happy. Don’t settle for anything less.


Do you have a question for Roe? Submit it anonymously at dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

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Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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