Q: My wife and I click on just about every level—parenting, money, religion, politics, etc.—except for sex. After our last child was born, my advances were increasingly rejected. In an attempt to avoid pressuring her, I stopped initiating. One week passed, nothing. A month passed, nothing. A YEAR passed, nothing. Depression and anger set in. But I was committed to being the “perfect husband,” so I did not pressure her, hoping her libido would return. It didn’t. Our “happy” life continued, and if you were a friend or neighbor, you’d have no idea this was going on. After two years, I finally lost it and confronted her. I expected that an open dialogue would improve the situation, but a month passed and she never brought it back up.
She’s a stay-at-home parent, so she does most of the shopping, laundry, etc., but I contribute to the housework. We live in a large house, so we also have house cleaners and landscapers. Additionally, our kids are respectful and have been taught to pick up after themselves. The bottom line is that I’ve removed all of the obstacles I can think of.
I realize that I’m lucky to be happy and fulfilled in just about every area of my life, but I’ve become fidgety, short-tempered and hypersensitive. I do not want to have an affair and I do not want a divorce. I love her and our children, but I’m at a loss as to what to do. Knowing there are women out there in the world who actually enjoy sex is devastating (it kills me to listen to you field a call from a sexually confident woman on your podcast). I am mourning the loss of intimacy and connection with another person.
Please Advise Troubled Husband
A: I’ll get to you in a minute, PATH, but first …
MTV, a cable television channel that has been broadcasting music videos in a continuous loop since the summer of 1981, has elected to speed the moral collapse of the United States by putting me on television. My upcoming sex-advice program is tentatively titled Savage U, and it represents MTV’s first foray into nonmusic-video programming. (My preferred title for the show—Dan Savage’s Alaska—was rejected by the program’s co–executive producer, Piper Palin.) This news has upset not only my son, who has been in the MTV stage of his development for roughly three years, but also Maggie Gallagher, the head of the National Organization for Marriage, who has been stuck in the raving-bigot stage of her development for nearly three decades.
“Renowned sex columnist Dan Savage, who is an openly gay man,” Gallagher wrote on her blog, “will be taking his popular sex and relationship advice column to MTV in a show appropriately called ‘Savage U’ where he intends to educate your college student about the importance of honesty over just about anything else, including fidelity.”
Gallagher, who once had a child out of wedlock, speaks for the fidelity-over-anything-else crowd (fidelity over honesty, reality, statistics, biology, ability, etc.). Now, some people are capable of abstaining before marriage and being faithful to one partner for life—some people, but not Maggie—but these people represent a tiny minority of sexually active adults. And while those who make this aberrant lifestyle choice should not be discriminated against, the rest of us—the majority of sexually active adults—should be free to engage in grown-up conversations about sex and desire and the more reality-friendly ways in which we define fidelity without being shouted down by the monogamously correct.
I’d like to address Gallagher’s two main objections to Savage U in some detail:
“Savage, for all his experience, does not know what women are like,” says Gallagher.
I may not know what women taste like—I’ve never gone down on one—but I do know what women are like. My mother was a woman, my sister is a woman, my favorite bartender is a woman, my first sex partners were women and many of my friends, neighbors and co-workers are women. And as someone who is attracted to men and is in a long-term relationship with a man, I know what straight women have to put up with.
Ironically, Gallagher is a practicing Catholic who cites her faith as a reason for her opposition to same-sex marriage. But not knowing what women taste like has never stopped the pope from offering his unsolicited advice to women—no birth control, no abortions, no oral, no anal, no handjobs—and it seems a little hypocritical of Gallagher to suggest that I’m not qualified to offer advice to women, since I don’t fuck ’em, without first telling that old fag in Rome to STFU already.
“The possibility of taming one’s sexual desire for the sake of another, or of a vow, is not in the Savage moral imagination,” says Gallagher. “Libido will have out, and honesty about that is the best policy.”
The possibility of taming one’s sexual desire for the sake of another most definitely exists within the Savage moral imagination. I frequently discuss the “price of admission,” that is, the personal sacrifices, large and small, that make long-term relationships possible. For some, the price of admission—what it costs to ride a particular ride—includes “taming one’s sexual desire for the sake of another.” If anal sex is something you enjoy but you’re in love with someone who doesn’t do anal, going without anal is the price of admission. If you’re not into monogamy but you’re in love with someone who insists on it, then monogamy is the price of admission.
Yes, libido will have out—but “libido will have out” doesn’t translate into “Dan ‘Doesn’t Fuck Women’ Savage says anything and everything goes.” Two people in a long-term, committed relationship should be open and honest with each other about their sexual interests, turn-ons, drives, etc., because, yes, libido will have out. Meaning sexual compatibility and sexual satisfaction have a huge impact on the health of our relationships and marriages, Maggie, particularly if your spouse is your sole source of sexual satisfaction and release. People who can be open and honest with their partners—whether the relationship is monogamous or not—are likelier to have their needs met and likelier to meet their partners’ needs. And when needs are met, people are less likely to cheat and more likely to stay married.
Openness and honesty don’t automatically translate into everyone gets everything everyone wants. Not all needs can be met. But sometimes just having the sacrifices we’ve made for the good of our marriages acknowledged—getting a receipt after paying the price of admission—is good enough. Getting some credit for going without anal, along with the green light to jerk off to anal porn now and then, can make going without anal easier. Indeed, it can make going without anal virtuous, something that speaks well of the going-without-anal partner’s character and priorities.
But there are times when monogamy—its pressures, its discontents, its unquestioned acceptance—can destroy an otherwise decent marriage.
Take PATH’s marriage. If his wife doesn’t come around—if her libido doesn’t kick back into gear after mental or medical intervention—this couple is surely headed for divorce. PATH is not only feeling depressed and resentful, he’s also contemplating an affair (even if he’s in the dismiss-that-idea stage). Sooner or later, he’s going to cheat or walk. But this marriage, a marriage that works on every other level (“parenting, money, religion, politics, etc.”), could be saved if Mr. and Mrs. PATH were encouraged to openly and honestly discuss their sexual needs and their sexual disconnect. If Mrs. PATH is done with sex—for now, perhaps forever—Mr. and Mrs. PATH should be encouraged to come to a reasonable, mutually agreeable accommodation, one that allows for Mr. PATH to get his needs met elsewhere if that’s what he needs to stay sane and stay married.