A few years ago I went to a PR launch for a sex thing. Alongside the free champagne (woo!) there was a discussion about ‘obligation sex’ – whether you should make yourself shag sometimes even when you’re not in the mood, to keep the spark alive in your relationship. A sex blogger who I respected a lot was there (she, along with the free champagne, was what tempted me out of the house), and during the discussion she argued that you should have obligation sex. That making yourself shag could be the glue that held your relationship together even when other things were falling apart. I remember being shocked by her answer, because my gut instinct was to disagree. But I really liked her, and there’d been a lot of free champagne, so all I left with was a fuzzy head and a vague feeling that ‘obligation sex’ didn’t sound like much fun at all.
When you’re not in the mood
For various reasons, I don’t want to fuck right now. I’ve been quite ill for a long time, and busy, and exhausted. My mental health is in the gutter. I’m tongue-tied and struggling to communicate, plus it’s hard to feel sexy when all I can see in my mind’s eye are the problems with my body, and the sadness that turns everything grey and blank.
There’s a distance between my partner and I, and over the last few months that distance has grown from a crack to a chasm. I don’t touch him as much as I used to, although I try to offer cuddles when I remember. The natural, simple ways we used to brush past each other and physically connect – squeezing shoulders, smacking bums, pretending to hump each other’s legs like bored puppies – don’t happen so easily any more. We’re more likely to clash elbows and mutter tentative ‘sorry’s, these days.
So I don’t want to fuck.
But although I don’t want to fuck, and I struggle to make myself remember what it is I like about fucking, deep down I know I do really like it. I know that if I’m feeling distant from my partner one of the few things that can help build a bridge over this yawning chasm is the feeling of his dick growing hard in my hand. The warmth of his hands round my throat. The sight of his lips parted in an ecstatic ‘ohhh’ as he comes. The feeling of power and success and pleasure that comes from knowing I did this to him.
I don’t want to fuck, but I want these things. I want to be able to work him into this state, but without having to make myself vulnerable. Without having to face the way I feel about my own body, trying to cajole myself to wetness where everything feels Sahara-desert-dry. Submitting to nakedness like I’m dragging myself to a 9 am GCSE maths exam in the rain.
Do you fancy…?
We’d had the discussion earlier that evening: do you want sex? It was tentative, because neither of us is quite sure the other one will match our mood at the moment, so what used to flow easily is currently stilted and hard. “Fancy a fuck?” has become “I’m in the mood if you are – no pressure, though. Just thought I’d raise my ‘in the mood for sex’ flag in case you fancied raising yours later on.”
It’s not perfect, but it’s something.
He’d raised his flag, and all I knew was that I absolutely, definitely, 100% did not want to get naked with him. The idea of fucking sounded exhausting, intimidating, even heartbreaking. The thought of stripping off my clothes and exposing a body that doesn’t really feel like my own made me shudder. I did not want any of that.
But later in the evening I did want to do something. I wanted to see his ‘O’ face, and do something that made him feel good. I wasn’t horny, as such, but I wanted to be. I felt the ache of longing that isn’t quite desire so much as wanting to feel desire.
So I asked:
“Do you fancy watching some porn while I wank you off with a Tenga?”
I wanted to remind myself of why I like this stuff. I wanted to do something sexy, even though I didn’t feel desire.
He looked surprised. He knows how I feel. But he’s also not one to look a gift-wank in the masturbation sheath, so he let me run upstairs and grab one of our Tengas (the ‘air tech’ ones on this page if you’re wondering). While I rummaged for dick toys and lube, he lined up some porn, got hard and settled in.
It was fun. I should give you more than that really, but that’s really all I have: it was fun. It was hot to watch him watching porn, delightful to lube up his dick and slide it into the Tenga, and positively joyous to see his face twisted as the spasms of his orgasm thrummed through his cock. Hearing him grunt and feeling him twitch was no substitute for him dumping gallons of jizz inside me, but right then it was just what I needed to give me a small boost of joy.
Should you have ‘obligation sex’?
It might surprise you that my answer’s ‘no’ given the interlude above, but there you have it. My answer is still ‘no’. I don’t think you should force yourself into sex when you don’t want to have sex – whether it’s to please a partner or to ‘keep the spark alive’ or for any other bullshit reason.
Consent is vital, and that includes self-consent: not forcing yourself to do things that make you feel terrible just because you think that it’ll be good for you in the long run. Especially not because some random sex blogger has told you to.
The reason I felt uncomfortable about the first sex blogger’s assertion that ‘obligation sex’ was part and parcel of a healthy relationship was because ‘should’ always sits uncomfortably when we’re talking about pleasure. Good sex isn’t about what you ‘should’ do, it’s about what you want to do. As Meg John Barker and Justin Hancock point out in Enjoy Sex:
“It’s important for us to tune into ourselves and what we find pleasurable or fulfilling, rather than assuming that we should have sex, or should experience the sex we do have in particular ways.”
Should you have ‘obligation sex’? No. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re feeling the way I was, you can’t do anything sexual. I do this shit because I like it – because sometimes my brain will shrivel at the thought of getting naked but spark up at the idea of wanking someone off. I know that if I listen to what my mind and body want, alongside ‘crisps’ and ‘white wine spritzers’ there’s usually ‘spunk’ in there too.
I think the reason the original discussion rubbed me up the wrong way was because I instinctively hated the term ‘obligation sex’, but I also recognised, in me, a desire to experience sexual power and playfulness even if I don’t feel that gutpunch of sexual desire.
If this doesn’t sound like you, that’s cool. Maintain intimacy in your relationships in ways that fit you better: cuddling up while listening to podcasts, talking over a bottle of wine, bringing each other sweets or badges or flowers or snippets of poetry, whatever. But I bet there are other people out there like me, for whom ‘beating someone off with a Tenga’ will technically count as ‘self-care’. Choosing to do this (if it’s a genuine, consensual choice) can be a nice way to access joy, without having to tackle the insecurities or illnesses that are otherwise spoiling our fun.
Most of the time, when I’m feeling this way, the intimacy and connection I crave from my partner is all about words. I need him to talk to me, listen to me, reassure me. Makes jokes and reminisce about cool things we’ve done together: remind me of what things are like when they actually work. And sometimes we cuddle, or listen to podcasts, or play MtG Arena on the big telly in the lounge. And sometimes I’ll choose to wank him off. The reason I get annoyed by ‘obligation sex’ as a concept is that it takes away this element of choice – making people feel that they ‘should’ do something they don’t want to do. Which is even more annoying than being told we ‘shouldn’t’ do something because ‘OMG but aren’t you sad and isn’t it weird to fuck when you’re feeling angsty?!’
The important thing isn’t learning what we’re obliged to do, but tuning in to what we want to do. And tuning in to my needs I realise that although I’m too tired and sad to perform mind-blowing sexual tricks, I can still enjoy the simple pleasure of milking jizz from the guy that I love.