marriage bed symbol

marriage bed symbol

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reader Question: Do We “Need” Sex?



Coach Sam:

This post came across your Facebook feed the other day, and it intrigued me. I am reminded of an article I read a few months ago: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/maybe-its-just-me/201404/does-sexless-relationship-justify-infidelity I brought this topic up to a conservative LDS community on the internet to discuss the relationship between sexual "needs" (if sex is a need) and sexual "obligation" (if sex can even be considered an obligation). It was interesting how many comments from conservative LDS denied that sex was any kind of need and did not want to accept that a spouse had any kind of sexual obligations (other than not committing adultery, obviously).

From your concluding statement here, and other statements you make (your sexless marriage and the sacrament post, for example), It seems that you believe that spouses have at least some level of obligation to engage and reach out to each other sexually. You tend to use these kind of "Sex is allowed in marriage" statements to support that position. My question is, -- do you really think that the LDS Church (institution) and/or our general authorities believe this? Is it really correct to extrapolate "sex is allowed in marriage" to "you should have sex in marriage"? It seems to me that, as a church and community, we are rather uncomfortable with that extrapolation.

~ Mr. Shorty


Dear Mr. Shorty:

Thanks for your comment – I read the article you included, which was, I believe, closer to the question you really wanted to ask me.

Please let me know if I’m wrong, but it seems your question goes beyond the surface question of ‘Is sex a need or a want?’ and into the realm of what we should be free to do, or not do, in marriage.

This is certainly a very sensitive issue, touching on whether or not a spouse can refuse to have sex with their spouse, or even has the right to do so. We work very hard to keep coercion and abuse out of our relationships, yet we very seldom look at the idea that a spouse should be held responsible for equal and opposite inaction or sexual rejection.

The article discusses the ethics of whether or not we should be allowed to refuse our spouses sexual contact when we are angry/tired/overwhelmed/upset, when we have married them and made a commitment to build that relationship, yet they are not allowed to seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere if we are unwilling or unable to provide it.

Am I going too far to say that sex is any kind of an obligation for each spouse in a marriage? What would be the purpose of getting married to be celibate? And, from an eternal perspective, in what way would a sexless marriage prepare a couple to live a celestial life?[i]

When I write and speak, it is not to a secular or worldly audience. Also, it is only in the context of developing a relationship that not only fulfills the covenants made in LDS ordinances, but also building a relationship where the couple wants to be together for eternity. So when I look at sex and its role, I look at how it benefits the relationship as a whole.

Let’s look at what the gospel tells us.

In the first chapter of Genesis, after Adam and Eve were married by the Lord, the very first commandment given to them was to ‘multiply and replenish the earth’ – the commandment to procreate.[ii] This commandment remains in force for every couple married today. This commandment cannot be easily accomplished without sex then or now.

Beyond the requirement given to man to procreate, sex is also a valuable tool for building a good-quality relationship – one that, in our faith, is expected to be happy, and one where the couple wants to be together for eternity.[iii]

But is sex a need in marriage?

In worldly pagan cultures, it is often spoken of or treated as a physical need, like eating or bodily elimination, in order to emphasize the importance of this most basic desire to their minds. In reality, this is not true. Without either eating or eliminating, the physical body will die. As most people have had some kind of sexual activity in their lifetime, I have not found a report of anyone who chooses a celibate life not being able to survive or even thrive.

Sexual release cannot prove itself to be a physical need. As Mark Gungor likes to say, “no one has ever died from a failure to ejaculate.”[iv] But does that mean sex is also not a need in order to protect the life of a relationship? Is it going too far to say that sex is required when we are married?

That depends upon what each person in the relationship values.[v]

There is no one who believes in maintaining agency as much as the Lord does.[vi] If a person in a marriage chooses to neglect or even shut down the physical aspect of the relationship, they are free to make that choice.

However, they are not free to choose the consequences of that choice.  The consequence of this choice is often that the feelings of love and closeness in that relationship will suffer, and if the problem is not addressed and resolved, most likely the relationship will wither and die over time.

Is this what the Lord desires for us? I believe not.[vii]

Can a sexless marriage last eternally? Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants stirs my doubts on that.[viii]

I’d like to additionally make a distinction between the physical act of sex (intercourse) and intimacy here. You mentioned that in your comments on the forum, you asked if they thought sex was a need or not, and most people answered you in the negative. If I can make a suggestion, as an experiment, you may wish to return to that same forum and ask them if they feel that intimacy is a need, and if they would make a distinction between intimacy and intercourse. I think you may get different answers.

Sexual intercourse is not a life-saving need. Humans do not perish if they do not receive sexual release. Intimacy is as important to life as eating healthy food. We cannot thrive physically, mentally, socially or spiritually without some kind of intimacy.[ix]

Sex (meaning intercourse and other forms of physical contact) and intimacy are not synonymous with each other. You can have sex without being intimate. You can have intimacy without sex. Sex is a tool to increase intimacy, and ideally this will happen in a marriage context. God ordains sexuality to be used in marriage, so that our full potential for intimacy can be realized.

More often, in a sexless relationship, there is a lack of intimacy as well. The withholding spouse may withhold intimacy for many reasons. If there is no intimacy, the temptation to stray outside the marriage relationship becomes much stronger.[x]

In rare cases where a couple is happy without intercourse or other forms of sexual release, they are usually happy because they have found other ways to have intimacy.[xi] More often though, one spouse is satisfied, while the other is deeply dissatisfied, and this is the relationship that suffers.

We take the sacrament to renew our baptismal covenant. There are many parallels to sexual intimacy being the ‘sacrament’ that renews the covenant of marriage. We renew our baptismal covenant once a week. It’s my recommendation (as well as the recommendations of other marriage counselors and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland) that we regularly do the same with our marriage covenant (see Sexless Marriage and the Sacrament article)

Going outside the marriage to find sexual satisfaction is clearly inappropriate, according to the Lord.[xii] Adultery and fornication is just not an option – if you want to maintain the Lord’s trust and be worthy of his inheritance.

Forcing or guilting our spouse to have sex with us, just because we’re married, is also inappropriate. Intimacy can only be achieved through the Lord’s prescribed means.[xiii]

Withholding all intimacy and sex from a marriage for one month or more is a sin of omission, and should be repented for and dealt with if the marriage is to last into the eternities. If sins of omission and/or commission destroy a marriage relationship, both parties will be held responsible before the Lord in the time of judgment. Persistent withholding of intimacy can also be a form of abuse and unrighteous dominion according to 1 Corinthians 7:4 and D&C 121.

We in the LDS church believe in covenants. We have many commandments given to us in many areas of our lives, and sexuality is no exception. Commandments are given to afflict the comfortable, and often involve moving out of our comfort zone in some way, in order to develop our bodies, hearts and minds in eternal directions.

Our differences as men and women are carefully designed to force us to become selfless in order to develop our Christ like attributes[xiv], When each spouse cooperatively sacrifices their selfish desires to arouse the other spouse and meet their emotional needs, this can lead to the most intense form of intimacy and the best possible sex.

If having sex with our spouse is uncomfortable or unpleasant, I believe that’s a critical issue that should be openly explored and resolved in appropriate ways by both spouses.

What if we are momentarily upset/tired/overwhelmed/out of town and unable to have sex? Do we have the right to refuse our spouse?

It may be better to say we have the right to delay sexual contact until a more convenient time. It’s entirely appropriate to say to your spouse, “I’ll be happy to be with you in the morning/next weekend, etc…”  Pin down a time that happens soon, and treat such an agreement as an important appointment that should not be pushed back indefinitely.

If sex cannot happen, intimacy should. Remember – intimacy doesn’t necessarily require sexual intercourse, and there are multiple ways to have sex that does not involve intercourse.

Spouses who neglect the gift of sex are losing a great opportunity to renew and strengthen their relationship. Marriage, like a testimony of the gospel, requires frequent attention and renewal if it is to stay strong. If members come to a true understanding of sex vs. intimacy within a gospel perspective, I think you’ll find most are much more comfortable with this concept.

I hope this helps answer your question. If not, let me know what questions you still have that you would like help getting better clarification on.

What about my readers here? What are your views on the necessity or non-necessity of having regular intimate sex in marriage? What could a couple do to increase intimacy if they physically can’t have sex or their desire for sex is lower than their spouse?





[i] “Marriage, properly contracted, is therefore holy and pure, and its relations, unabused, are sacred and chaste. The notion that celibacy is purer than matrimony, that either man or woman is holier in the sight of heaven because of non-intercourse with the other sex, is a gross error, unwarranted by reason or revelation. There is no attribute of the mind or function of the body that is in itself, or in its legitimate exercise, impure or degrading. It is only the wrong use of any of our powers that is sinful.” – President Charles W. Penrose, Second Counselor to President Heber J. Grant, “Mormon” Doctrine Plain and Simple, p. 48-49. Also quoted in Achieving a Celestial Marriage, Student Manual, p. 78.
[ii] Genesis 1:28
[iii] Clayton, Whitney L., Marriage: Watch and Learn, April 2013 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/marriage-watch-and-learn?lang=eng

[iv] Crown Comedy (producer), January 12, 2009, Gungor, Mark. Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage [DVD]
[v] Oakes, Dallin H. The Desires of Our Hearts, Ensign June 1986, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/06/the-desires-of-our-hearts?lang=eng
[vi] 2 Nephi 2:27; 2 Nephi 2: 15-16
[vii] “…This sacred temple ordinance is more, much more, than a wedding, for this marriage is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise, and the scriptures promise that the participants, if they remain worthy, ‘shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions’ (D&C 132:19). I think of the words of the sealing ordinance, which cannot be written here. I understand, in a small measure at least, the sacred nature of the fountain of life which is in us. And I see the joy that awaits those who accept this supernal gift [of physical intimacy] and use it worthily.” – Packer, Boyd K. The Fountain of Life, from the Eternal Marriage Handbook, Intimacy in Marriage, p. 139-146; https://www.lds.org/manual/eternal-marriage-student-manual/intimacy-in-marriage?lang=eng
[viii] Doctrine and Covenants 130:2
[xi] Goldsmith, Dr. Barton, PhD, Psychology Today, The Difference Between Sex and Intimacy, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-fitness/201309/the-difference-between-sex-and-intimacy
[xii] Doctrine and Covenants 42
[xiv] Zwick, Elder W. Craig, What Are You Thinking, Apr,2014 Gen. Conf., https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/what-are-you-thinking?lang=eng

2 comments:

MrShorty said...

I feel kind of special -- you didn't just add a comment to my comment, you made a whole blog post out of it.

I think I can agree with everything you have said, assuming I understand it all. In particular, I can agree that the real need/obligation is seeking/providing an "intimate" relationship. I think the real challenge is trying to understand how "intimate" and "sexual" are interrelated.

I recently read this statement from mormonsandgays.org --
"We also need each other. Belonging to a community of family, friends and believers allows us to help and be helped. We recognize in each other our common needs for intimacy and companionship and can discuss them without shame or rejection."
In light of the Church's official position towards homosexuality (experiencing same sex attraction is not sin, but acting on those attractions is sinful), the Church seems to make a very clear distinction between "intimate" and "sexual" relationships.
I often think that this is a part of the challenge in this dialog. It often seems to me that, when we try to shift the focus from "sex as need/obligation" to "intimacy as need/obligation" the tone of the discussion is about minimizing the importance of sexuality to intimacy. Instead, I think we need a better discussion that will attempt to really understand how intimacy and sexuality are related. How that varies from relationship to relationship and person to person. What are the root principles underlying sexuality and intimacy in relationships, and what are the exceptions to those rules.

CoachSam said...

Dear Mr. Shorty,

I was hoping to be careful in my response and address each of the questions you just posed through the references and quotes I provided at the bottom.

Did you have the opportunity to review those?