marriage bed symbol

marriage bed symbol

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cultural Myth or Gospel Truth: Trying to Convince a Spouse to Have Sex is Coercion

Cultural Myth or Gospel Truth: If my wife/husband isn’t in the mood to have sex, then trying to convince them otherwise is coercion and/or unrighteous dominion.

What is coercion when it comes to sex?

Definitions are important, even for terms we’re very familiar with. The term ‘coercion’ means ‘use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance’.[i]

So how does this apply to sexuality in an LDS marriage?

Does our spouse physically force us to have sex? This is marital rape, one of the more obvious forms of coercion.

Does our spouse use threats, bullying or terrorization to compel us to engage in intimacy? This counts as coercion.

What if a spouse tries to talk about their desire, or persuade the other to change their mind about not having sex? Would it seem strange to know that this doesn’t fall under the banner of ‘coercion’? What if guilt is sometimes the proper emotion for the reluctant spouse to have?

“If you have little to no appetite for sex, you might be thinking, ‘This is my spouse’s problem. Why should I put energy into our sexual relationship if I don’t really desire sex?’…I’ve been a marriage therapist for a very long time, and I can tell you without hesitation that if you continue to look at the differences in your levels of sexual desire as your spouse’s problem rather than as a couple’s problem, you are courting disaster…

I also urge you to consider the unfairness of the tacit agreement you have had with your spouse…it goes something like this: ‘I know you’re sexually unhappy. Although I don’t plan on doing anything about it, I still expect you to remain faithful.’ Can you see what’s wrong with this picture?”[ii]

What is unrighteous dominion in the bedroom?

Expecting your spouse to live up to your expectations, whatever they are, with no regard for their feelings in the matter, is unrighteous dominion. It boils down to pride and selfishness – the universal sins.[iii]

Unrighteous dominion can be committed by the spouse who wants sex. It can also be committed by the spouse that doesn’t want sex. Unrighteous dominion has no gender limitations. When the Lord mentions ‘men’ in D&C 121 in this context, he is referring to us as humans, not just to males. Women also hold priesthood authority, which includes the authority to exercise their procreative powers in marriage.[iv]

As an example, should a member ask, does a worthy priesthood holder have the right to repeatedly refuse to give a priesthood blessing on the basis of not being “in the mood”? Can we not see something of a correlation here?

What if my spouse doesn’t want to have sex, and I do? Or vice versa?

Something that each spouse should consider is whether or not the person they’re blaming for all their problems isn’t actually the problem.

“And why beholdest thou the amote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.”[v]

The spouse who wants sex can’t imagine why the other doesn’t want sex. The spouse who doesn’t want sex can’t imagine why the other wants it so much.

A good first step to address this is taking the time to see things the way the other spouse does. Understanding is the first step to finding an acceptable compromise, or even a resolution of the issue.

Consider how expectations may play into how we feel. Are we trying to live up to an ideal we learned in church, or in our family, or in the movies, or from a book? Could it be possible that that ‘ideal’ is incorrect for our specific situation in your marriage? No two marriages are alike, and this is normal.

Consider that we should both seek help. If you’re satisfied with your sex life, but your spouse is not, you both collectively have a problem that needs resolving. Each spouse is part of a team, and if one has a problem, both have a problem. Find a trusted counselor to help you work things out. Also, consider that a bishop or a stake president are spiritual counselors, not sexual or marriage counselors. There is a time and a place for seeking professional help.[vi]

If only one spouse is willing to work on themselves, that is enough to start.[vii]

Sometimes, sex should be had, even when we’re not in ‘the mood’. Sometimes ‘the mood’ doesn’t happen UNTIL the reluctant spouse starts to have sex.

The accepted cultural model usually goes like this: A person has desire, then feels arousal to have sex, and then initiates sex and experiences orgasm and resolution. Hollywood portrays this as the “norm”. 

The reality is that, for many, a spouse first needs to make the decision to have sex, then they feel arousal as they are stimulated, and then the desire comes.

A spouse should never be made to feel that they are “abnormal” for not feeling desire first, but instead should be shown gratitude for being willing to participate – even if arousal doesn’t come that time.[viii]

The idea that a spouse who tries to convince and encourage the other spouse to have sex is coercing them or exercising unrighteous dominion is not necessarily true – or in other words, a myth.

[ii] Weiner-Davis, Michele. The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido, A Couple’s Guide. Simon & Shuster: New York. 2003. Pg. 10-11.
[iii] See both ‘Beware of Pride’ by Ezra Taft Benson (April 1989 Conference):
 and ‘Pride and the Priesthood’ by Dieter F. Uchtdorf (October 2010 Conference):

[iv] Elder Oaks in his talk, ‘The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood’ talks about how women figure into the priesthood. If we consider sexuality as a priesthood-authorized function (we are authorized to exercise sexuality with each other when we are sealed in the temple as husband and wife), this talk is very relevant  to sexuality as well:

[v] Luke 6:41-42
[vi] “If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional [or sexual] disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.” – Holland, Jeffrey R. “Like a Broken Vessel”. October 2013 Conference:

[vii] Even though the book contains some language, Dr. David Schnarch’s book, ‘Passionate Marriage’ talks at length about the need for working on your weaknesses before trying to work on your spouse. Doing so is extremely difficult, but ultimately the only way out of a stagnant, gridlocked relationship. “When you work on yourself, you’re working on your marriage – because when you change, your relationship changes.”
[viii] “Among other things, it appears that some people, particularly women in long-term marriages, do not experience spontaneous or out-of-the-blue thoughts or fantasies. However, when they decide to be receptive to their [spouse’s] advances or initiate sexual contact themselves, not to quell a sexual hunger but for other, equally valid reasons such as the desire for intimate connection, being touched in stimulating ways often leads to arousal. Arousal triggers a strong desire to continue being sexual. Hence, desire follows arousal.” – Michele Weiner-Davis, ‘The Sex-Starved Marriage’. Pg. 29.

1 comment:

MrShorty said...

New comment on a year and a half old post, I know. After some of what has been said in various circles about consent, sexual assault, and the MeToo campaign, this post seems an interesting contrast and part of the discussion (especially to someone in a sexless marriage, where merely suggesting sex feels "non-consensual" in some way).

I am reminded of the "involuntary celibacy" essay on Laura Brotherson's blog. In almost all cases that I recall, any discussion around "coercion" in the marriage bed involves forcing/intimidating/etc. a spouse to do something he/she does not want to do. Only in rare places (like your blog) do I see discussions about "coercion" as it applies to forcing a spouse to not do something he/she wants to do.

I think the main reason that I want to respond to this old post is because I think there are some ideas that could make some good discussion fodder:

Coach Sam: "What if a spouse tries to talk about their desire, or persuade the other to change their mind about not having sex? Would it seem strange to know that this doesn’t fall under the banner of ‘coercion’?"
It doesn't seem strange to me that you would say this isn't coercion. However, there are some commentors out there from whom this assertion would seem strange. I would love to see some of their reactions to this assertion to see if they would agree with you, conditionally agree with you, or how they might push back against you on this.

Coach Sam: "Unrighteous dominion can be committed by the spouse who wants sex. It can also be committed by the spouse that doesn’t want sex."
This is where the "involuntary celibate" seems appropriate, but I wonder how many others would agree with this, especially the second statement.

Finally, Coach Sam: "Sometimes, sex should be had, even when we’re not in ‘the mood’."
I find that this idea can generate a lot of discussion/debate/contention. Certainly the idea of "responsive desire" that you put after this belongs in this part of the discussion, and how it might change response in some situations. My own thoughts would suggest that there are two "levels" to "not in the mood". There's an amibivalent "don't necessarily want to, but not necessarily opposed" to sex (probably a good place for your "responsive desire" people. There's also a more affirmative "want to not" level where one expresses genuine opposition to sex rather than ambivalence. I think there could be a lot of good discussion (to go along with the heated contention) around this part of your post.

In summary, I agree with and want to agree with your ideas here. I am not sure that everyone involved in the discussion would agree with you. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it suggests to me that there is room for more discussion.