I have a theory, but I don’t have any evidence right now. Luckily, in addition to being a social scientist, I am also a columnist. So I get to share this theory with you anyway, even though I don’t have data to show for it yet.
My theory is that consent and sex frequency* are related to each other through a u-shaped curve (as in the image at right). One day I hope to do the research to test this theory. Maybe someone already has data that could be analyzed in a relevant way…but I digress.
When the New York Times reported research findings that couples in more equal marriages tend to have less sex, I got suspicious. Then the Duggars go on “The Today Show” and say that they keep the so-called “romance” alive in their marriage because she always has sex with him when he wants to have sex. He comes home from a day of work and she feels she should “always be available” to address his “physical needs.” Anecdotally, at least (give me some grant money and I’ll get you some data!), it appears that couples with more power imbalance in their relationships maybe have more sex because they don’t (always) have (completely) consensual sex. They’re not using a standard of enthusiastic consent to guide their sexual decision-making and communication. That makes sense, given that the traditional sexual scripts cast men as always wanting sex and women as the givers/grantors/gatekeepers. The possibility of consent is too often lacking because people are so caught up in what they should be doing that they don’t know how to attend to what they (and their partners) really, really want.
So what happens when the framework is shifted, when we decide to try to engage only in consensual sex? Maybe, just maybe, that means having less sex. Maybe it means having a lot less sex. At first.
Gasp! How can I, as a consent educator, as a feminist activist, imply that practicing consent could reduce sexual frequency? Well, as I said, it’s a u-shaped curve. Less sex at first. Then more. Maybe a lot more, if and only if that’s what you want.
First, the old scripts need to be unlearned. We need to learn to walk away from situations in which sexual communication feels stifled. We need to learn to stop, completely, when we get some signals that our partner might be uncomfortable or unsure. We need to say “no” when we ourselves start to feel uncomfortable or unsure. This process might mean having less sex. Less sex that doesn’t feel right, less sex that gets confusing, less sex that might be hurting the other person, even if we didn’t intend it that way.
Starting to practice consent might reduce the frequency of sex…
But then. There is hope. Do not despair.
As we build the skills involved in practicing consent, we’ll get better at it. We’ll get better at knowing what we want, when we want it. We’ll get better at sensing a partner’s discomfort earlier on in the interaction. And, most important, we’ll get better at talking it all out. Better at checking in with our partners about what’s going on and what might feel good. Better at speaking up for ourselves about what’s going on and what might feel good. Better at asking. For sex. In the first place.
Better at hearing “no” to something we’ve asked for, and moving on. Maybe moving on to a different kind of sexual activity. Maybe moving on to dinner for now and then something sexy at a later date. Maybe just moving on.
People who are comfortable and confident asking for sex, and generous and flexible when their asks are turned down, people who make it crystal clear that they want to have sex if and only if their partners want to have sex with them, too, right now, just might have more sex. Maybe. I wonder…
And not just more frequent sex, but it would also be better sex. Seriously better sex. Wanted. Connected. Kind. Respectful. Pleasurable. More frequent, more pleasurable sex.
It’s just a theory. What do you think? What’s your experience of trying to navigate and negotiate sexual consent? Send me your thoughts, your feelings, your stories. It’s just a theory for now.
(*Note: The articles I mention, and this post, are based on the highly problematic assumption that more frequent sex is what we’re supposed to want. But here’s the thing: it’s not. We don’t have to want that. Desired frequency of sex varies widely from person to person. We all may have our own u-shaped curve according to the frequencies that feel best for us personally. Individual differences! That’s some good social science stuff right there.)