I Owe, I Owe, So Off to the Bedroom I Go? Nope.

content notes for sexual coercion, sexual assault, disregard for autonomy

Melissa and I snuggling.

Melissa and I snuggling.

My friend Melissa McEwan, of Shakesville, has asked me to address…well, here’s her question:

One of the positions Dan Savage has taken which has received widespread criticism is that romantic partners essentially owe each other sex.  Can you address that assertion, and why it’s a total piece of shit?

One of Dan’s oft-cited rules is the “GGG”: a partner must strive to be good in bed, be giving of equal time and attention and be game for anything (within reason). There is some science out there that has been interpreted to back up Dan’s rule, and ostensibly, GGG is about being caring and open about your desires with your partner, and as such, is reasonable advice.

But it doesn’t stop there. Dan Savage is, as Melissa pointed out, in the habit of dishing out this advice to mean that we are obliged to have sex with our partners/dates, and we are obliged to indulge all of their fantasies and fetishes without regard to our own comfort.

To be frank: this is bullshit of the highest order. Melissa brings up the very real harm that Dan Savage’s crappy advice can do. The way Dan presents it, GGG means that no one has a right to say no to their partners, and if we want to be a good partner with a lasting relationship, we will acquiesce to all of our partner’s sexual desires. He is saying this without regard to the ways that abusive partners use language like the GGG rule to manipulate and control their partners, and without regard to a rape culture that privileges the sexual desires of men to the point of entitlement.

We are never under any obligation to have sex with anyone, at any time, for any reason. Nor are we under any obligation to have whatever kind of sex our partner wants to have.

To put it another way, my body belongs to me. I will choose how and when I am sexually intimate with anyone, including my partner. I am not being selfish if I don’t want to have sex. My partner’s body belongs to her, and she will choose how and when to be sexually intimate with anyone, including me. She’s not being selfish if she doesn’t want to have sex.

When I do relationship education with young people, one of the exercises I use is a collective brainstorm of the qualities we want in a partner. The lists are long and varied. Funny, kind, ambitious, smart, hard-working, etc. I help them see that we all have different lists, different qualities that are most important. But there are three that are non-negotiable: Respectful, Trusting/Trustworthy and Safe. If we want a partner to bring these things, we must also give them.

Expecting that our partners owe us sex is not respectful, and it’s not safe. No one is entitled to sex.

Repeat, for effect: SEX IS NOT AN ENTITLEMENT.  Not even when you’re married, living together, have had sex 8,345 times, or you’re just really, really randy.

The other aspect of the GGG that disregards consent and autonomy is the idea that we should be game for anything our partner has in mind (which Dan adds a “within reason” to, but who is he kidding? I am sure a lawyer told him to add that.). Any kink they want to try, we should be open to trying.

I am not one to yuck someone else’s yum, unless it’s coercive, illegal or whatnot, but that doesn’t mean I am obliged to try out all the yums my partner might fancy. We are not obligated to participate in sexual activity that we do not want to, period.

A better piece of advice is to be game to listen to your partner’s desires. Be open to hearing what turns your partner on in his or her fantasy life. Don’t judge, but be honest with your desires. Express them, and respect your partner’s response. That’s safe, and trusting, and respectful.

Cardinal Rule: Sex should be fun, safe and consensual EVERY SINGLE TIME.  Sex is not an entitlement, nor an obligation.


15 responses to “I Owe, I Owe, So Off to the Bedroom I Go? Nope.

  1. Is it totally off-topic to say that I’m in love with that picture of the two of you?

  2. What if your partner offers to pay you money for sex? Sex work is work and there’s not an expectation that an act of paid work must be “fun” for the worker.

  3. There is also an incredibly fat phobic and ableist aspect to Dan’s definition of the “good” part of GGG. He goes WAY beyond the idea that one should strive to pay attention what types of things give one’s partner pleasure. I can’t pull up specific links right now, but I have seen multiple columns where Dan states that striving to be “good in bed” means striving to be fit & thin. Sometimes he just says “fit” but makes it clear that he doesn’t think fat people can be fit. Sometimes he specifically invokes the “good” part of GGG when advising people who wrote letters asking for advice on how to deal with their partner gaining weight. I swear I’ve also seen him write on more than one occassion that we are responsible for remaining physically attractive to our partners, which is another steaming pile of horseshit. (I don’t recall if he specifically used the “GGG” reference in talking about owing one’s partner attractiveness, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

  4. Palaverer: Nope.
    LauraLee: That’s a great question, and I am sorry that I wasn’t more clear in the original post that I was referring to sex between ongoing romantic partners.
    Courtney: YES! I have future plans to address Savage’s and his narrow definition of attractive and intolerance of bodies changing over time.

  5. It also makes me sad to think of a partner having sex with me because of a feeling of obligation (or because Dan Savage said they should). That isn’t exactly the ideal of a loving relationship. If a person I love doesn’t want to do something, I don’t want that person to do it, either.

  6. Right? Not to mention that it wouldn’t even be sexy. I find it much sexier when I know my partner wants me right back!

  7. There’s a lot of stuff Savage says that is way off-base, offensive, and harmful.

    But I feel like this is a willful miscasting of the message I’ve read from him. Yes, he says if you get into a romantic relationship and it’s understood (even better, discussed!) that it’s a sexual relationship, and then the sex disappears, that’s not okay. Yes, he suggests people whose sex drives disappear ‘owe’ it to their partner as well as themselves to try to address that — check medication, get therapy, try stop-gap intimacy measures, try to get themselves excited again. But he does NOT say (which many mainstream sources do) that low-sex-drive partners (called ‘wives’ in the mainstream, of course) should just commit to thinking of England n times a week. I don’t know I’ve ever heard Savage suggest that people should have penetrative sex they actively don’t want. He does suggest that people find ways to satisfy their partner that are low-impact for them as a compromise, which I can understand some people might find upsetting — however, for a lot of people that sort of outercourse activity is going to be inside their comfort zone and a matter of inconvenience, not compulsion and horror.

    If anything, he tends to say people have a right to pursue sexual fulfillment, and if their partners don’t want to be part of that, they should let them do it elsewhere. (for instance, the third letter this week: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=18729598#thisweek ) Personally, I think that response is off-base because at the end he says the woman should feel free to cheat on her husband, and I don’t think that’s reasonable. But nowhere does he say her husband should just “put out”. If anything, he tends to say “that’s how that person is, break up”, NOT “it doesn’t matter if that’s how that person is, they owe you sex.”

    No, I don’t think anyone has a right to anyone else’s body. But I do NOT think it’s unreasonable to say ‘when someone’s sex drive tanks, it affects their partner and they should give a go at finding out why and/or fixing it.’ And as a woman who’s been in this situation more than once? It is good that someone, however flawed and coarse and occasionally unpleasant, tone-deaf and wrong, is out there yelling “IT IS OKAY FOR SEX TO BE A BIG DEAL! IT IS OKAY TO BREAK UP OVER SEX!” He says it all the time, he does say it to high-libido women, and almost no one else is saying it to them.

  8. Anytime I read about this issue, I remember a scene from my favorite series (The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold) wherein a young man was horny, and was wondering if his girlfriend was in the mood for sex. If she wasn’t, he concluded that he could just make a date with his right hand. I don’t know why some people can’t just masturbate instead of trying to coerce their partner for sex.

  9. Well, you’ve struck on intent vs. impact, which I addressed. Impact always trumps intent.

    I do agree that it’s okay for sex to be a big deal, but I disagree that GGG is the way to handle it.

  10. I think you misunderstand what Dan Savage means by GGG. In his own words http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjavnXMQnHQ . You should be game for things that don’t turn you on if it turns your partner on. You should not be game for stuff that turns you off.

    It’s not that one partner owes another person sex, is that the other partner’s pleasure should be taken into consideration. Sex isn’t about just one person taking pleasure, but both parties helping each other do that because they care. And this applies to both genders, cunnilingus is mandatory for guys for a reason, even if it doesn’t particularly turn a few guys on.

  11. Peanutcat: That’s definitely the reasonable response in specific circumstances. But if a relationship that was previously sexual becomes non-sexual or barely-sexual due to one partner’s loss of sexual interest or desire, telling the other partner “Go masturbate” is not an adequate general response to the problem in that relationship. I think that’s one idea that Savage is trying to get at, not always in the best way.

  12. I agree with Phee that you’re miscasting him on this. Sex is a big deal for many/most people, mastubating isn’t the same as sex with a partner for them, and when sex goes away from a previously sexual relationship, it affects things.

    I’m coming from the perspective of being the partner who loses interest in sex, and I don’t think that’s fair to my partners, and that it’s something to work on.

  13. masculine lady

    No sexual act is mandatory. All sexual acts can be discussed. There’s a fundamental problem when we make anything mandatory sexually. It crosses the line of consent. Talking about it, asking for what we’d like, is all great. But nope, it’s not mandatory.

  14. masculine lady

    If the loss of desire is situational, rather than permanent/long term, masturbation is a legit sexual outlet in the moment. If there is an ongoing loss of desire, that’s another matter entirely.

  15. masculine lady

    Sex can absolutely be a big deal, but it’s never an obligation. If one partner loses sexual interest, then that is something to talk about and discern meaning from. Maybe it’s the end of the relationship, maybe it’s a temporary response to life circumstances, maybe it’s a new normal and the nature of the relationship needs to change. None of that, however, means that we owe our partner’s sex.

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