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Women Talking: When Married Moms Want to Take Sex Off the Table
A conversation with Amanda Montei on sex as marital duty when moms feel touched out
A few weeks ago, I was reading Mad Woman by Amanda Montei when she mentioned a Slate parenting podcast1 that referenced the title of her forthcoming book (preorder it here). The episode was called “Too Touched Out for Sex.” I knew I needed to listen.
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In the episode, around the 14 minute mark, the hosts of the podcast share a listener’s question. The question follows in full:
I have two kids, two years old and seven months. With the first one, I was tired, yes, but never really felt touched out. Now with two, I’m both exhausted and touched out. I work so hard to tire out the two year old and I’m breastfeeding the second one for at least five more months. I love my husband and I love being a mom. It’s a lot, though. The highs are high and the lows are low. I have no energy or physicality left for my husband.
He’s a kind, caring guy. He doesn’t pressure me for sex, but I know he wants it. I say no a lot or just avoid it as much as possible. Honestly, what I’d love is a free pass to be celibate until we start trying for a third kid in a few years. He is trying to approach the topic of sex with me from different angles. He set us up on an app, Spicer, with sexy questions to get the creativity going. And I haven’t even been able to open it again in over a month because I just have zero mental or physical energy for this topic. I feel guilty because he’s a pretty reserved person, and I appreciate that. It takes some courage to try things like that and try to get me interested. We’re trying to just cuddle again, but I avoid that too, because I’m just too tired and touched out or I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject sexual advances.
It also doesn’t help that I’m bordering on hating my body. I just try not to think about my body, to be honest. I do what I can to take care of myself. I’m in long term recovery, and I go to AA once a week. I have a therapist, a psychiatrist, and I’m still in physical therapy for birth recovery. My mother-in-law babysits, and we do a little daycare to make this all possible. I have mom friends I see regularly. I also work three days a week at a job that I love. My job is physically demanding. I don’t have any unstructured thinking time. I used to do long walks and read a lot to unwind from life’s responsibilities.
Is it reasonable to long for temporary celibacy in this stage of life? Is something wrong with me? I feel like a sitcom stereotype. No, honey, not tonight, I’m too tired. More like, no, honey, not this year. I fully imagine sometime in five to ten years loving my body again and rekindling my sexuality with my husband. Right now, I’m just trying to survive on two plus years of interrupted sleep, get through the challenges, and spend any other precious energy on enjoying the hilarity of toddlers and snuggliness of babies.
Celibate, so I can sleep.
You may want to give this podcast a listen and hear how the hosts (Jamilah Lemieux, Elizabeth Newcamp and Zak Rosen) address this listener’s concerns. I allude to their comments in the conversation below so it isn’t necessary, but it is fascinating to hear them wrestle with this question. I’ve touched on this topic with posts on postpartum sexpectations and when women get divorced from their desire. But this question really lays it all out there. Are we allowed to opt out of sex for a while? Like, more than six months? Can we take a Sabbatical from sex?
I asked Amanda to chat with me about the hosts attempts at an answer, what the question brought up for her, and how to reconcile a culture that is learning to emphasize the importance of consent (and that no one should have sex they don’t want to) with outdated expectations of marital duty.
Cindy DiTiberio: There are a myriad of issues that go into sexuality and how you feel about your body and whether you want or feel entitled to pleasure. Being raised in a patriarchy makes it HARD. Being raised in a society that expects women to respond to sexual advances, instead of generating sexual advances plays a part. A woman’s history of sexual abuse, trauma, or agency must be factored in, as well. We don’t have the listener’s backstory except to understand that she is in recovery. Yet her struggle is not unique. I loved that she used the title of your forthcoming book, Touched Out, a phrase that I find so on the nose for what early motherhood can feel like. That the physicality of motherhood is some of what has led her to not want further touch from her husband. Not to mention, lack of sleep. There is so much focus on trying to get your libido back post childbirth, but sometimes, I’m like, why? Who is that libido for? I think we all know the answer.
Amanda Montei: I have… so many reactions. There’s so much going on here. I’ll first just say that we’re still at a point culturally where a lot of people will say things like, “I have no energy or physicality left” or “I’m bordering on hating my body,” and we often don’t really have the tools or the language to unpack what’s going on under the surface, or to talk about how serious these feelings are. Underneath those statements are a ton of misogynistic attitudes and expectations, not only related to body image and anti-fatness, but also around this assumption that women’s bodies will just be totally depleted and destroyed by parenting, and that this is all just par for the course, rather than a condition of the very isolated, gendered, and intensive standards of American motherhood.
There’s also certainly, as you point out, something going on under the surface here regarding sexual duty in marriage, and our cultural beliefs about how women’s sexual drives differ from men’s sexual drives. I go into this in my book, but in short, the assumption tends to be that male desire is uncontainable, and women’s role (whether as Wife or just as Woman) is literally to lodge that desire. So this is where the push to “get your body back” and get libido back comes from. It’s really a push to get women back into their roles as sexual and emotional providers to their male partners. To quickly transform back into sex objects that align with a male gaze that subscribes to certain white supremacist and anti-fat values.
So this is where the push to “get your body back” and get libido back comes from— it’s really a push to get women back into their roles as sexual and emotional providers to their male partners.
But absolutely, this struggle isn’t unique or aberrant or unusual. And of course, mixed up here is the possibility that many women want to regain their own sexuality and “think about [their] body” again, though probably not according to a persistent and seemingly not that empathetic husband. We’ve normalized and naturalized these feelings because they’re so common. But to be clear, it’s not a condition of parenting or care work to have your body constantly in use by another person, nor is it normal or natural to feel alienated from one’s sense of desire, pleasure, or physicality. There is a level of physicality to parenting and all care work, but these issues come from caring in isolation, without support or a broader community—or a partner doing their share of the work.
I’ll also just say that getting sober is a really challenging process with regard to one’s relationship to body and sexuality. I don’t want to focus too much on this one person or relationship in my responses here. But when you add in the element of sobriety—when folks get sober outside marriage, they are often told not to start new intimate relationships. This gets very complicated in traditional marriage where there is a certain sense of sexual duty involved. Again, many people in recovery, as in new motherhood, may not yet have the tools to say, hey, this is what I need right now while I’m adjusting to my new body/consciousness/identity. I certainly didn’t.
CD: The hosts of the podcast feel for this mom. Being a mom to two under three is a lot! And yet, in their response to this listener is this underlying question: are you allowed to change the terms? Are you allowed to, for a time, say: I’m taking sex off the table? They struggle to find a comfortable answer to that question.
AM: Again, I don’t want to focus too much on this one reader or even the advice given to her. Everyone’s doing their best. And I'm not an advice-giver by profession or by nature. But yes, there’s a lot of unspoken questions swirling here. I think the advice to have a conversation with one’s partner is a good start. If you’re asking me if it’s okay to change the terms of a marriage or any relationship over vast expanses of time as children get introduced and hopefully both partners wake up to the fucked up way American society is arranged, definitely yes!
But folks in more traditional marriages (or a wide range of cultural or religious beliefs) may have a really hard time with this. I do think a lot of folks are confronting these unspoken issues and questions today, which is why we’re seeing huge shifts in what folks are exploring in couples therapy.
CD: One of the hosts says she also used to avoid cuddling because she worried it would lead to her having to say no. Her solution was to schedule sex so that she knew when it was going to happen, and the rest of the week, presumably, she could cuddle and hug and kiss and know that was all it was going to be. But again, then it feels like she is clocking in for marital duty instead of honoring her own desire. Should sex be tied with duty? Is it just one of the many things you have to compromise on in marriage? Or should sex be tied with desire? Should we have sex for any other reason than we want to?
AM: I don’t think sex should be tied to duty, no. I don’t think one’s sexuality or access to consent is something one should have to surrender in a relationship. That’s obviously a patriarchal construct. I write about this at length in my book. But again, I think a lot of people think that it is part of the contract, even subconsciously, and the feelings described here are incredibly commonplace. There is a sense of male entitlement to sex that creeps in, but sometimes women also internalize that entitlement and feel shame not delivering on this sexual duty. What’s sneaky is that the patriarchal capitalist story of “love” and/as marriage often makes it feel as though needing a break from sex is a failure of “love,” rather than related to all the complex issues we’re discussing here.
CD: The hosts say: “if that’s how he feels connected, they are going to have to find something to replace that.” I think it is worth interrogating why so many men default to sex being the way they feel connected. They have been socialized to connect via their dicks instead of their hearts. Rather than cater to that socialization, we could encourage them to expand their repertoire of intimate connection, so that something remains when their spouse goes through a time when they desire celibacy. How can we fight against this patriarchal idea that sex is the only way men feel closeness, or the best way to get them to feel connected?
AM: I mean, it’s complicated, but absolutely men are taught to get emotional and relational satisfaction from sex more often than other forms of intimacy. And women are set up to be the providers of not just sexual, but emotional satisfaction in a man’s life. I’m not sure I have the answers for how we solve the pervasive misogynistic attitudes that teach men to view women as objects and providers of this kind of labor—much less how we get grown adult men to unlearn these ideas. I think it’s really fucking hard, and I want to acknowledge that it’s really fucking hard for men, too, to wake up as adults (if they wake up!) and realize what products of the patriarchy they have become.
As I write in the book, this is something I think about a lot with respect to my own parenting and my own relationships with men. I think teaching boys to care and respect bodily autonomy is obviously so important. But when we live in a culture that is normalizing2 the torture and abuse of pregnant and birthing people’s bodies, that certainly creates a feedback loop with cultural messaging around the inevitability of maternal and sexual suffering for women.
When we live in a culture that is normalizing the torture and abuse of pregnant and birthing people’s bodies, that certainly creates a feedback loop with cultural messaging around the inevitability of maternal and sexual suffering for women.
CD: I was really intrigued by their discussion around how refusing sex is emotional labor. It makes me think back to your conversation with Rebecca Woolf where she talks about sex as caretaking. Why is it “hurtful” to say no to sex? Why does a woman’s no have to mean something about the man? Why can’t it just be neutral? They go on to say: “He needs to feel like she is still attracted to him despite not wanting to touch him.” Again, my question is: why? Why is it our job to prop up the ego’s of our husbands? Is it? Or is this just the patriarchy at work?
AM: I mean why is patriarchy, yes! But more specifically, this goes back to what I said about women being set up to be sexual and emotional providers for men. Silvia Federici writes that women are supposed to be the receptacle into which men dump the pain they, too, acquire in a capitalist society, as laborers outside the home.3 It’s all part of the grand design.
In my book, I also write about how sex for girls and women feels one-sided, as we are taught to perform for the male gaze and derive pleasure from men’s pleasure. Then this feeling just presents itself again in parenting and marriage, as we are told we should receive pleasure from our children’s pleasure and perform for their gaze, too.
But also, men want to feel loved and wanted. I don’t think that’s terrible or a betrayal of their ability to be allies. There’s just often an empathy piece missing (or seems to be missing from the limited knowledge we have on this relationship and from what we see in the contemporary discourse on parenting) around how much this mother and mothers and parents are struggling. I think if we had stronger cultural narratives around just how traumatic and confusing and emotionally painful it is to become a parent in this country, men might have more access to that empathy. But of course, there’s an entire machine working against this.
CD: I agree that we are seeing more and more women share how hard the transition to motherhood can be. You and I are certainly doing all we can, along with writers like Molly Caro May, Minna Dubin, Dr. Pooja Lakshmin and Dr. Aurelie Athan. But sadly, I’m not sure men are reading these works. I think back to the men in the Oklahoma senate referring to maternity leave as a vacation. How do we help husbands understand? Part of me thinks they need to take a “taking care of Mommy” class in addition to “taking care of baby.” But sadly, when even our government refuses to see new motherhood as a time when women need acute care, what hope is there for the husbands?
AM: I think they need to help themselves understand. But I love this idea of a taking care of your partner class, and it flags that a larger issue is also how we talk about and treat gestational parents and their partners (if they have partners) postpartum. And as you say, about the national economic and political landscape of care. There’s no need, however, that men need to wait to advocate for these sorts of policies until the most regressive actors in our government realize how violent and abusive their policies are. Women and queer folks are fighting all the time.
CD: Layered throughout their conversation is the idea that a man in a heterosexual relationship is entitled to sex. “If she isn’t going to want sex for a few years, where does that leave the husband? What is a reasonable thing for him to do?” And I kind of laughed and wanted to say: um, masturbate? Ideas in this conversation feel reminiscent of the incel movement. There are lots of times in our adult lives when we are not having sex with another person. Whether you can’t find a date, or you just went through a breakup, or you’re facing a health crisis, or you just don’t have time to cultivate a romantic or sexual relationship, people survive. As Emily Nagoski writes: sex isn’t a need. It isn’t a drive. We can live without sex. Plenty of people do. What we can’t live without is connection. What do we do with all this “himpathy” as Kate Manne calls it, for the man who isn’t getting laid?
AM: Sure, or, you know, they could explore nonmonogamy.4 It’s very possible that any two people in a marriage discover they want different things after they have children. That’s hard, especially given that marriage is an economic institution, so there is more to it than the sexual piece, especially for many women, even though no one really wants to talk about that.
A sexless marriage5 is supposed to be like, the worst thing in the world, totally shameful, but this cultural belief is rooted in ideas around frigid women and sexual repression. Not only are many people actively embracing asexuality and other diverse ways of thinking about sexuality and partnership over one’s lifetime, and not only do we all have constantly fluctuating wants and needs given whatever is happening in our individual lives at that time (including what trauma or emotional pain we may be unpacking or experiencing) but given the world we’re living in right now, it’s really not unreasonable for women to need a break from fulfilling the desires of men in their lives.
Thank you Amanda, for taking the time to discourse with me. I’ll have another conversation with her once I’ve read her book, which goes on sale September 12!
Mother Tongue Magazine, Issue 4, touches on sex after children and this post, just a snapshot of the conversation, generated some pretty interesting dialogue on their Instagram page. Take this comment, for example:
I had NOTHING left for my husband sexually when I had children. I started to think I was asexual. For more than a decade we had virtually no sex, except for when we wanted another baby. He never once complained, never asked for it, never said anything negative. I was terribly worried he would leave for a while, that I “owed” him. And he was always quick to remind me that he was once a teenage boy and was perfectly capable of sorting himself out, and that he never ever wanted me to do ANYTHING sexual I didn’t want to do. He was so conscious of my load, as a breastfeeding mother, & did everything in his power to lighten it. He would cuddle me and reassure me as much as I wanted and needed and never ever overstepped the boundaries. He told me even if I never had sex with him ever again he wanted to stay with me, because he loved me. And I leaned into that and trusted it and let go of my fear of not wanting sex. The relationship was sexless for over a decade. And finally, when our youngest started sleeping though the night at 6 years old, I started to experience some vague feelings of arousal. And two years later we are back to regular sex, different to how it was when we first met, but we both agree it’s WAY better. I imagine though, that many men would not be this patient or loving. It’s taken me a long time to understand that most men don’t share the load at home with kids and housework. And most men aren’t understanding or kind when their partners don’t want sex, not even a week, let alone more than a decade! I couldn’t understand this anger and hatred of men, because all I’ve known for 20 years is collaboration and cooperation and unconditional love. But here we are, and we’re ok, (and yes, I am finally back to giving BJs again 😊)
Another commenter said this:
Sometimes it’s worth doing what you don’t want to do for the sake of maintaining a relationship. It’s give and take. That’s purely my opinion, and applies to myself and my relationship.
Vanessa Bennett, author of It’s Not Me, It’s You with her partner John Kim (aka The Angry Therapist), went on the podcast The Chatty Broads, and this idea of having sex just because your partner wants to came up. Her response:
“I’ve spent my life essentially being told, whether non-verbally or verbally, covertly or overtly, that your sexual responsibility is to make sure your man is taken care of. Protecting their ego is way more important than anything about you. Your needs, your desires, your satisfaction, anything. As a society, we are a codependent society… you are a need meeting machine that should be meeting all of my needs….
My friend said to me, Vanessa, you’re allowed to stand in [your no] and John’s allowed to do with that what he will. The scary part about that is there might be a point when he says, I’m not willing to sit in this [not having sex]. And if he says that to me, I have to be able to stand in my truth and say: then that’s your choice to make. I’m not going to [have sex] just because it’s going to keep the attachment…. Because I am choosing myself first….
As a woman, I want to have agency over my body. I’ve never been told I can do that. And I think having a daughter has made me realize: Fuck that. If it’s not a hell yes, then it’s a no.”
A little post about how your likes and shares can really help a Substack writer!
CD: “Our approach to birth has been that the baby is the candy and the mom’s the wrapper, and once the baby is out of the wrapper we cast it aside,” said Dr. Alison Stuebe, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “We need to recognize that the wrapper is a person — moms are getting really sick and dying.” From Maternity’s Most Dangerous Time: When New Mothers Come Home. Roni Caryn Rabin, The New York Times.
CD: I recently read this quote in Gabor Mate’s The Myth of Normal (he has an entire chapter on the trauma of being a woman in our culture titled “Society’s Shock Absorbers”). It is from Dr. Julie Holland. She says: “The disproportionately high rate of anxiety and depression in women stems, in large part, from their absorption of male angst and their culturally directed responsibility for soothing it. In that sense, women are ingesting the ani-depressants and anxiolytics for both sexes.”