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November 7, 2011

Obligation Sex: Is Trading Sex for Favors Okay?

For some reason, why women have sex seems to be a hot-topic issue right now. Within only a few days, I came across two separate pieces that address the issue of women having sex for reasons other than enjoyment. (Can you imagine the media or the scientific community ever devoting  time to why men have sex? It's pretty much a given that men have sex because they want to have sex and there's only really attention given to ways to make that easier for them, such as Viagra).

First, the other day I came across a tiny little survey piece in the October 2011 issue of Redbook, debating whether it was ever okay to trade sex for favors:

In a recent poll, 68 percent of REDBOOK readers said they've offered the goodies in return for a good deed from him. The rest of you said it's wrong. Both sides sound off:


"Sometimes I want sex and I want ice cream, and sex is a good incentive. Either way, we both win!" -- Danielle Blue, Kalamazoo, MI

"I once lifted up my shirt and said, 'Do you ever want to see them again?' so he would vacuum for me. He said he'd do anything I wanted!" -- Anne Travis, Manchester, TN


"That's off-limits for us. Otherwise, you can expect your husband to demand sex in return for doing nice things. No, thank you!" -- Diana Brown, Houston

"Sexual favors are a special treat - I don't want to change, and he should know that I'm doing something for him because I want to." -- Carolyn Canales, Arlington, TX
I'm honestly not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I do agree that women should be having sex because they want to, not out of some obligation. But on the other hand, I support sex workers' rights and find nothing "morally" wrong with trading sex for money or favors. (Readers: I'd love to hear your opinions on the subject.)

Mostly, I feel like it isn't right for anyone else to tell you how to handle your own sexual activity.

Also, although they technically gave both "sides" of the debate, even the "Why Not?" side seemed to be strictly within the confines of a relationship - trading sex for ice cream and vacuuming isn't exactly as controversial as some of the other stuff women might trade sex for, so the whole thing came off kind of slut-shamey in a passive-aggressive roundabout way.

In a moment of synchronicity, I received a press releasae today from HealthyWomen.org titled "New Survey Reveals Women Having Sex for Obligation Not Enjoyment". It cited a recent WomenTALK survey done by the National Women's Health Group and EmpowerHER.

From the press release:
Naomi Greenblatt, MD, a board certified psychiatrist specializing in women’s health, said the WomenTALK data aligns with her clinical work in the field.

"There seems to be a growing trend in women having sex for obligation, not enjoyment purposes, "Dr. Greenblatt said.  "Women say there are only 24 hours in the day, and they simply are not prioritizing sex."
However, upon reading the actual findings of the study, I didn't really come to the conclusion that women were having sex out of obligation. Among the findings:
  • 51% of women believe engaging in sexual activity a few times a week is considered "sexually healthy" but only 30% actually engage in sexual activity at this level.
  • 76% of women in committed relations are very happy with their relationships but only 33% of women are extremely or very satisfied with their sex life. (39% are "somewhat or not at all" satisfied.)
  • 41% of women said they are engaging in sexual activity less often than they would like (citing reasons such as being too tired - 32%; not having a partner - 31%, being too stressed -23%; being insecure about their body - 22%; lack of desire - 20%).
I'm not sure how they came to the conclusion that this means women are having sex out of obligation. Most of the women surveyed seem to be having sex less often than they want. Women don't seem to be prioritizing sex and don't seem to be fully aware of all the health and relationship benefits sex can bring... but there's no reason to believe that they're having sex for the "wrong" reasons. If anything, they're not having sex for the wrong reasons. (Not that there are ever really any "wrong" reasons to make a personal choice about what to do with your own body, but you know what we mean.)

So readers, weigh in on the "sex for favors" debate in the comments but please refrain from slut-shaming if possible. (There's a difference between saying you would never do something and suggesting that it's wrong for someone else to do it.)


Anonymous said...

I agree that women should be free to choose the who/what/when/why/how of their sexual experiences, and I agree with supporting the rights of and protections for sex workers. But I think there are many sex workers who are coerced into doing it, and that it's often not just "trading sex for money" but putting up with a whole lot more, including unwanted violence, and I don't think even regulations and a sex workers' union could remove those dangers, like they did for a lot of other types of labor. I think there are much larger systemic issues at work-- sexism is one but our economic system (or lack thereof) is another.

Kathy said...

Some men consider sex an obligation too. That's not a gender question, I think. It depents on temperament and relations with partner

Yandie, Goddess of Pickles. said...

I have issues that I haven't worked out in regards to 'sex-as-currency' because it always seems to play into the idea that sex is something that women give to men rather than something people enjoy together.

I don't think it'd be my place it's wrong as it's not my body, but there seems to me that using sex as a bartering tool really requires a level of objectification in order to see access to someone's body as a form of currency.

Anonymous said...

"Mostly, I feel like it isn't right for anyone else to tell you how to handle your own sexual activity."

This pretty much begins and ends the discussion for me. If you want to trade sex for something, do it. If you don't, don't.

And it's not like it's a zero-sum game, that women who occasionally trade sex for something disqualify themselves from ever having sex for their own pleasure ever again.

LS said...

I tend to believe that sexual currency isn't a healthy way to manage a committed sexual relationship. But "Is trading sex for favors okay?" seems like a ridiculous question for me.

A better question might be "Is judging a woman's motivation for having sex okay?"

The answer to that one is no.