The most shameful secret I’ll ever reveal is that for the last 18 months of our marriage, my husband refused to have sex with me.
There. I said it.
It still hurts to even read those words.
Like most women, I was raised to believe that men live and breathe sex. It’s all they think about; all they want. It’s the woman who has to dress modestly because men can’t control their eyes. It’s the woman who has to save sex for a special moment because men will take it the first chance they get. It’s the woman who has to work to keep desire alive after having children because nothing can slake the lust of a man.
So when my husband started refusing to have sex, my first reaction was bafflement, followed quickly by suspicion. Maybe he was having an affair. Maybe he had developed a porn addiction. Maybe he was secretly gay. All of these possibilities crowded my head, but none so terrible as the most likely explanation: that my husband simply didn’t want me anymore.
In today’s world, sex is rife with double standards for women. If a woman denies sex to her husband, she is blamed for being frigid or heartless. But when a man denies sex, the woman is also blamed—usually for not being attractive or sexy enough. I fell straight into this trap, blaming myself for his lack of interest. Was I getting too flabby, too boring? Was I not meeting the lady-in-the-streets-but-a-freak-in-the-bed standards that society sets for women?
Intent on rekindling my husband’s interest, I tried to get creative about sex. He wasn’t interested. I told him repeatedly how much I loved him and wanted him. Nada. I started bargaining for sex, and eventually, just begging. All I got in return was night after night of humiliating rejection.
So I did what a lot of people would do. I lost my fucking mind.
Living in a sexless marriage broke me like no experience ever has. Nothing compares to the white-hot shame of being rejected by the person you love most in the world. Nothing is better equipped to unravel your self-confidence and crowd your head with suspicions.
I wish I were writing an article right now about how I found other ways to show affection or kept our marriage focused on raising our daughter instead of getting hung up on what was happening in the bedroom. But that’s not what I learned from living in a sexless marriage.
I learned that sex matters. It matters a lot. Being denied sex by a spouse is one the most painful and humiliating experiences one can endure. The physical withdrawal alone is torture, but worse is the emotional trauma of feeling that the person you have sworn to love all your life would turn his back on you. He might as well drive a stake through your heart with a note on it: “I don’t love you. I don’t want you. I don’t need you.”
Occasionally I read articles, usually written by women, who say that sex isn’t everything, that the spouse who wants sex just needs to adapt to the other’s withering libido. I know this is a polarizing topic, one that ignites passionate argument on both ends of the spectrum. But I will say one thing: If you’ve never suffered night after night of humiliation, if you’ve never been shut out of intimacy for weeks, months, years, then please don’t say that sex isn’t everything.
Of course there are other components to a marriage—love, trust, respect, compassion, affection, communication and a hundred other things. But sex is not just optional. It is not a bargaining chip, nor a prize for good behavior. Sex is powerful. It is the most intense pleasure on the spectrum of human experience, and as such, it is also the one that can bring the most pain.
Sex creates life, but it can destroy it too.