Sex

Just Because You're Bored With Sex Doesn't Mean You Can't Masturbate

by Penelope
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Welcome to Ask A MWLTF (yes, that’s Mother Who Likes to F*ck), a new, monthly anonymous advice column from Scary Mommy. Here we’ll dissect all your burning questions about motherhood, sex, romance, intimacy, and friendship, with the help of our columnist, Penelope, a writer and mental health practitioner in training. She’ll dish out her most sound advice for parents on the delicate dance of raising kids without sacrificing other important relationships. Submit questions here, send an email to askpenelope@scarymommy.com, and keep an eye on our Instagram stories for ways to ask questions, too.

Dear Penelope,

The other day, my husband discovered a secret I’d been keeping from him for about a year. Ever since our second child was born last winter, our sex life hasn’t been what it used to be. We probably only have sex once or twice a month. Often, when my husband tries to initiate sex, I tell him the truth: I’m tired. Between work and two kids, I’m tired when I open my eyes in the morning and I’m tired when I close them at night and I’m tired almost every second in between. That said, though I often feel too tired to even think about having sex with my husband, I somehow have enough energy to masturbate almost every morning while he’s giving them breakfast, before I get up and shower. The other day he walked in on me and I could tell that he was confused, but also a little hurt, as we hadn’t had sex in weeks and just the night before I’d rebuffed him. He asked if I just wasn’t attracted to him anymore. I told him I am. He asked if I was having an affair. I laughed. When would I have time to do that?! And yet, I do understand his confusion, and feel confused myself. Why is it that ever since having kids, sex feels like work whereas masturbation feels like pure relaxation and fun. Why? And more importantly, what can be done about it?

Dear Confused,

Once upon a time, I had a boyfriend who was in a band. He and his drummer, a lanky fellow with an easy smile and a talent for rolling joints with one hand, would play their own recordings constantly. I always knew when they were listening to their own stuff because I’d walk into their apartment and they’d both be smiling as they listened. What surprised me wasn't just how much pleasure he seemed to get from this, but that he took pleasure from it without shyness and without apology. When I said as much, he replied, “No shame in being your own biggest fan, babe.” At the time, I found it mildly arrogant. Now, I think, why not?

What I’m saying is, I sense shame in your letter, as if masturbating isn’t just another more relaxed and relaxing form of sex than intercourse with a partner. I’m not blaming you for this shame. I’ve noticed that in our male-centric, heteronormative culture, many view masturbation as an adequate but less fun substitute for getting off, something you do to tide you over when sex isn’t available. The subtext of your husband’s confusion seems to be: if I want sex and my wife says she’s not feeling it but then I “catch” her masturbating, it must prove she’s lost interest in me. Maybe. Or maybe masturbating just feels less tiring at the moment because… well, it is.

To put it another way, consider food. When my kids are out and I’m on my own for dinner, there’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up on the couch with a turkey sandwich, a container of half-eaten hummus, and maybe a few leftover blue-cheese stuffed olives I forgot I had in the fridge, all of which I can enjoy in my pajamas while scrolling on my phone and watching the latest episode of White Lotus. I find this type of feasting infinitely pleasurable and a lot less work than hosting a dinner party or even going out for a romantic meal. That doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy the latter. It just means for everything there is a season.

Furthermore, to care for small children is to be exquisitely attuned to other beings’ bodily needs — to notice these needs, to respond to them, to do so with gentleness and affection. When children are very little, women often respond not just with their heart and hands but with their whole bodies— nursing, cuddling, rocking, caressing. I’m not saying that caring for kids is the same as sex, okay. I’m just saying that it does use a lot of the same muscles. Masturbation, on the other hand, requires nothing but a little privacy and maybe your favorite vibrator.

In other words, sex is an important part of intimacy, but it’s not necessarily in competition with your morning ritual of self-care. Maybe you could gently explain this to your husband the next time he interrupts. Maybe you could even offer to send him an explicit update and a picture if he cleans up from the kids’ breakfast, giving him a little something to think about until your next rendezvous.