Is Maintenance Sex A Load Of Sexist Bullsh*t, Or Can It Be A Good Thing?
It does not mean obligating yourself to sex anytime your partner wants it.
Those lusty, passionate, "let's have sex whenever, wherever" days might be few and far between now that you're married and go by the name "Mom," but that doesn't mean your sex life is doomed. First off, it's totally normal that your sex life has its ebbs and flows, and it's also totally normal that it might even feel like it's dwindling at times. Not having sex every day or every week (if not longer) is pretty much par for the course in a long-term relationship that demands more responsibility than just banging. But let's be frank: Those days of more sex were pretty great, which is why you might want some maintenance sex to keep those engines revving.
If just hearing “maintenance sex” or “sex maintenance” makes you feel like railing against the patriarchy, well, that’s not surprising. It’s an idea that’s fairly largely been maligned as a sexist, male-driven concept. But it isn’t just men who have sexual needs and desires. Sometimes it’s the woman in the relationship (or women) who would like to have a little more sex in their lives. And the matter of maintenance sex isn’t exclusive to straight couples, either.
Still, isn’t either partner having sex when they’re not fully into it sort of... unhealthy? Anti-feminist? Maybe even bordering on predatory? Scary Mommy asked Rebecca Alvarez — sexologist and CEO and co-founder of Bloomi, a sexual wellness company — to dive into these choppy waters with us.
What is “maintenance sex” or “sex maintenance”?
"When hearing the phrase 'sex maintenance,' many think that it is about having sex even when you don't want to have sex, just to keep your partner happy," Alvarez tells Scary Mommy. "It's also often [used] in reference to a woman doing what she needs to do to satisfy her man. However, I want to redefine this phrase to mean partners establishing a regular cadence of open and honest communication about their sexual needs and desires and engaging in routines (e.g., scheduling sex at specific times) so that sex isn't an afterthought in the relationship."
In other words, maintenance sex does not mean one person is beholden to the other person’s every sexual whim. It doesn’t mean the hornier person gets to unilaterally decide it’s go-time in the bedroom. It’s a decision entered into mutually, by both parties, after the one less inclined to have sex decides they’re down for it.
Before you say you're too tired for sex or don't have the time, Alvarez says it's important to keep in mind that sexual intimacy is essential to many people in relationships (though certainly not all). "It's a pleasurable experience that can also help strengthen bonds, boost happiness, improve confidence, and rekindle the romance," she says. "But it's not always fireworks. Throughout the lifespan of relationships, it's normal for things to grow stagnant. Arduous schedules and emotional lows can reduce libido, causing sexual satisfaction and intimacy to suffer.”
This is where maintenance sex, which Alvarez says is really just another way of saying “regular communication and healthy intimate routines,” can come into play.
Why would a couple need or want to have "maintenance sex"?
While having spontaneous sex is awesome and should be engaged in as often as you're up for it, Alavraez says it's unfortunately not realistic for most couples. "It's also not realistic to think that both partners will always want to have sex at the same time — disconnect is common," she points out. "Media and movies would have you think that sex is always a passionate, impulsive act, with both partners being fully in sync. However, the daily stressors of life can wreak havoc on sleep, and busy schedules can make sex feel like it's not a priority for one or both partners."
If you were to ask people who’ve been married for more than 5 or 10 years how often their sexual desire aligns perfectly with their partner’s, you probably wouldn’t get an “every time” or even “most of the time.” In all likelihood, you’d get a “not much anymore” or “we make it work.” That’s real life.
"For this reason, it is sometimes important to (a) be willing to tell your partner when your sexual needs aren't being met and (b) and be open to planning and scheduling sex," she says. "Sex maintenance (e.g., discussing and planning sex) can feel unromantic at first, and some people may feel embarrassed by having to do so. Also, telling your partner you're unsatisfied, or it's been too long, can feel scary. These insecurities are totally normal."
But if having a satisfying sexual relationship is important to you both, then you owe it to yourselves to have the tough talk.
What are some drawbacks to sex maintenance?
According to Alvarez, the key issue with sex maintenance is when someone feels obligated to have sex when they don't want to, just to satisfy the needs of the other. "It's especially a problem if there is only one person in the relationship always making the 'sacrifice' of engaging in the act of sex when they aren't feeling satisfied with it," she says. "Sex between partners should be mutually beneficial. This is not to say that occasionally having sex for the benefit of your partner is always unhealthy. But systematically denying your needs or ignoring your feelings is."
If one party is constantly giving and not receiving, Alvarez says it can build resentment. Moreover, the other party may be blindsided and feel bad for not being told sooner that they weren't attentive to the other's needs.
The healthiest form of sex maintenance, says Alvarez, is when each person feels safe to discuss their needs and desires — and when time is designated to fulfill those needs and desires. "It is not uncommon for people to have different libidos, so working together to compromise so that both people can feel satisfied is key."
How can you make sure that not all the sex you're having is sex maintenance?
Scheduling sex might be what you need sometimes during those busy weeks, but Alvarez encourages squeezing in spontaneous sex where both of you are in the mood. In fact, according to Alvarez, sex maintenance can actually lead to more spontaneous sex.
"You can't be great at something unless you do it over and over, and the same goes for sex," she says. "Setting designated time to experiment with new techniques and perfect the ones you're already great at will make you a better lover and make you and your partner feel more satisfied. As satisfaction increases, it will build desire that will start to manifest outside of your regularly scheduled sessions."
Ultimately, maintenance sex is one of those things that will likely always be a polarizing topic. Only you and your partner can decide if it’s right for you — and that’s another decision you should make together, after being open and honest with each other about how you feel. Either way, you should never feel like you owe anyone sex.
And if the person you’re with truly makes you feel that way, um, shut that sh*t down. That’s an entirely different conversation (one you should probably have with a relationship therapist).