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Who’s got the power in your sexual relationship?

The first of two parts


“Intercourse is rape!” People have claimed that one of two famous feminist writers, either Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon, said this. Way to go guys, gaslighting us in the interest of besmirching two writers with something to say! But in fact, NEITHER of them said this, nor would they have said this.

On the other hand, let me share with you this story. Martin and Susy have been married for several years. They’re mostly happy together, but as you know nothing’s ever perfect. Susy’s not been wanting sex as often as she used to. Martin is still initiating sex, and sometimes Susy feels pressured.

Then this happens: they’re walking around the house. Maybe Martin’s wearing his bathrobe. He goes to hug Suzy. He says it’s a pure show of affection. He just likes to feel her in his arms. He’s not trying to “make something happen.”

But Mr. Happy hasn’t gotten the memo and BOING! up he pops mid-hug. Now Susy feels pressure. Coercion. Without Martin saying a word. She’s feeling he’s somehow forcing her to have sex, no matter how much he denies this isn’t his intention.

Suppose she gives in. The role power played in that sexual experience—and in their sense of their sexual relationship—is huge. Was it rape? Susy wouldn’t say so. But still, to her it feels just a little rape-ish.

So where does this leave us?

In the beginning, as they say, there is the dream of utter freedom and safety. The sense of being cherished. The expectation that whatever happens is wonderful. Sex as a kind of heaven.

And many of us have experienced this. Many of us long to return to this heaven.

But many of us haven’t returned or only all too briefly.

For many of us, sex is more about power than about sex. More about the power of the other person to judge our body than our ability to stay comfortable in our body. More about the other person determining when things happen, how they happen, and when they stop happening. More about living up to the other person’s needs and expectations than our own.

More about our giving away our power to the other than about our giving our bodies and hearts to each other.

If you ask women and men when in their relationship they are most likely to feel disempowered, sex comes near the head of the list.

A lot of this has to do with humiliation. We’re never more at risk of experiencing shame or failure than in and around sex. That paradise of freedom and safety has collapsed into a gray place of worry at best. A seriously middle-aged man—an artist—described to her face his seriously middle-aged wife’s body as “pouchy.” It’s not as though she had illusions about her body. But she did have hopes of an earthly heaven in which her husband would see her body or at least would care to talk to her about it in a loving way.

And when things go wrong in this once-upon-a-time paradise (even when the disaster is nothing more than boredom), we have a sense that our partner has this huge power to somehow prevent things from going wrong. And a sense of ourselves as thoroughly helpless, unable to make anything good happen or to get our needs met.

As we talk about in Why Couples Fight, whatever any issue starts out as being about, it always ends up as being about power. Next time let’s talk about how to use this understanding to your benefit, to roll back the unproductive power dynamics, and to see how go get closer to paradise again.


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