(This essay is excerpted from The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, just released in paperback from William Morrow/HarperCollins.)
The drapes are pulled against the midday sun, the room clean and peaceful. Some days I’m naked between the white sheets, other days tarted up with a satin bra and thong I’d never wear otherwise. If he’s in bed first, I might throw on high heels and saunter over to his side, like the cheap whore we both wish I could be. The thought is laughable when you know our history.
Right now, though, our history isn’t the point. And the costumes might work in the screenplay I’m writing in my head, the one where it’s all new and a little bit nasty, like when we first met almost four decades ago—me not long into college, he older, much more experienced. I counted on him to show me the ways of my body, and for a long time he did. But then something stopped working for me. And that’s when our problems started.
Enter the Fantasy World
I close my eyes and just make up the scene while my body acts it out.
But let me get back to the moment we’re having in the room. Ignore the mole on his chest that suddenly looks irregular, the twitch in my elbow from too much tennis, and focus on the good sensations, the man in bed . . . and then flip it and pretend he’s a stranger, and I am too, and rewrite the screenplay: sometimes familiar, sometimes new. Close my eyes and just make up the scene while my body acts it out. It’s not automatic, but it’s a skill I’ve learned, a meditative trance that allows me to relax and to ultimately connect . . . to make everybody happy.
Do I need to say it? Okay, I’ll say it. Sex with my husband wasn’t always this complicated.
I grew up Irish Catholic in the 1960s and ’70s, went to parochial schools, and somehow never got the sex talk from my parents—or anyone else. Shyness and inertia kept me a virgin until nineteen, and then, although my first time was with a sweet, tender boy, I was so busy holding in my stomach and trying to look transported that I don’t remember much of it.
Shortly thereafter, I met my husband. And this time, in the throes of love at first sight, I offered myself without a thought of my imperfections. I loved the way he smelled, loved his beautiful strong body, loved his wicked handsomeness. I wanted to eat him, in that ravenous way one loves one’s children. From the first slow wink, the sex was exciting, unpredictable, and frequent.
But around our fifth year as a couple (not yet married, but long since monogamous and living together), I found myself losing my desire to touch and be touched by him. I thought it might be the painful urinary tract infections I kept getting, or the mild betrayals, fights, and disappointments causing anger to creep into my head and my bed. Or simply that, no longer new, sex wasn’t as riveting. I didn’t know. I still loved him. I still found him strikingly handsome. Nevertheless, I stopped wanting to have sex as often as he did (pretty much every night), and when we did, I wasn’t having an orgasm as reliably as I had.
This made me question my ability to perform, which made it harder for me to perform, which made him slow down and take more time with me—which was not at all what I wanted. Despite the common belief that women want men to go on and on, that was never true for me. I wanted him to finish so we could talk or read or just go to bed.
Watch interview with Cathi Hanauer, editor of The Bitch is Back, which first published this essay.
Game Face On
Normally outspoken, I found myself not confessing my increasing lack of interest: I worried I would hurt him, or that telling him would mean we were in trouble. Instead, I said I was tired or stressed. While I never actually faked orgasm—a strange boundary for a woman hiding so much else—I did often fake willingness as I lay in bed, game face on, brain either neurotically going through all the things that could be wrong with me, my life, our lives . . . or off a million miles away, thinking about my deadlines or our upcoming vacation. Soon I began going to bed early or pretending to be asleep when I wasn’t. It was as if the door to the wellspring of my sexuality had slammed shut.
Soon I began going to bed early or pretending to be asleep when I wasn’t.
This, I’m embarrassed to say, went on for many years. We got married anyway; we loved each other, after all, and we wanted to be together, wanted kids. Then the kids came along. Again, do I need to say it? I’ll say it. I was a new mother, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, angry about shouldering more of the child care burden while also working. Add to that the constantly suckling infant to whom I was a human pacifier, and, for me at least, any residual erotic impulse vanished. My formerly sexy boobs were now a cross between udders and a security blanket for this astonishing—and astonishingly needy—new member of the family.
Kid Complications Arrive
Weeks turned to months. My C-section scar still ached, my stomach sagged, and I hadn’t slept more than three hours straight or had a good shower in what seemed like a year. What’s more, while I’d never been calm, in the period of early motherhood my brain became a teeming automat of fears and horror stories about raising a baby. There were choking hazards, SIDS, honey-induced botulism, suffocation, drownings galore. I became hyper-vigilant, hyper-absorbed. Sex with my husband? Let’s just say it wasn’t a priority.
He was a good sport at first, having been caught up in his own adoration of the infant. Eventually, however, he’d coax me into halfheartedly doing something. We limped along for a couple of years with him hoping this would get better, and me making excuses or faking sleep, unable to imagine ever feeling horny again.
Starving for Solitude
But the next night, my husband wanted to do it again. I almost couldn’t believe it.
By the time I turned forty, with two still-little kids, I was so starved for solitude and rest that even when my husband and I went away for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday, I shuddered at his expectations of a love fest. I wanted to read, take baths, and simply think. But I also couldn’t demolish our last hopes for a rekindled sex life—plus, wasn’t the whole point of a weekend away without kids to make love? And in fact, once I finally relaxed, I actually enjoyed myself—not only the sex, complete with a long-awaited orgasm, but also the relief at feeling so much better about what I had considered my “broken” sex equipment.
But the next night, my husband wanted to do it again. I almost couldn’t believe it. I shook my head, climbed under the covers (in sweats), and told him I thought I was coming down with something.
The Birthday Gift
Shortly afterward, I was out with friends who asked about the trip. My expression must have given things away, because one of them said, “So, happy birthday. He takes you away to a fancy hotel to fuck your brains out. Same gift I got!” Laughter erupted, followed by sighs.
We might joke about it, but despite our jobs, houses, kids, dogs, we felt pathetic, unloving . . . selfish. We were failures at the marriage contract, depriving our imperfect but nonetheless faithful and loving husbands of sex.
It was around this time that I spotted a book in the library: Not Tonight, Dear. I plucked it off the shelf like contraband. Written by a psychiatrist and based on interviews with top sex therapists, the book proposed a new take on sexual desire, including case studies of couples with differences in how much sex they wanted and tips on raising one’s libido.
Most happily, it repeated a new premise: Desire is one thing, love another. The authors called mismatched libidos “desire discrepancy,” which, if not discussed and dealt with, could cause enormous misunderstandings between partners. Amazingly, this was the first time I had seen anyone with scientific credibility suggest an alternative to my theory of there being something incurably wrong with me—or my marriage.
Before then, talking to my husband about sex, I’d always framed the issue as more of a logistical problem—the kids were in our bed, someone needed me—or my own temporary state—exhaustion, stress, cramps. Now, carefully, I told him I’d read a book that enlightened me to the fact that I might just have “low desire.”
He shook his head, looking hurt. “You used to love sex!” he said. “You can’t just have ‘low desire’ now. Something else is up.”