In the beginning of a relationship, sex is often a frequent, exciting and passionate act. Five, 10 or 20 years into a partnership, well, not so much.
“For most people, it was a mutual sexual attraction that got them together in the first place, and ironically, it’s often the first thing that drops away,” said Sally Baker, a London, U.K.-based licensed therapist and author.
“It’s easy not to have time and energy for sex unless it’s prioritized to some degree and time and effort is invested in making it happen.”
So what’s the solution for a dwindling sex life? For some couples, it’s maintenance sex.
What is maintenance sex?
Maintenance sex is when couples have sex even when one partner — or both — are not necessarily in the mood. For some, this means scheduling weekly sex sessions. For others, it means saying “yes” to their partner when they’d rather be watching Game of Thrones.
“Maintenance sex can tend to be more perfunctory and less elaborate than the bells-and-whistles-sex people often wish they were having,” Baker explained. “But that’s OK if it’s part of a bigger picture… that will include opportunities for greater and more exotic intimacy together.”
So how does maintenance sex differ from regular sex?
Terry Humphreys, a professor of psychology at Trent University and the editor of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, says that there is a difference between consenting — a cognitive decision-making process — to sexual behaviour, and wanting it, which is a feeling or emotional experience.
“These are two different concepts and important to think about separately,” he said.
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“Most often they overlap — hopefully, we are consenting to sex we want, and wanting the sex we consent to — however, there are situations in which we consent to sex that we may not particularly desire, i.e. maintenance sex, but this is still completely consensual.”
Humphreys points to other behaviours outside of sex that partners consent to do that they don’t necessarily feel like, such as visiting in-laws or cleaning the house.
“We do them anyway,” he said. “Why? To maintain a smooth functioning relationship.”
Heather Hensman Kettrey, an assistant professor of sociology at Clemson University, echoes this, and says people can consent to sex that they personally may not be craving.
“Maintenance sex is the perfect example of where you’re fine, you don’t protest that you’re fine and say, ‘Yeah I’ll do this,’ but you’re not necessarily into it yourself,” she explained.
Why people have maintenance sex
Humphreys says there are a variety of reasons why people have sex when they don’t necessarily desire it.
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“Many of the motivations likely have to do with feelings of interdependence as a couple in a relationship,” he explained.
Kettrey added that people may also engage in maintenance sex as a way to compromise with a partner. “It may be, ‘Well, I’ll do this for you today because I know next week, you might do something for me,'” she said.
Experts note maintenance sex happens across all genders, and can happen at any point in a relationship.
Benefits of scheduled sex
While it may seem unromantic at first, experts say that maintenance sex can be a positive thing for a relationship, if done correctly.
While there’s no “right” amount of sex a couple should have, research shows that couples who have sex once a week report greater well-being than those who do it less often.
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Baker says that “the side effects” of sexual activity in a relationship include increased intimacy and even humour.
“People in sexually active relationships cut each other more slack and are more supportive of each other both verbally and in the actions they take,” she said.
Kettrey says that for consenting partners in a trusting relationship, maintenance sex can have positive consequences. “Sex is an important part of a healthy relationship,” she said.
Maintenance sex vs. unwanted sex
Experts say it’s important to highlight the difference between non-consensual sex and maintenance sex.
Maintenance sex is something that both parties consent to, and choose to participate in. Forcing someone to engage in sexual activities against their will is sexual assault.
In Canada, sexual activity is only legal when both parties consent, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund points out.
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Emily Thomas, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Ryerson University and researcher at the institute’s SHiFT Lab, says that there are also times when a woman may consent to sex out of fear.
Thomas’ research on how women navigate sex and why women fake orgasms revealed insight as to why some engage in sex they don’t actually want to have. These reasons include wanting to please their partner and avoiding negative consequences like anger and violence.
“In some cases, women said that they would blame themselves if they did not say yes to sex with a partner because they would feel like they were being selfish and would feel bad,” she explained.
“In other cases, women stated that refusing sex would be uncomfortable and at times not possible, meaning that their partner would not stop even when asked.”
Listening to each other
While sex is an important part of a relationship, Baker says it’s vital that both partners do not pressure each other to do anything they don’t want to do — even if they previously agreed to sex.
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“If either partner doesn’t want to have sex for any reason, their ability to refuse must be respected 100 per cent,” she said.
“If you begin with a partner who is not so mutually keen, be willing to stop immediately with no bad grace if they don’t come around to the idea of sex.”
Baker says that meaningful intimacy and good sex come when partners listen and respect each other — in and out of the bedroom.