Bedroom Behavior

04.27.13

Dismantling the Myth of the Frigid Wife

What happens when she's the one saying 'more' while he says 'no'?

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on the marriage bed dynamics of Chris and Afton Mower, high-school sweethearts turned newlyweds whose relationship suddenly went south because Mr. Mower wasn’t getting laid enough.

The story, titled “How Often Should Married People Have Sex," and subtitled “When He Says ‘More’ and She Says ‘No’,” reads like an unwitting parody of a trend piece from 30 years ago, when sexless marriages were chalked up to gender stereotypes. We meet Mr. Mower, who fits the mold of the sexually frustrated husband; he says his wife—the archetypal frigid one—rebuffs his advances “95 percent of the time.”

He tries talking to his beloved about their lackluster sex life, but she changes the subject. He tries to pitch in with housework—after reading somewhere that doing the dishes is a foolproof way for husbands to get their wives in the sack—to no avail. As months stretch into years, he tracks his efforts, but at the end of the day, Mrs. Mower still isn’t putting out. So Mr. Mower does what any man would do in his shoes: he “became grumpy, gained weight, and stopped wanting to come home at night.”

WSJ reporter Elizabeth Bernstein paints the Mowers’ experience as typical for male-female bedroom expectations. “Increasingly, experts believe that sex is a more emotional experience for men than women,” she writes. “Men tend to express feelings with actions, not words. Unlike a lot of women, they probably don’t have heart-to-heart chats with everyone from their best friend to the bus driver, and they often limit hugs and physical affection to their immediate best family.” It’s not until the end of the piece that we learn the Mowers may have had other reasons for their lack of chemistry: raised Mormon, they waited until matrimony to have sex (“we expected sparks, and it didn’t happen,” says Mr. Mower), and then Mrs. Mower miscarried, which (shocker) caused her libido to plummet even further.

Meanwhile, evidence—of both the anecdotal and hard data variety—shows that the Mowers couldn’t be further from the norm when it comes to boudoir behavior. Turns out, there are plenty of women out there who are being rebuffed more often than they are rebuffing.

Let’s look at some of the stats. Bernstein—who cites nary a scientific study to bolster her claims—writes that men “tend to have orgasms more frequently than women,” which is why denying them sex is supposedly akin to taking them off mood-stabilizing drugs, thus depriving them of “the chemical stimulants that give them a sense of well being,” according to one Journal expert. While some men may have an easier time reaching orgasm during intercourse than women, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they don’t have orgasms “more frequently” than women do. As orgasm pioneers Masters & Johnson taught us in their famous book, Human Sexual Response, “many females, especially when clitorally stimulated, can have five or six full orgasms within a matter of minutes...as contrasted with the male’s usual inability to have more than one orgasm in a short period.”

So according to the Masters & Johnson’s research, the real subtitle of the piece should have been “When She says ‘More,’ He says ‘I Can’t.”

After the Journal piece came out, I crowdsourced the topic on Facebook, asking women if they had ever been frustrated in a relationship because their boyfriends/husbands often rejected their advances or seemed uninterested in sexytime altogether.

“I always want to bone more than my man,” said Mary, 26 (not her real name). “He’s like, ‘I won’t be able to come because I already came today,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t care if you come or not I’m craving penetration right now.’ He says ‘more’ and I get turned on.”

A 23-year-old woman voiced a similar complaint. “We’ll get back from a date and have a drink and watch TV and spoon and then he’ll be snoring when I wanted to have sex,” she said, referring to her boyfriend of six months. “I want him to want to have sex with me all the time.”

These women may not be married, but they’ve been in committed relationships with their respective boyfriends for more than six months—roughly the same timeframe in which the Mowers’ dry spell kicked off.

Of course, gender stereotypes and sexual behaviors are often boiled down to biology. Scientists tell us that men aren’t hardwired to have multiple orgasms with the same person. Evolutionary psychologists maintain their primitive ancestors had to spread their seed from one cave to another so they could effectively reproduce their genes—a theory that was most recently tested and approved in 2011 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. Measured by a reported number of orgasms per week, men’s libido peaks in their teens and then plateaus to an average of three orgasms per week, according to a 2010 study published in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences. The same study concludes that women, on the other hand, are more sexual in their 30s and 40s.

But a couple’s sex drive can’t be analyzed by gender tropes or biology alone, which is precisely why the Mowers’ story shouldn’t be turned into a blanket trend piece. If anyone’s saying “Not tonight, honey,” evidence suggests it’s just as likely to be the man.