When Lori Gottlieb asked in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” and essentially answered “Yes,” she started a firestorm of protest. Jezebel argued that the real “bonerkiller” is not equality, but fatigue and sexual hang-ups, while Slate proposed that “the work that sexual pleasure requires” is still not being divided equally, even if the vacuuming now is; many noted that quantity and quality of sex are not the same thing; Feministing reminded us that we really can’t “have it all”; and one author said, well, she rather liked it when her husband pushed her up against a refrigerator. Virtually everyone questioned Gottlieb’s social science methods and credentials.
What no one said was, “Amen!”
Gottlieb and her critics all seem to share the assumption that adults having less sex than they used to have is something to be upset about. To question this assumption would be to challenge the orthodoxy and romanticism of our consumer-driven society in which pleasure and newness are everything, and boredom and predictability are great evils. But such has not always and everywhere been the ruling ethos on sexuality. From a religious point of view, having less sex may actually be a good thing, a sign of maturity, a graduation from those irrational days of childhood when we are barely higher than the beasts.
Most of Christian tradition, for example, has seen sex as a necessary evil, presenting marriage as a remedy for those unable to control their bodily urges; even within marriage, some tried to practice continence. In recent years most Christians have cultivated a much more generous view of sex, praising the companionship and pleasure that it can foster between (married) partners, but a sense of moderation has generally remained. Buddhism, meanwhile, teaches that suffering comes from inordinate desire. For a time this seemed—as in Christianity—to imply that the ideal Buddhist must be erotically ascetic. While Buddhism, too, developed its understanding to include the possibility of good sex, it nevertheless calls into question the central importance of body worship, passionate entanglements, and sensual pleasures.
It must be said, of course, that the disdain of sex among many pre-modern thinkers, and indeed some modern ones, has usually been tied to a deeply misogynistic belief that women were mostly a nuisance and a distraction, of value almost solely for their procreative powers (although one ancient Buddhist text has a special hell just for mothers). But to be fair, the more “sex positive” religions that appear to encourage old people to keep f**king like adolescents were also patriarchal and typically obsessed with male heirs. (Yes, Abraham and Sarah were reportedly still at it into their dotage, but does anyone actually think they were still having fun after that many years of trying to get pregnant?)
It can be easy to forget in a society like ours that there are goods—however defined—that might be more important than comfort, pleasure, and satisfaction of our bodily appetites. One need not be religious (or a misogynist) to consider the idea that, while our youths are happily spent in a coupling frenzy, our time and energies as we grow older can be freed up for other things. This might include parenting, but it might also include creative pursuits, satisfying careers, community service, feats of strength or endurance, spiritual contemplation, friendships, or even great sacrifices (gasp! sacrifices?) on behalf of others in need. Historians will remind us that it’s always worth listening to those strange voices from the past, especially where they cast suspicion on the goods we hold most dear.