Editor’s Note: Wednesday Martin is a writer and cultural critic whose books include “UNTRUE: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free,” “Stepmonster” and “Primates of Park Avenue.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Atlantic among others. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I snapped to attention the first time I heard the term “service sex.”
I heard it in 2017, from a researcher at an annual sex researchers’ conference in Montreal. This expert was describing straight women who were distressed because they didn’t feel desire for their husbands or long-term partners. Wanting to keep their men happy, these women often had sex anyway, with a resigned attitude and little thought to their own pleasure.
The mere existence of the term “service sex” suggests it is common enough to need a name. Several therapists I interviewed while researching “UNTRUE,” a book about female sexuality, told me that in their experience it was a common problem for couples, with women more likely to be the ones providing service with less than a smile. Yet many straight women in long term relationships may think service sex is as natural as the air we breathe – horny husbands and disinterested wives are a recurring, nearly inescapable trope in pop culture and since Darwin, science is rife with studies about ardent males and reluctant females.
It’s easy to argue “service sex” is just a fancy term for being a good wife or girlfriend. The problem with this belief is that it equates female goodness with sacrificing one’s sexual pleasure for someone else’s.
Plenty of us have sex once in a while to make our partners happy. But regular service sex is something else – an arguably destructive habit fostered by specific social conditions, a symptom that something is amiss in not just our sex lives, but in our larger lives, and the culture more generally.
It’s time for a revolution. At the polls, and in the bedroom. And in our understanding of who women are, sexually and otherwise. Given the tight interweaving of economic and political power with sexual entitlement, female sexual autonomy has never been more urgent, and women’s sexual pleasure has never been more political. Let’s consider what it might mean to go on a sex strike of sorts – to get what we want, rather than give what we think we owe others.
Sex and status are linked. Where men have the tightest grip on resources and power, our society (including the women in their lives) will prioritize their pleasure – and create false narratives about what women deserve, sexually and otherwise. To wit: in 2018, the number of female CEOs of US Fortune 500 companies dropped 25%, to 24 women total among hundreds of men leading industry, tech, manufacturing, and other sectors. On a more workaday level, according to World Bank data cited by TheGlobalEconomy.com the US ranks an unimpressive 76th out of 180 countries worldwide for female labor force participation.
American women, particularly women of color, continue to earn a fraction of the dollar that white men do – 63 cents for black women; 55 for Native women; 54 for Latinas. Even worse, we are 104th out of 193 countries ranked for female political participation (beaten out by Namibia, Burundi, and Belarus, among others). These numbers are astonishingly low when we consider that the US is the world’s largest economy. Those who can’t lead or even earn on par must serve. And in America, in restaurants, in businesses, and in bed, it is women who serve men.
A women’s sex strike against service sex, a refusal to do it out of a sense of obligation, would force us to confront these basic inequalities. Our current administration has amped up the notion that women are mere extensions of male will and pleasure, there to serve at every turn. What is the rollback of reproductive rights but an assertion that not only female reproduction but female sexuality itself belong to what science writer Natalie Angier calls the “Greater Male Coalition”? What are the President’s insults to Stormy Daniels other than assertions that the woman who enjoys sex or profits from it in any way – emotionally, financially, or physically – is unnatural, immoral, and unattractive? In this world order, female sexual autonomy is not only dangerous and destabilizing; it is increasingly hard to imagine. And female pleasure is irrelevant, even pathological, if it exists at all.
Some women under the current administration may be fine with this paradigm, but they are fundamentally yoked to male desires and agendas, never to exist outside or without them. This basic and deeply personal form of degradation, in which even women’s desires aren’t our own, both reinforces and reflects a hierarchy where men matter more.
Resetting the balance so women no longer provide service sex is not in itself a comprehensive answer to gendered inequalities, of course. But making sex female-focused and female-pleasure-centric could begin to force other shifts in thinking in important ways. When we cease to consider what women like and want as foreplay and reframe it as the main event, for example, we begin to challenge, from the most intimate and private and emotionally powerful place, a long-accepted, deeply believed but nearly invisible world view, and make an impossible-to-miss statement about who and what counts. In the ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes, the character Lysistrata urges women to go on a sex strike to get men on both sides to end the Peloponnesian War. In our case, a sex strike against service sex can be a powerful statement – that female desire, a metric of agency like women’s votes, will be heard.
Meanwhile, surprising newer science – much of it done by female researchers, field scientists, and other experts – is telling us what women want and need. In a radical upending of long-held stereotypes I think of as The Great Correction, they have discovered that when measured correctly, the female libido is as “strong” as the male. They have learned that the overfamiliarity with a spouse and the institutionalization of the relationship that accompany companionate domesticity actually dampen female desire in ways they don’t male desire – suggesting long-term, monogamous relationships may actually be harder for women than for men.
Anthropologist Meredith Small has noted that the single most documented preference across species of female primates is … a taste for sexual novelty. Canadian researchers found that straight women’s bodies respond to a greater range of sexual stimuli than heterosexual men’s, calling into question the easy presumption that it is men who have wide and varied sexual menus. Other research and experts like Esther Perel tell us of female study participants and patients who find the security and comfort of their marriages – the very things we are taught women crave – to be anaphrodisiacs that blunt their lust.
It is women, not just men, and women perhaps even more than men, who pine for sexual adventure. Without it, many of us find our libidos wither. And then we may resign ourselves to serving what we think others deserve, rather than feeling entitled to get ours and get off.
Women don’t owe men a thing. If anything, the statistics show, we are owed. It’s time to make sex and sexual pleasure female-centric. Each couple, each woman, will have to find out what female sexual adventure and pleasure means for them. But the idea of a sex strike suggests exciting possibilities beyond the bedroom. What would not just sex but the world look like if we prioritized what women want in every sex act? How might the political, social, and sexual landscapes all shift if we acknowledged that in many cases, the server is unsatisfied – and actually believed it was important to set things right?