Ask Professor Foxy: What Is the Line Between Support and Getting My Needs Met?

This weekly Saturday column “Ask Professor Foxy” will regularly contain sexually explicit material. This material is likely not safe for work viewing. The title of the column will include the major topic of the post, so please read the topic when deciding whether or not to read the entire column.
Dear Professor Foxy,
I have been in a happy monogamous relationship with my partner for five years now. She is my best friend and we have an amazing egalitarian relationship. Sure, we have our disagreements, but we respect each other and work through them and grow for it.
The only thing that’s missing from our relationship is physical intimacy. I was a virgin when we met and the first couple years of our relationship were extremely sexually active and exploratory (and as far as I knew, great!). About two years ago, however, that came to a screeching halt. My partner not only has no desire sexually, but even intimate closeness makes her uncomfortable. No snuggling to fall asleep, no kissing other than a quick hello/goodbye peck, etc.
We have discussed the issue before and she was the one who brought it up. It was extremely emotional. She says she feels pressured to be intimate with me when I try to show her any affection so rather than cuddling/kissing/etc. when I’m in the mood I just don’t do anything so that she doesn’t feel pressured. She brought up a few reasons for her lack of desire and I completely understand her reasons for not wanting any intimacy right now. But at the same time, while every other aspect of our relationship is great having no physical intimacy for two years and not seeing it change anytime soon is definitely hard on me. I have pretty severe self-esteem issues so to not feel ‘wanted’ at all and not have any closeness can be pretty stressful. Being told that I’m loved is great, but having to stay on your own side of the bed and not cuddle at all makes for some conflicting messages.
I completely understand her reasons for not wanting any intimacy: She is an abuse survivor, has fought through eating disorders and body issues, and hates the way that she gets treated as the female in a heterosexual relationship. Her loss of desire started about the time we started planning our wedding (a small, non-traditional service where we both took a new common name) and she claims that is the biggest part of the problem. I work really hard at recognizing my privilege as a male and not letting anyone make assumptions about our relationship, etc. and she recognizes that, but the comments and actions of other people are what eventually seem to get to her. The entire process of planning a wedding — no matter how egalitarian and non-traditional — was really stressful but after the wedding things seem to have only gotten worse.
How do approach this subject without making her feel pressured at all? Am I wrong for feeling like this lack of intimacy should have an affect on our otherwise-idyllic relationship? What can I do to help her, or should I just back off and let her work through the problems that are at the root of the issue herself?

Dear In Need –
I think your sign off says it all. You need something that you are not getting in your relationship. I wonder how fulfilled and satisfied you are in your relationship. I worry about how much you are compromising. Most people need some degree of physical intimacy and it is not just about sex, it is about how our partners and lovers show their feelings through physical affection and how that reinforces what they tell us about their feelings.
You are giving up quite a bit and I wonder if you are giving up too much. She is not be able to give you what you need in terms of physical intimacy, how sustainable is that for you?
What are your minimums to stay in this? Cuddling once a week? Can you hold hands while you fall asleep? Have you tried taking sex off the table? So she knows that when you touch her you are not doing it as foreplay, but just for the pure enjoyment of cuddling? Have you said I am not asking for sex and don’t want you to feel pressured, but I need physical affection.
I also wonder if you should consider opening up your relationship and/or paying someone for the intimacy that you are not getting at home. If you want to stay in this relationship, it may be time to find another way to get your needs met.
I feel the need to separate her being abused and the eating disorders from the marriage/heteronormative society issue. I get that she is working through a lot and that these all of these issues impact her daily. Eating disorders and sexual abuse are not easily recovered from and they can certainly have bearing how she feels about intimacy and touch, but you are a part of this relationship too. You appear to be dissolving into her issues.
You are not wrong. Everyone has intimacy/touch/sex minimums and maximums. How much do you want to be touched? By whom? You also can’t heal her. You can be supportive, but she is the one that needs to go through these issues. What is up to you is how you help her: as friend or as her partner.
Professor Foxy
If you have a question for Professor Foxy, send it to ProfessorFoxyATfeministingDOTcom.

Join the Conversation

  • KBZ

    To each his own … but I don’t see that absolute non-negotiability leaves many options for the unsatisfied partner. You can certainly draw a line in the sand — but I wouldn’t blame someone for leaving at that point.
    Ideally, one would care enough about the other party in the relationship that it would bother them if they were unhappy or unsatisfied in some way. It is not patriarchal, or even a bad thing, for a heterosexual woman to want her partner to be happy with regard to the physical aspects of the relationship.
    I wholeheartedly believe that consent is 100% essential, and can be withheld at either party’s discretion. Any partner that would force himself on a woman is simply beneath contempt. I say that without qualification.
    That being said — a relationship is about making your partner happy, and vice versa. I will fully admit to having consented to sex when I wasn’t in the mood. I have enthusiastically initiated sex when I wasn’t in the mood. I also am quite sure my husband has withheld advances that he would’ve liked to have made because he knew I was tired, and though I might’ve said “okey doke” anyway, he wanted me to be rested.
    There is a give-and-take in relationship. Concessions are made by both sides for the happiness of the other party. Honestly, I don’t see it as that big a deal to have sex with my husband when I’d rather not — we’re not exactly breaking new ground, and I typically get into it once we get going.
    But, if you do … more power to you. Sexual compatibility is important, so its better that both you and your partner find someone that matches so negotiation isn’t necessary.

  • daytrippinariel

    I really don’t understand why counseling wasn’t the first suggestion before opening up the relationship or paying a sex worker. His wife is obviously having intimacy problems that may be solved if she chooses to go see a counselor by herself. As a person who went through a lot of trauma myself I can say that being able to see a counselor when I was younger has improved my relationship and trust issues with people by ten fold. I still have these issues but can now recognize them and work on them in a healthy manner.
    This man seems very understanding, considerate, patient and loving. She is lucky to be with a man that has been so supportive of her through these few years and is only going to benefit herself and her partner if she goes and gets some help while she’s with someone who is willing to support her.

  • Lydia

    So that means that men can never ever express their desires? Sorry there’s got to be a better solution than that.
    Also I can think of PLENTY of ways for a man to ask for more intimacy without sounding creepy or controlling. And as a heterosexual woman, I feel much comfortable if I feel confident that my partner will talk to me frankly about his needs than if I feel that he will repress them because he’s afraid wanting anything is wrong.

  • Lydia

    Yikes, what a depressing outlook. Society is sexist so therefore individuals are incapable of triumphing over social convention and having egalitarian relationships? Sorry, that just isn’t true. As human beings, we’re capable of thinking outside the box. We don’t need to follow social convention like sheep. Breaking with it requires the powers of analysis and self-awareness but there are people who have those. Just because patriarchy is predatory doesn’t mean that we need to regard every individual man is a predator and every woman as a victim. I think this point-of-view is as offensive to women as to men because it’s extremely condescending. Personally, I think most women are capable of handling mature communication about needs and desires with their partners. And if they aren’t they shouldn’t be in relationships.

  • Unequivocal

    “You are not the gold standard of libido-appropriateness.”
    Yes, this.
    It seems to me that the fundamental difference between the posters on this thread who are sympathetic toward the OP and the posters who view him as an entitled ass is that the former tend to believe that each individual person’s level of sexual desire is valid and important, while the latter seem to believe that the only valid level of desire in a given relationship is that of the less sexually motivated partner (or, perhaps, just that of the women in a relationship).
    This has been both fascinating and distressing to read. I would be really interested to hear how posters like Open_Sketch and AuntieMay would adjudicate how to handle disparate levels of sexual interest in a lesbian or homosexual relationship.

  • notemily

    Whoa. Having sex and keeping the house clean are NOT on par with each other AT ALL. If you’re a messy person and your partner’s not, you can both compromise. You can suck it up and clean once in a while even if you hate it, and your partner can deal with a little mess even though ze hates it. But sex is NOT something you should have to “suck it up” about, and force yourself to do it even though you don’t want to. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Suggesting that this woman is intentionally manipulating the man into staying with her out of guilt is incredibly judgmental, and it ignores everything he said about his partner being an abuse survivor and having issues with her body.

  • Kessei

    Procuring the services of a prostitute is about one of the most anti-feminist things a person could do.
    There is NO WAY to tell if a woman is in prostitution voluntarily or if she is being coerced or has been trafficked. Yes, there are women who make the choice willingly, but they are not the norm – estimates of how many women in prostitution have been forced into the “business” or trafficked all range well above 50%, and some estimates go well into the 90 percentiles.
    A prospective john has no way to determine who he could have a mutually satisfactory business relationship with and who he would be raping. Surviving as a prostitute means being able to anticipate a man’s desires and act in conformity to those desires; women who have been trafficked may claim they love the work, may claim they’re putting themselves through college, may show you (fake?) pictures of their children, may go back to a hotel room with you, and still turn around after an hour and have to hand over the money to a pimp who beats and rapes them.
    Regardless of any other arguments as to whether womeen should have the right to engage in prostitution, it is an unassailable fact that PAYING a prostitute is, very likely, contributing to a huge problem involving the systemic and systematic rape, abuse, and enslavement of women and children.
    Even if it would be the only thing which could save his relationship, I would not suggest it.

  • sara

    When a behavior—any negative behavior—begins after a commitment is made, that means one thing. That this person feels you’re too invested in the relationship to give up, so they can drop the front and be their true selves.
    Um, no–sometimes people change their behavior after they get into a relationship because they’re “revealing their true selves.” But sometimes people just change–we’re not static beings–we’re constantly growing and changing (for good, bad, and neutral) in response to environmental stimuli and experiences.

  • instrumentjamlord

    Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. There is an emotional component to sex with an emotional partner. His partner’s physical revulsion to him is making him feel undesirable. Having to pay someone to have sex with him won’t help him with that; it may even make it worse for him.
    It almost certainly will make _her_ issues with body image and desirability worse.

  • instrumentjamlord

    At risk of giving a flip answer, but something to consider:
    Divorce her.
    No, seriously. It is clear that being part of a heterosexual (heteronormative, patriarchal, gender-conforming, et cetera, et cetera) marriage is triggering all sorts of horrible things for her. She herself “claims that is the biggest part of the problem.” She was fine before, when you weren’t married. So don’t be married anymore.
    Either a) getting out from under all those societal messages will clear things up, and you can resume your previous, reasonably healthy relationship, sans license, or b) things won’t clear up, at which point you won’t be bound in marrage to someone who finds your touch revolting. You will be free to find a sexual partner who is compatible with you and meets your needs, and she can go back to being your very good friend. (Which is all she is right now.)

  • Ashley

    I really don’t understand why the first option should be to seek physical attention elsewhere. Obviously, when you get married, you are making a commitment to be with someone because you appreciate the relationship at a level far above physical intimacy. Not that it isn’t important, but is certainly not the reason to go outside the relationship. Counseling for BOTH partners should be the first step. It can be an extremely slow process working with people who have dealt with abuse. If you’re not up for it, you shouldn’t have gotten married. Prof. Foxy, I’m usually a huge fan, but this advice was pretty appalling for someone clearly looking for ways to connect with his current partner.

  • nattles_thing

    As a sex worker, I can tell you that a lot of that is bullshit.
    Those estimates might apply to prostitution as a whole. But pretty much any John who cares to figure it out can make sure he’s seeing a prostitute who isn’t a slave. I’m sure there are always ways that a trafficked woman could slip by, but there are reputable agencies and indie girls and common sense.
    Who the fuck are these hookers who show clients photos of their children? No one does that.

  • Kessei

    “Those estimates might apply to prostitution as a whole. But pretty much any John who cares to figure it out can make sure he’s seeing a prostitute who isn’t a slave. I’m sure there are always ways that a trafficked woman could slip by, but there are reputable agencies and indie girls and common sense.”
    No, you really don’t know what you’re talking about.
    Try reading the myriad interviews and very well documented stories of women who have been rescued after having been trafficked or coerced into prostitution. Try watching interviews or reading court transcripts of people who have been convicted of trafficking or pimping, and listening to the tactics they use and how easily the trafficked women blend in.
    Try paying attention to the anti-trafficking efforts of people in areas where prostitution is legalized, and where there are serious difficulties in telling who is running a legitimate brothel and who is running one which uses trafficked women.
    Hell, try thinking for a moment what you’d do to figure out if a woman in front of you was trafficked. What magical questions would you ask her to determine if she was in prostitution willingly?
    The women are BRAINWASHED and THREATENED and are in fear of their lives of not acting like they want to be there. They feel they have no choice, and if they let on to somebody that they’ve been trafficked they’ll be killed (or worse).
    And, yes, some of them are told to carry fake photos of family or other fake documents in their purses, so that they can show them to anybody who asks (including police).
    Get out of your privileged bubble.

  • instrumentjamlord

    It doesn’t have to be a matter of “most people.”
    Some people are fine without physical intimacy. Some people are miserable without it. Who is to say that the one is wrong and the other is right? It is just what they need. What “most” people need is irrelevant to the person who is unhappy in his or her own individual situation.

  • makomk

    estimates of how many women in prostitution have been forced into the “business” or trafficked
    Are mostly bullshit, unfortunately. They tend to get their nice big 90% figures by really iffy methods: for example, calling up establishments, asking about their women, and counting the number that are described as foreign. This study then assumed that (a) this gives an accurate figure despite evidence that these establishments lie about the ethnicity of the workers to offer more “exotic” choices to their customers, (b) all the ethnically non-white women were foreign, and (c) all of them were trafficked.
    This was a widely-reported UK study by a big anti-trafficking organization, the Poppy Project, and influenced government policy hugely. (There’s also a really nice bit where the researchers are told that women of their ethnicity of choice aren’t available but will be coming in tomorrow, and take that to mean they’re being shipped in from abroad – rather than the more obvious interpretation that it’s their day off.)
    Other widely-reported and influential studies aren’t much better from what I can tell, but in any case the one I just described is the most well-known and widespread one here in the UK.

  • Melimalle

    Actually men (and surprisingly, women) frequently use prostitutes to provide sexual and/or physical attention needs met when they no longer receive this from their long term relationships. It’s often successful, can improve their relationship and can improve self-esteem. It’s not for everyone and did doesn’t always work but like all options in a dilemma it shouldn’t be disregarded so easily.

  • Kessei

    So based on the fact that one study in the UK was done poorly, you’re discounting all of them?
    Most of my numbers come from US Department of Justice estimates and other law enforcement efforts in the US, anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts in places like Australia and Sweden where prostitution is legalized, responses to surveys from prison counselors and social workers dealing with street-level prostitutes (asking questions like whether the woman has a pimp), and so forth. The UK police force is notoriously bad about cracking down on trafficking, so I’m not surprised that any numbers coming down from there – whether high or low – are BS; it’s difficult to run studies without effective law enforcement support.
    That doesn’t mean that all numbers everywhere are inflated, though.
    Moreover, if the study you cited was only focused on international trafficking, then it isn’t a valid trafficking study, anyway. Everyone agrees that the vast majority of trafficking in most areas of the world remains domestic, usually coercion into prostition from a boyfriend/pimp.

  • kandela

    I thought the point was to work to eradicate inequality rather than compensate for it.

  • makomk

    So based on the fact that one study in the UK was done poorly, you’re discounting all of them?
    All the ones that give similarly high figures, unless I can track down actual information on them (which you haven’t given me enough details to do). There are proper academic studies in the UK and elsewhere that don’t have these issues, but they give much much lower numbers. Given that I haven’t found any non-flawed methods of getting huge figures yet, it’s most likely that any such figures are dodgy.
    Also, this study (together with other ones like it) is the widely quoted one here in the UK, the one that all the anti-trafficking groups and politicians use. Academics who’ve pointed out the flaws have been attacked – publicly and in the press, no less – as evil co-conspirators with the sex industry by the anti-trafficking group that created it. (I understand they also managed to get links to this academic criticism deleted off the Guardian website via legal threats.)
    anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts in places like Australia and Sweden where prostitution is legalized
    Stop right there. Prostitution is not legalized in Sweden. Being a prostitute is legal, but not buying sex. More importantly, this doesn’t apply to women who don’t have the right to legally work in the country – they still get jailed and then deported. Unless, of course, they tell the police that they were forced into it – and the Swedish police basically use this to coerce women into testifying that they were forced into prostitution. (Yes, the much-vaunted Swedish model is based on using state-sponsored violence against illegal immigrants.)
    Reading between the lines, there would seem to be evidence that traffickers don’t want to smuggle any women into Sweden as a result, in case they later can’t find non-sex work, resort to prostitution, get rounded up, and get the traffickers arrested. I’m not sure whether or not this is a good thing.