Tuesday, May 21, 2024

How Married Couples Navigate Sexless Relationships

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When Amanda Montei began reporting an article last year about married couples who had little to no sex, she didn’t know how forthcoming people would be about their sex lives.

But to her surprise, many of the couples were willing — grateful, even — to talk about it.

“It was almost like a pressure valve was released,” Ms. Montei said of her conversations with more than 30 married people who are among the 50 percent of American adults having sex once a month or less. “Most couples I talked with said speaking to me felt like a relief because they were able to talk openly about their sexual lives without judgment.”

The article, which was published this month in the Modern Love issue of The New York Times Magazine, is based on phone and video conversations with couples in seven states, as well as Canada, Britain and Italy, and took Ms. Montei five months to report.

“My main takeaway was that there are so many factors that influence a person’s desire,” she said. “It’s a really complicated negotiation with the self and the body and our current cultural moment.”

In a phone conversation from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ms. Montei discussed how she helped sources feel comfortable sharing intimate details of their private lives and what questions she hopes to tackle next in her reporting. These are edited excerpts.

How did you come up with the idea for this article?

I published a book last fall about motherhood and sexuality and received lots of notes from readers who connected with it and saw themselves represented in it, and who found that motherhood impacted the way they viewed their bodies, sexual lives and relationships. Writing and publishing the book made me more curious about women’s sexual lives, especially how desires can change with age and parenthood; what marriage has tended to demand of women; and how people in long-term heterosexual relationships navigate those changes today.

There’s also been a shift lately in the public conversation around traditional marriage. We’ve seen so much coverage of polyamory and questions about monogamy, but less coverage of marital sex and what that looks like today. I wanted to explore that.

Did you ask people to use their full names?

I tried, but most people asked for some level of anonymity. I think that speaks to how much shame and secrecy there is surrounding this issue. Many couples I spoke to said this isn’t something they talk about with other people; that was especially true for the men.

How did you get sources to open up?

I’ve written candidly about my life, so I think that helped some of my sources open up. These couples knew I was there to listen and didn’t have a predetermined agenda.

What was your biggest reporting challenge?

There was so much I wanted to say about the history of marital sex. There are lots of women who have written to me with experiences of trauma and violation in their marriages. There are also couples who aren’t straight or monogamous. For me, this was a study of heterosexuality and monogamous marriage today, and it felt important to stay focused on that.

What was the biggest surprise?

I expected to find a lot of straight men who were impatient with women who had a low sense of desire, or who felt disconnected from their desire. But I found that the men I spoke to were really patient, empathetic and thoughtful about issues of consent. They were curious and trying to figure out the best ways they could support their partners.

Were you surprised by the reader response?

The piece definitely took off in a way I didn’t expect. People have opinions about marriage and sex, and the popularity of the piece shows how desperate people are to talk about these topics. They want to have more open conversations about sex, desire, partnership and what all of that looks like today.

What questions do you still have after reporting this article?

One thing I didn’t have space to examine in the piece is how cultural beliefs about desire, sex and our expectations of intimacy in relationships are circulating online. There are some ways that digital spaces and social media have made room for more diverse representations of desire, sexuality and partnership. But there are also plenty of pro-marriage accounts, influencers and so-called intimacy experts who advocate regressive ideas about married women.

In the era of wellness culture and the unregulated relationship-coaching industry, we also see a lot of relationship, intimacy, and sex coaches online advocating fairly traditional gender roles, often under the guise of health or relationship stability. Other figures are more earnestly helping people understand and articulate their desires and sexualities.



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