It usually happens some time in the middle of a session. We’ll be discussing a couple’s intimate life, and I can see the consternation building on the woman’s face. Eventually, she’ll just say something like:
“Can I ask a funny question? Like… what’s the point of sex anyway?”
When working with clients who are dealing with sexual aversion, the question of: “why do we even need sex anyway?” comes up not infrequently.
For those who naturally and/or “nurturally” crave, appreciate, desire, and enjoy sexual activity intensely and regularly, this question might sound strange. But for the many people who don’t, it’s quite legitimate, and important to consider, particularly if they are in intimate relationships or would like to be.
There are basically three primary purposes for sexual activity (at least as that I can think of):
2. Pleasure/ recreation
There are other reasons that could, and maybe should be added to this list, but I believe that those would probably fit into one of these three. Let’s look at each one:
Procreation is the most limited purpose of sex. Most people will have far more sexual activity than they will have children, and not all sexual activity is reproductive. Nonetheless, it is an important variable and for many it’s the initial motivation. (I remember a friend sharing that before she got married, she had thought that if you have four children, that meant you’d had sex only four times. And she wasn’t coming from a particularly sheltered background either- she just hadn’t had clear or formal sex education. I’m sure she’s not the only one.)
Pleasure is more widely relevant. Even when the goal is not to produce babies, most humans appreciate the different kinds of physical pleasure that sexual activity can generate- only one of which is the orgasm. Human touch is a form of sensual stimulation and nourishment that is considered a physical and psychological need. Sexual desire, fantasy, and experimentation can be some of the most pleasurable experiences in which people can engage. It can also (but not always) be a powerful form of intimacy, which brings us to the third category:
Connection is a specific form of interpersonal pleasure that sexual activity can generate, which is why it deserves its own category. For example, consensual sex with a stranger can be physically pleasurable, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to emotional connection. On the other hand, when there is both emotional connection and sexual chemistry between two people, sexual activity can serve to express, enhance, deepen, and sustain this connection. Feeling desire and desired is a powerful dynamic in relationships, that rallies with pleasure to keep it exciting.
Another potential category is holiness. There is a Biblical imperative to share sexual pleasure with a spouse. But that commandment is predicated on these first three purposes, or at least numbers 2 and 3. Aside from the religious value to be fruitful, the assumption is that sexual activity, even during nonreproductive times, is a way of exchanging pleasure and connection in a relationship.
When one of these three is missing, it can create very painful distress- self-blame, hopelessness, relational tension, and aggravation.
If a couple is trying to conceive and it’s not happening, it can not only lead to sadness, anxiety, and frustration about not having a baby when they want it, but also sometimes detract from the enjoyment of sex. When “love-making” is so focused on “baby-making” it can be challenging to tap into the potential pleasure and connection.
Even independent of procreation, if one or both partners are not feeling physical pleasure or emotional connection, that too can usually be psychologically and even physically painful.
Generally, the people who ask what the point of sex is are those who are not feeling much or consistent pleasure and/ or connection from sexual activity, and typically only engage in it to please a partner. This can lead to resentment, which feeds the cycle of displeasure and disconnection.
Every example of people I’ve met who’ve asked this question was a woman. (That doesn’t mean no men ask it. This is just my limited experience.) One possible explanation for this (out of many) is the fact that culturally, historically, and educationally, the focus on sexuality has often been centered on male pleasure. Although it is worth noting that there is a Talmudic imperative to specifically focus on female pleasure. Penetrative genital hetero-normative intercourse, which is what people usually associate with the word “sex,” typically climaxes with the male orgasm, whereas the female processes of pleasure, arousal, and orgasm are often sidelined, rushed, or neglected. This is not necessarily because all those men don’t care about their wives’ pleasure. They often do but, don’t they realize that the acts that bring them pleasure are different from their partners’ needs. This is a big part of why we see so many couples in which the wife doesn’t enjoy sex.
So what should a couple in this situation do?
Talk about it. Communicate- lovingly.
Empathize. You’re both probably struggling.
Nurture the intimate parts of the relationship that are not sexual.
Try not to engage in any kind of sexual activity where one partner is distressed about it.
Explore what feels good- for her. Do more of that.
Seek out information (such as some of the books in the resources section of this website) to learn more about sexuality and pleasure. This is particularly important for women who’ve never learned what feels good for them, and have only experienced sexual activity as a response to their partners’ desires.
If this persists for more than a few weeks, seek professional guidance. (It may sometimes take a few tries to find the right fit for this work.)
While there are some individuals who truly identify as asexual, it’s often the case that many who believe they are asexual are more accurately sexually deprived of pleasure, repressed, reacting to a history of negative sexual experience, responding to something in the relationship or some other stressor, or not yet sexually developed. Sometimes it’s a matter of both partners learning new erotic skills. Many simply haven’t found the patterns of touch, feeling, sensation, sexual activity, language, fantasy, and relational intimacy that can ignite the parts of them capable of enjoying this kind of pleasure. Like most skill sets, this can be cultivated with the right information, context, support, and patience.
*One of the common factors in sexual dysfunction for adults is poor or nonexistent sex education in childhood. To learn more about better sex education, check this out: Sacred Not Secret, a Religious Family's Guide to Healthy Holy Sex Education