DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #75: The Three-Year Dry Hump

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Dear Sugar,

My brain is unquiet today. I had a sex dream about my wife this morning and woke feeling terrible. I realized that at some point in my life, I became a man who feels terrible fantasizing about his wife. I have never had sex with my wife, almost three years now. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. We tried a few times early on, but it just wasn’t working.

Vaginismus. Look it up. (At least, that’s what I think it is from WebMD and other sources, as she’s not gone to therapy or even an OB/GYN about it.)

There are of course other things we could do, but we don’t. Well, we don’t but maybe once or twice a month, and I emphasize “maybe.” And what we do is of the most basic sexual variety: what the kids would call second base (maybe third if you live in the Bible Belt): heavy petting, hand jobs, dry humping. She’s not interested in anything else.

I want to be fair to my wife: she was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and now that she’s married and for the first time in her life trying to have a sexual relationship (she grew up in the church and is still a devout Christian), she’s realizing there’s a lot left to unpack there. But she refuses therapy and her closest friends reinforce her attitude toward sex; all but one or two of them regard sex as a chore, a sticky and disgusting thing, a thing unbeautiful.

I try to be patient and caring and understanding. I try not to develop crushes and infatuations with other women. At least so far I’ve kept myself to myself, which is only partially consoling. I take care of myself often times. She doesn’t know. She’d be disgusted if she knew. She told me she masturbated once in her life, and how awful and disgusted she felt after. It makes me feel disgusting. And unimaginably lonely.

I guess I’m writing for some insight, some perspective. I know you’ve had experience dealing with sexual abuse, and I know it’s something that is never completely healed. I often reread your column, “The Baby Bird,” and it helps. It brings back patience and understanding, at least for a time. But, I grow more and more terrified that I’ll never have a healthy sexual relationship with my wife, and unsure whether I can live an entire life with that fear, especially if through the years it become less a fear and more a fact.

Signed,
Celibate

Dear Celibate,

You poor horny sweet pea. You and your wife have a serious problem. That you’re so understanding in the face of it is means there’s hope, but only if your partner is willing to confront her sexual dysfunction. You have diagnosed her with vaginismus via WebMD, but we both know this won’t do. Your wife needs to see a doctor who can assess her condition so she can get appropriate treatment. I strongly encourage you to insist on this. And once you’ve got that on the calendar, I urge you to get your heinies into couples counseling lickety split.

You wrote to me because you know your marriage in its current state is unsustainable. The next step is to share that fact with your wife. She does not have to fuck you if she doesn’t want to fuck you. I want to be clear about that and I encourage you to get clear about it too. But likewise, you don’t have to be celibate for years on end unless you choose to be. As your committed partner, your wife is obliged to openly address your needs, sexual and otherwise, even if she opts not to meet them. I suggest you communicate this to her with the gravity it warrants. You don’t need to discuss what’s been bothering you; you need to express your bottom line.

Though it’s true that eventually your bottom line might simply be you must have sex with me or our marriage is over, at this juncture I think you should push your wife only to engage. We must together find a way to create a sexual intimacy that’s satisfying to us both or I can’t stay in this relationship, would be a good place to start. Not because you don’t richly deserve a woman to fuck you till you’re silly this very minute, but because your wife needs to do some significant healing and your understanding and patience while she does it will only help the cause.

I’m not a fan of ultimatums, but sometimes we need to give them lest we become shells of the people we know ourselves to be. You’re a sexual being. You want to have sex with your wife. If she’s never going to be sexually intimate with you, you need to know that so you can make healthy decisions for yourself. Because you’ve participated in them so long, your wife’s sexual problems have become your own. A forced three-year dry hump is a desperate state of affairs. If your wife refuses to change, you’re going to have to change yourself—either by accepting her as she is and remaining celibate, renegotiating the terms of your marriage so you can have lovers, or by ending your relationship so you can find one with someone else that’s more fulfilling.

For the sake of this letter and because I’m an optimist, I’m going to assume your wife will be open to confronting her issues with sex once she realizes her marriage is at stake. It’s hard to say exactly what her issues are. As you likely learned in your research, vaginismus is defined as an involuntary spasm of the muscles surrounding the vagina upon penetration, but nowhere in your letter do you suggest it’s a physical condition that’s preventing your partner from (ever! in three years!) having intercourse with you. Instead, you describe a negative attitude toward sex that you conjecture has been caused by psychological damage from past sexual trauma combined with a devout adherence to (presumably) shame-based religious interpretations of sexual desire and behavior. Your wife doesn’t masturbate, she’s disgusted by the idea of you masturbating, she refuses to fuck you (or even, it seems, engage in oral sex), and she participates—occasionally and apparently without relish—in “other things,” which are so elementary that you felt compelled to describe them using ninth grade lingo.

That’s weird. It seems unkind to say, but I mean it in the kindest way. I have hundreds of letters about all sorts of sexual hang-ups and problems and perversions, but your letter is among the weirdest. I tell you that because I hope it will be a consolation to you to know that you’re right to be terrified by the lack of sexual intimacy in your marriage and also to bolster your position should your wife resist your efforts by attempting to convince you that you’re being unreasonable when you tell her you won’t go on like this.

Your statement that your wife is realizing she’s got “a lot left to unpack” is heartening. It indicates that she might be willing to do the work she needs to do in order to not only have healthy sexual relations with you, but also to find a way to be present in her own body, for that is truly what’s at issue here. Your marriage is at stake, but her very well-being is on the line. She can’t feel you because she quite literally can’t feel herself. Perhaps it’s the abuse in her past that brought on this monumental disconnect; perhaps it’s her embrace of a set of cultural and religious beliefs that equate female lust with sin.

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Only she can know. It’s her job to unpack the bag. My gut sense is that you’d do well to not to guess what’s inside. Set your limits. State your needs. Respect your boundaries. Then step back. Let your partner define for herself the shape of whatever it is she’s up against. This alone will likely be a powerful and healing experience for her. That no man has ever born witness to her strength might be her wound. I think it was mine. I think it’s the wound of anyone who was ever violated by a father or father figure at a young age and maybe it’s the also the wound of anyone who ever swallowed the lie of female body shame.

Allow your supportive silence to be part of her cure.

Of course you’re right that the sexual abuse your wife experienced as a child may be the reason for her aversion to sex, but it may not be. The good and bad things that happen to our bodies at the hands of others plays out in unpredictable ways over time. It’s folly to draw a straight line between two things when one of those things is sex. Perhaps your wife has made that line so straight and bright that it’s become precisely her problem: she cannot break the thread that runs in her psyche between the abuse and you.

Healing is about breaking threads and making new ones. It’s about redrawing the line between our powerlessness and our power. I don’t agree with you that those who’ve suffered sexual abuse can’t ever heal completely. I think we’re altered by what hurts us, but with love and consciousness, with intention and forgiveness, we’re capable of being whole again. Completely.

I believe myself to be healed. I know a lot of sexual abuse survivors who are. We’re here. We’re waving to you from the other side. We’re taking it all off. We’re getting down and some of us are even getting dirty. We hope your wife will join us.

Yours,

Sugar

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