5 Ways Advice Columns Harm Us When They Make Sex the Answer to Romantic Problems

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Articles that tell readers – specifically cisgender, heterosexual women – how to improve their relationships have been a staple of women’s magazines since the 1800s, when the first lady mag went to print.

But rather than help women address actual issues and heal their relationship woes, they perpetuate some extremely damaging myths about sexuality and peddle the sort of patriarchal advice that is more likely to harm the development of strong relationships than repair them.

5 Ways Advice Columns Harm Us When They Make Sex the Answer to Romantic ProblemsWhile they should be encouraging readers establish trust, intimacy, healthy communication, and autonomy, these articles treat sex as if it’s a one-shot, quick fix to all romantic discord.

Some of them even go so far as to suggest a regular sex schedule that the partners should stick to – regardless of how either individual might feel in the moment.

The decision to have sex should always come from a place of enthusiastic consent, not obligation.

Promoting rape culture is not the solution.

While sex can be a great tool for helping partners (who choose to be sexual with each other) connect, these articles promote a toxic heterosexist system that treats women and girls as property and pretends that men don’t have complex emotions. And that’s dangerous.

Check out the following five ways magazine articles harm us – and our relationships – when they treat sex like it’s the primary answer for difficulties with love.

1. They Conflate Intimacy with Sex

Why This Is Problematic:

These articles operate under the false assumption that intimacy is nothing more than a euphemism for sex.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines intimacy simply as “something of a personal or private nature.” Sure, that could include sex amongst fully consenting individuals, but it could also mean having deep conversations, touching in nonsexual ways, and any other activity that builds closeness in a relationship.

It’s important to talk about the different kinds of intimacy required to make a relationship work. For some people, sex might be necessary, but those relationships will be limited unless they are allowed to evolve in other ways.

When you ignore other types of intimacy to prioritize sex, the type of long-term relationship these articles are most often addressing will have trouble improving.

In fact, science actually suggests that these articles are getting it backwards – building intimacy leads to better sex, but more sex may not actually lead to a more intimate relationship.

A 2008 study found that couples with stronger attachment styles and more open communication reported more satisfying sex lives.

What They Should Advise Instead:

If you and your partner(s) are having trouble feeling close, a great way to improve your sex life in a way that feels best for everyone could be to simply spend time together doing something you enjoy.

Sharing your passions for other activities could actually help you have more sexual passion, but trying to force sexual passion may not work out.

Experiencing new things together is a great way to build intimacy because shared experiences build closeness quickly, and new experiences offer conversation topics for later.

This is also a fun phase! Trying new things together and learning more about each other will build great memories, expose a side of your significant other(s) you haven’t seen before, and add a positive tone to the relationship.

This isn’t to say that sex is bad at this stage of the relationship, but that solely having sex as a form of intimacy may limit the relationship later on.

For partners hoping to improve their emotional relationships, the first step should be to build trust and create a safer space for each other, rather than solely focusing on increasing the frequency of sex.

Sexual intimacy is definitely not the place to “fake it ‘til you make it.”

2. It Poses Danger to Young Couples

Why This Is Problematic:

The media’s perpetuation of sex-intimacy equivalency sends a dangerous message to young couples in particular. Many teenagers often find themselves in sexual encounters that they’re not prepared for both emotionally and mentally.

Hormones, societal pressures, and the notion that sex and intimacy is the same concept often translates to forced consent.

That’s not the say that teens can never have healthy sex. They definitely can, and it’s important to respect their judgment on whether or not they’re ready.

But it’s also important to make sure we’re teaching young people that they should be respected when they have sex, that if they aren’t comfortable, it’s okay to say no. The same logic means that it’s okay to say yes, too.

The most important thing to remember is that teens should have agency over their bodies, and the choice is theirs alone.

If a teenager has any questions or concerns regarding the choice to have sex, it’s important they know that they can and should have conversations with an adult rather than reading magazines that tell them sex is the magical solution to all relationship issues.

Forced consent can negatively affect a person’s mental and emotional health by introducing cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the stress that happens when the inconsistencies between ideas, emotions, and behaviors force a person to change, either, their emotional response, behavior, or thoughts in order to engage.

When someone feels forced into consenting, their behaviors are in conflict with their feelings about having sex in that moment.

And too often, the only option to alleviate the dissonance is to decide that they did need to have sex, that their feelings don’t matter, or that they weren’t communicating clearly.

Therefore, a forced-consent situation has the ability to permanently and negatively affect future behavior by changing the individual’s original thoughts towards consent and their sexual obligation to their significant other(s).

The most important thing to know is that it’s not okay to pressure someone to have sex, no matter what the relationship has been like in the past. And it’s always okay to say no, for any reason.

What They Should Advise Instead:

Sex should always be healthy and enjoyable. Young people already get the message that not having sex will cause their partner(s) to leave them, and too many have sexual encounters that are anything but enjoyable as a result.

Instead, we should be teaching our youth that they have an obligation to respect others and a right to be respected themselves.

We should encourage them to understand their boundaries and support them as they learn how to assert those boundaries. Teaching young people how to communicate their needs in a relationship will have long-term positive effects on their future relationships.

3. They Make Sex an Obligation

Why This Is Problematic:

While the term “wifely duties” may be hopelessly archaic, the attitudes that phrase encompasses are still very much alive and well – and it’s being amplified by suggesting that more sex is a cure-all for a troubled relationship.

In the worst case, expecting sex is straight-up a major component of rape culture. When we teach people that they owe another person sex, it makes it that much harder to say no. It also leads to victim-blaming and sex-shaming.

We see this every day when someone is called a “prude” because they don’t want to have sex, or a “tease” because they begin hooking up and suddenly decide to stop.

Regardless, the notion of being entitled to sex in a relationship stems from antiquated patriarchal traditions. Throughout history, it was assumed that women were the property of men and as a result, were expected to satisfy their men in all aspects, including sex.

For a long time, this societal script was believed to lead to a happy relationship. But in reality, obligatory sex is likely to feel like a chore for at least one partner at best and creates resentment between partners.

If you don’t feel like having sex, you have the right to say no, and no one has the right to force you, guilt you, or coerce you into changing your mind.

Creating an expectation of sex can limit the enjoyment each partner experiences when they do have sex, and that limited enjoyment can find its way into other aspects of the relationship as well.

If someone in the relationship is feeling like the sex is only benefiting their partner, they may start to feel taken for granted or resentful of other contributions. This type of expectation could even make the relationship feel unbalanced, like one partner is giving everything while the other(s) is only taking.

A lot of times when relationships are unbalanced, it’s because one partner doesn’t really respect the other(s). We’re often taught that we are each other’s property, but people are not objects, and treating them like objects is unhealthy.

What They Should Advise Instead:

Physical touch can definitely help partners feel closer together, but only if both partners are enjoying it. Holding hands, taking turns offering massages, brushing each other’s hair, and playing games can all be great way to increase physical contact without having sex.

It’s important to remember though that these are only helpful if everyone feels comfortable and safe, so if you or your partner(s) aren’t feeling it, it’s okay to do something different.

Sex also introduces novelty into a relationship, so taking time to enjoy new experiences together can help you feel some of the excitement.

Try new activities like hiking, cooking together, checking out a new part of town, or even try one of your partner’s favorite activities.

4. They Minimize the Importance of Enthusiastic Consent

Why This Is Problematic:

The idea behind enthusiastic consent is that sex is great, as long as everyone is able to consent without undue pressure of any kind – including coercion.

Relationship advice articles that promote sex as the answer are being indirectly coercive by creating an unrealistic expectation and sending the message that healthy couples have sex regularly.

But when consent isn’t enthusiastic, it’s possible that one or more person really wanted to say no instead.

That’s harmful because it can lead to feeling used, dirty, resentful, or even unsafe, and none of those feelings are good for building intimacy and trust.

In fact, a relationship characterized by a lack of enthusiastic consent can degrade over time as members harbor resentment over being used.

The lack of discussions about enthusiastic consent contribute directly to sustaining the myth that consent is blurry, and doing so results in a self-blame that is psychologically damaging to people who have been date raped.

As Donald Trump’s lawyer recently reminded us, there are still those who believe that a part of marriage is eternal consent to any sex, should one partner want it.

The truth is that even in a marriage, consent once does not constitute blanket consent for the remainder of the marriage, and people can be legally prosecuted for marital rape in every state.

What They Should Advise Instead:

If you’re not building trust and communication, you’re probably not building intimacy, either.

A relationship built on trust, open and honest communication, and respect won’t struggle as much with unenthusiastic consent because everyone will feel safe expressing their feelings.

Building a relationship like that takes a lot of time and work, but it’s definitely worth it to have a supportive partnership.

5. They Erase Asexuality

Why This Is Problematic:

If you usually have a lot of sex and suddenly you aren’t, it might be worth taking the time to find out what changed in your relationship.

Did one of you just have a baby? Has someone been working longer hours than usual? Are you not connecting the way you used to? Asking yourself and your partner(s) questions about changes and addressing any problems you find could help each of you feel more interested in having sex more regularly.

However, it’s important to remember that not everyone likes sex and that sexuality is fluid.

If all is well in the relationship except for the sex, it could be that one partner is actually asexual. By suggesting that sex is crucial for strong romantic relationships, these advice columns are participating in asexual erasure, a harmful process that ignores the very real and valid experiences roughly 1 percent of the population goes through on a daily basis.

The difference between asexuality and a disorder is the level of distress it causes to the person experiencing it. Someone who is asexual, and knows it, will not be distressed by their lack of interest in sex, though they may experience distress because of social obligations.

Someone experiencing a disorder will experience distress directly from their lack of interest and may seek help in overcoming it.

If your partner seems uninterested in having sex, let them lead the conversation, and be respectful of their needs. Work together to figure out a solution that works for both of you.

What They Should Advise Instead:

Often these articles talk about mismatched sexual desire or a lack of sex as the “kiss of death” for a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you think you might be asexual, get some information (AVEN is a great resource) and prepare yourself to sit down with your partner(s) and have a serious conversation about where you are and what it could mean.

If you think your partner might be asexual, approaching them with openness and acceptance, regardless of whether they identify with asexuality or not, is key.

Many people who are asexual have lasting relationships with sexual people, and they have one very important thing in common. They keep the door open to communicate with each other as needs change. Some sexually non-symmetrical couples opt to have open relationships, others choose to have a sex life that favors one or is generally an even compromise.

No matter what you and your partner(s) decide to do, being honest and respectful with each other offers the best chance at finding a solution that works best for everyone.

***

Building a strong relationship takes work. There is no quick-fix solution, and pretending that there is can be downright dangerous.

Relationship columns’ claim that sex and intimacy are equivalent creates a false foundation for many relationships.

Sex is only one component of some healthy relationships, and while a satisfying sex life (as defined by the partners themselves) can be a barometer for the relationship’s health, forcing the issue is not going to make matters better.

In fact, pushing too hard for more frequent sex can lead to a more toxic relationship than focusing on building other elements.

The key to a strong relationship is communication, trust, and consistent consent.

If you’re feeling like your relationship isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be, start by talking with your partner. You should feel comfortable expressing your feelings and that your feelings will be respected, even if your partner feels differently.

More specifically, if you’re feeling like you need to say yes to a sexual experience in order to “keep” your significant other(s), it is okay to voice your concerns.

A partner who doesn’t respect you should raise red flags – you have the right to be in a relationship free from undue pressure, even if your partner(s) make you feel special the rest of the time.

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