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Marital Sex

Beliefs About Marital Sexuality

There have been relatively few empirical investigations of marital sexual attitudes. However, several general conclusions can be gleaned from the available literature. First, sexual intercourse is considered part of the marital relationship. Historically, marriage has been defined by secular and nonsecular forces as a socially sanctioned sexual and reproductive relationship. During the seventeenth century, for example, western European church doctrine identified sexual intercourse as a marital duty for both spouses (Leites 1982). Three hundred years later, social scientists continue to employ a similar definition: Noted sexologist Havelock Ellis defined marriage as "a sexual relationship entered into with the intention of making it permanent" ([1933] 1944, p. 256), a notion echoed by other theorists (e.g., Murstein 1974).

Second, whereas some cultures sanction extramarital sex, marital sex is assumed to be exclusive sex. That is, once an individual is married, the general presumption is that his or her sexual activities (if not his or her sexual desires) will be confined to the marital relationship (or, in polygamous mating systems, the marital relationships). Self-report survey and interview data do, however, reveal that marital infidelity actually is quite common. Nonetheless, a majority of individuals disapprove of extramarital sexual activity. Anthropologist Suzanne Frayser (1989) examined sexual behavior and customs in sixty-two different cultures and found that extramarital relationships ranked second after incestuous relationships as the most forbidden type of sexual liaison. Large-scale attitude surveys of adults living in the United States found similar high levels of disapproval with regard to extramarital sex (Greeley 1991; Laumann et al. 1994).

As with most sexual attitudes, men and women differ slightly. Compared to women, men tend to hold more permissive attitudes about extramarital sex and are more likely to express an interest in having an extramarital sexual relationship (Oliver and Hyde 1993). Although men may possess more positive attitudes toward infidelity, they are not necessarily less likely to be punished for such behavior. Frayser's (1989) cross-cultural investigation revealed that 40 percent of societies punish both the husband and the wife about equally for extramarital sexual activity, 35 percent of societies punish the husband more severely than the wife, and 25 percent of societies punish the wife more severely than the husband.

A third belief about marital sexuality concerns the relative power accorded to each sex in the making of sexual and reproductive decisions. Traditionally, choices and decisions about the sexual aspects of married life—including when and how to initiate sexual activity, the amount and type of sex, the timing and number of children, and the use of contraception—were considered the exclusive province of the male partner. The following excerpt is from a popular guide to love, courtship, and marriage published in the United States over a hundred years ago:

Usually marriage is consummated within a day or two after the ceremony, but this is gross injustice to the bride. In most cases she is nervous, timid, and exhausted by the duties of preparation for the wedding, and in no way in a condition, either in body or mind, for the vital change which the married relation brings upon her. . . . This, then, is the time for all approaches by the husband to be of the most delicate . . . Young husband! Prove your manhood, not by yielding to unbridled lust and cruelty, but by the exhibition of true power in self-control and patience with the helpless being confided to your care! ( Jefferis and Nichols 1896, pp. 202–204)

The authors of this advice manual clearly view sexual decisions as the husband's duty and right—he is the one who must guard against yielding to "unbridled lust," determine the appropriate time for sexual initiation, and calmly and patiently guide the couple's first and subsequent physical interactions.

An examination of modern marriage manuals and guides to newlyweds reveals that this particular constellation of beliefs about marital sexuality has changed significantly over time, at least in the United States and western Europe. Martin Weinberg, Rochelle Swensson, and Sue Hammersmith (1983) analyzed forty-nine sex manuals published in the United States between 1950 and 1980. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, writers continued to emphasize differences between male and female sexuality and complementarity in sexual roles (i.e., husband as sexual teacher and wife as sexual learner). By the late 1970s, both sexes were depicted as autonomous sexual beings in control of their own sexuality, capable (and desirous) of sexual pleasure, and equally able to enact the parts of sexual teacher and learner. In many other parts of the world (e.g., Africa, Central America, and India), however, men continue to be expected to make the major sexual and reproductive decisions (Bertrand et al. 1996; Karra, Stark, and Wolf 1997; Renne 1997; Villasmil Prieto 1997).

A fourth general belief relevant to marital sexuality concerns preferences for various partner attributes that are specifically related to sexuality, including a potential spouse's sexual history or level of sexual experience. In general, research indicates that low to moderate levels of sexual experience are considered more desirable than extensive sexual experience. For example, sociologist Susan Sprecher and her colleagues (1997) surveyed over 400 college students living in the United States and found that men and women preferred "chastity" more than "extensive sexual experience" when considering a potential marriage partner. Similarly, social psychologists Pamela Regan and Ellen Berscheid (1997) asked a group of participants to rank a list of characteristics, including several related to sexuality, in terms of their desirability in a long-term, romantic partner: Being sexually available or "easy" was the least desired attribute in a potential spouse.

Some cultures value chastity or sexual inexperience more than others. An international team of researchers led by psychologist David Buss (1989) surveyed over ten thousand men and women from a variety of countries and cultures (including Africa, Asia, eastern Europe, North America, western Europe, and South America) about their preferences in a spouse. The characteristic "chastity" was highly valued in Asian cultures, including Taiwan, China, Indonesia, and India, and more so than in any other cultures. In western European cultures (e.g., France, Sweden, Norway), however, chastity was considered irrelevant (a few respondents even jotted down in the margins of their questionnaires that it was undesirable in a mate). These cultural differences notwithstanding, less rather than more sexual experience seems to be the rule governing marriage partner preferences.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsMarital Sex - Beliefs About Marital Sexuality, Sexual Frequency, The Decline Of Sexual Frequency Over Time, Sexual Practices And Preferences