The concept of self-care must be applied to sex

People will set their alarms an hour early to hit the gym, but have “”no time”” for sex. It seems less traumatic to miss some gym time than to eventually divorce, so these priorities need to be reevaluated. At least half of unhappy marriages are possibly the result of these couples (or at least one of the partners) assuming that self-care does not include sex. Despite its overuse in popular media, self-care is actually a helpful concept, so let’s explore what it actually means.

Self-care has grown to mean something akin to being completely self-centered. This was not the original use of the term, which was coined in the 1950’s to refer to the importance of activities like exercise and grooming to help the self-worth of institutionalized patients who had very little autonomy. Nowadays, it can mean anything from getting a manicure to going for a run to making sure to get 8 hours of sleep. Much like my favorite topic to rant about, “emotional labor,” it has transformed into a catch-all phrase that ends up focusing only on the self TO THE EXCLUSION of other larger units, like couple or family.

I like the idea of people making themselves happy by going for a run or whatever they like to do. Certainly, exercise is very important to stave off depression and help with body image. It releases dopamine and can dramatically impact mood and self-esteem. However, all those things can be said about sex as well, which is why it is strange that nobody considers sex part of self-care.

Actually, I take that back. I have seen masturbation (in women only) referred to as self-care, which makes my point even clearer. Anything that involves making another person happy is not considered self-care, which I think is indicative of our self-focused culture. It reminds me of how “love languages” were originally meant to be a way to understand YOUR PARTNER but have now turned into yet another way for people to advocate for themselves (read this super interesting article for more on this).

Many men certainly consider sex self-care, so why do women not? Cynics (aka women who are cynical about men) would say that this is because men are more selfish in bed, but this is plain old wrong as the vast majority of men get turned on mainly by pleasing their partners. Every man I’ve ever seen in couples counseling prioritizes his wife’s excitement and orgasm over his own, and bases his self-worth on whether he can turn his wife on. So it must be something else.

One reason that women do not classify partnered sex as self-care is because they do not understand responsive desire. Since they need to be warmed up to get in the mood, they go around thinking “I don’t want sex so sex would not be enjoyable or relaxing to me right now.” Au contraire, after some minutes of foreplay, many women will start to respond and enjoy themselves, and release dopamine and oxytocin and feel closer to their partners and anything else you could want out of a self-care act.

Secondly, many women have never figured out exactly what they like or want in bed, so the act itself is lacking. Shyness or awkwardness in bed is a big problem for many women. This needs to be worked on, and often therapy can help women explore their attitudes toward sexual pleasure and challenge some of the unhealthy assumptions about sex that they learned earlier in life. As women allow themselves to explore more of what turns them on, think about alternative things in bed that they would like more, and vocalize their desires to their partners, sex can become the ultimate self-care act, in that you get the curated experience of your dreams that most men are only too happy to give you (but they can’t mind read and will need practice to learn what you need if you’ve never really known or verbalized it previously).

The best part about sex as self-care is that it connects you to your partner and is not only a solo act. Your willingness to engage in physical intimacy shows care for your partner even as they care for you. Being close to someone while you do something you enjoy does not negate self-care, or else moms’ nights out or group exercise classes wouldn’t be such popular choices.

Think about it in terms of kids. Personally I always went running with my kids in the stroller until they were too old. This didn’t negate that running was self-care. But I also felt connected to my kids and was able to end up at a playground or something that they would also like. This seems so obvious as a great way to engage in self-care because I mentioned the word “kids” and our society is child-centered in the extreme. Yet, a married person engaging in sex as self-care seems wrong somehow, and it’s only because the priority list in our culture is: Kids, Self, Partner. Imagine how much more happy and close marriages are where there is no such hierarchy, and if there is, it’s: Couple, Kids.

One healthy aspirational goal of marriage is for each partner to watch out for the other’s needs so that neither needs to overfocus on their own. Instead, many marriages today have a zero sum or competitive feel, where each partner is jockeying for their individual needs (or often, wants) to come before the other partner’s. This leads to constant tension and kids learning to look out for #1 at all costs, neither of which is good for their developing selves or future intimate relationships.”

Share your love