Married couples negotiate, and have conflict, and negotiate through conflict, over other things that might lazily be described as needs: a need to have help with the housework and the baby, a need to have a room of her own, a need to be at work on time, a need to relax at the end of a tiring day. Good luck getting everyone to stop calling such things needs within marriage: that's a wish even beyond my starry-eyed idealism. I think of an Ensign article from almost 30 years ago which is an interesting document of how tenaciously some old ideas hold on. This is Brent A. Barlow, "They Twain Shall Be One: Thoughts on Intimacy in Marriage," published in September 1986:
A husband needs to spend time with his wife. The two need to have time together to share ideas, to grow and learn together, and to experience joy together. A wife is not going to be too excited about a husband who spends all his time at work, at church meetings, in hobbies that exclude her, or in front of the television or newspaper. A husband who always spends time in ways that exclude his wife communicates to her that she is not very important. . . .
Perhaps the most important thing a wife can do to improve the sexual relationship in her marriage is to realize her husband is also a human being with various needs, hopes, and aspirations. Unfortunately the media blatantly convey the idea that men want only one thing out of a relationship. To adopt this narrow view of men is to do them an injustice.. . .
Many of the ideas that apply to husbands also apply to wives. Just as husbands need to find time for their wives, so wives need to find time for their husbands. Some wives spend most of their time at work, caring for the children, or cleaning house. When children are finally in bed at night and parents have a few moments away from them, wives often prefer doing “relaxing” things . . . If their husbands want to be with them, they are often tired and emotionally unavailable. Men are not likely to appreciate or understand such actions. If the activities of the day really are so tiring that a woman has little time or energy left to develop her relationship with her husband, she or the couple together might examine her life carefully, to decide which things can be given up for the good of the most important relationship she will ever be involved in.
When it comes to sexuality, some wives become very concerned about their “rights,” often speaking of their “right” to say no and yes. But marriage is also a relationship of responsibility and opportunity. In marriage, both partners have the opportunity to give. I believe few wives realize the power they have to help keep their husbands near them physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. On the other hand, I also believe few wives sense the degree of frustration and alienation husbands feel when a wife ignores his needs and interests.
For 1986 I might call this progressive. It's true that the last paragraph is ominous: those quotation marks around “rights” for one thing – that impatience with those uppity women and their so-called rights still hangs on tenaciously in Mormondom (think of the firestorm after Elaine Dalton's BYU devotional address in 2013: “You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights.”). And the way he invokes responsibility and then just lets it drift without definition? You could hang a lot of sexual duty and, yes, coercion, on that in 1986, when some states still didn't recognize marital rape as a crime. But Barlow deserves credit for asserting that husbands' needs extend beyond brutish wishes for sex on demand. His apparent or at least implied inclusion of each spouse's needs in the negotiated space deserves consideration. It is true that the question of needs and demands in marriage is broad and varied, and an assertion that needs inherently bring the right to demand and transcend the negotiated space must be tested by application to any alleged need.
People don't just make demands based on socially-constructed needs, they make demands based on things that are important for them. If it's important enough for me to have two forks at each place on the table for every meal and for my house and my wife to Always Look Her Best, that can also “[move] beyond the negotiated space and [begin] to place inappropriate demands on the other partner.” You don't need to cast anything as a need to do that. You just need one partner with a strong will, and the other partner convinced that her (or his, let's give equal opportunity) duty is to serve and to please.
The housewife who insists on her time alone in her work space to write or paint could bring insecurities, breakdowns and conflict into a marriage, but those of us with contemporarily enlightened sensibilities will probably say that's just because her husband's being a jerk. I know my sympathies will automatically weigh more on her side than with the husband who insists on sex. My intuition is that most of us will feel to recognize a wife's need for attention and affection more readily than a husband's for sex: “of course your wife has the right to demand your affection and your attention! But that doesn't give you any right to demand access to her vagina! Or to demand that she pay attention to your penis, for that matter.” They warned us in high school about that give love-get sex/give sex-get love problem.
As long as their hearts are in the right place, most people don't trouble themselves about disconnects in logic. Our tradition holds that genitals, especially the vagina, are a “Fort” of more “soveraigne dread” (Spenser, Faerie Queen 1:II:XXV) than minds and hearts – an attitude that The World questions.
How legitimate is a grievance of trespass against minds and hearts, especially by women against men's minds and hearts? Consensus still holds that men are inclined to be miserly with those treasures – attention and affection – that their wives have every right to claim as their due. What great cost can it be for a husband to be compelled to render those? He is like Baldacca's Kalif in Longfellow’s poem “Kambalu,” with his tower full of gold and silver that he can't eat. She needs that gold, but she also guards a priceless treasure in her house, more precious than the gold. Will the “Kalif” abuse his power by claiming a share of her treasure instead of negotiating with her for it?
It might remind us of Nathan's condemnation of David over Bathsheba. “No!” we might shout. “He has no right to demand that! How dare he!”
Noblesse oblige: she has a non-negotiable claim on his attention and affection that he can't legitimately claim as a source of conflict. He does not have the same claim on her vagina. What do we all think of that?
We each come to earth with talents to develop Barlow hits the target here: how frustrating to have a real God-given gift in your soul, needing to be expressed, and for it to be disparaged – or sabotaged!
Our talents are much more important than our primitive itches. A woman with stories or poems burning inside her does have the right to demand a room or a work space of her own and time to write. A man who played the saxophone like Cannonball Adderly by the time he was 16 does have a right to demand time and space to practice and perform even as a married man.
I would hope that these two imaginary characters would be able to negotiate these needs and attending demands with their spouses so as to set up mutually agreeable accommodations, but my sympathy would still go with the wife, not the husband, when she stays locked in her little office writing until midnight, night after night, instead of attending to his wishes for sex. My sympathy would go with the husband, not the wife, when he plays at the cafe across town until closing time night after night and gets home late, too tired to attend to her wishes for sex. (Let's add to this hypothetical scenario: suppose he is not too tired to cuddle while falling asleep, and even gives her a lot of affection and help with the household and children in the afternoon and early evening before going off to play. But sex? The circumstances just don't line up. They cuddle up and he falls asleep. Well, so what?)
Social construction of needs has not been logical or consistent, so putting such cases up to popular vote is not going to give consistent verdicts. The wife of the saxophone genius might charge him with failure to meet her sexual needs, if she is more of a sexual agent than the traditional Mormon wife. Otherwise, she might articulate her frustration in other terms. If he doesn't make much money performing in the cafe across town, then his wife might charge him with failing to meet his obligations to provide and spend time with his family. After all, in our culture she still has a claim on him to provide for her and their children. How easy it will be to put together a chain of cause and effect to “prove” that his frivolous hobby is destructive to their family togetherness and therefore constitutes failure to provide for his family's non-negotiable needs (especially if his day job isn't very lucrative).
The husband of the aspiring author has no such claim on his wife to provide. Her children have the claim for nurturing of course, and so if he is old-fashioned enough he can put together a similar argument to prove that her frivolous hobby is making their family insecure. Now that The World and its feminism have made so many incursions into the Church, he might not feel he can get away with saying that she is forsaking her calling as a woman. And if he knows what's good for him he won't explicitly mention anything about being sexually frustrated in presenting his case.
The aspiring female author still has an uphill battle, though her pioneering ancestresses (including the one who articulated her need for that room of her own) have put her nearer to the summit. Her husband's sexual frustration immediately stinks of the petulance that comes from the loss of privilege (and Barlow's article carries a whiff too). The sexual frustration of the saxophone player's wife, however, carries an almost karmic load of unstimulated clitorises reaching back generations, and to some sensitivities, justice demands her husband's recognition of that debt. Justice would demand his time, consideration and attention to atone for the neglect his wife's foremothers suffered at the hands (or rather the penises) of his forefathers. Couldn't he at least take the time to do something with his fingers?
I do not assert that either of these judgments are right, but they are powerful psychological motivators rooted in the world's history, which has its own deep roots in human biology and psychology. These are complexities that men and women inherit even before they enter complex intimate relationships as adults. Denying or despising such motives as primitive does nothing to help us rise above them, it only blinds us to their control. Only the work of bringing them into consciousness can lead us out of blind hypocrisy, and that is easier said than done.
I can imagine young liberal first-world blog readers shaking their heads at the saxophone player, especially if he isn't making his living with his music – unless he was smart enough to marry a career woman. Even then, they might sigh over the sadness of this couple missing out on a fuller experience of the divine gift of sexual relations in their marriage, which could be such a stress relief and a beautiful bonding experience! I can imagine many people thinking he might be gay. But I predict that the same young liberal first-worlders would dismiss the aggrieved husband of the writer as a neanderthal. And since the larger matters of history and of the gender privileges in history do enter into the equation, that discrepancy really doesn't bother me much.
Some of the most liberal might want to tell the writer's husband that he could just go take care of himself, though whether they'd advise the saxophonist's wife similarly I won't venture to guess here. But that would imply that those frustrated sexual urges were truly needs of some kind, or at least pressing enough to justify taking matters into your own hands.
Whatever you might think about needs, those hypothetical characters I just invented have an opportunity to see themselves less as aggrieved partners of negligent spouses and more as valiant bearers of their own crosses. Marie of Oignies convinced her husband to take a vow of chastity, and together they nursed lepers, and she saw visions. Of course Mormons could say that those were all fake, and that if a man and wife have plenty of sex as they should, of course they'll have spiritual gifts aplenty.
I always wanted to know if older couples had sex on their missions, but have been afraid to ask. Is there a sexologist or therapist willing to attempt a study of that?