Hello! Here's a question from a reader:
A couple things about the Five Love Languages before we get to this specific question about it:
A lot of people read it and felt very helped by it, yay! I read it, and it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for a lot of people, actually, since it’s entirely cis-hetero-centric and explicit anti-polyamory. I am not cool with any of those things. A writer has to imagine their audience and write in a way that includes everyone they are writing for. Gary Chapman was writing for a specific audience, and that audience wasn’t me (which is fine; I’m no one’s target audience) or many of the people I know and love.
Now, just because a book isn’t for you doesn’t mean you can’t glean useful ideas from it, and I know lots of people whom Dr. Chapman didn’t include in his audience, who nevertheless read the book and benefited from learning about the ways they give and receive love and the ways their partners give and receive love. One of my favorite podcasts, By the Book, did an episode on it, and both hosts gave it a positive verdict, even as they were aware that it wasn’t for everyone and can’t solve big, difficult problems. If you benefited from the book, groovy! Loving that journey for you!
But Five Love Languages book has sold waaaaaay more copies than Come As You Are, so I have a lot of work to do, correcting the basic factual errors in the way he writes about sex.
Here’s most of the paragraph to which our question writer referred:
Four sentences. All of them are wrong. The only part that’s correct is “sexual intercourse alone will not meet his need to feel loved.” That is entirely true for all people everywhere! You can put it on a t-shirt. Get a tattoo of it. It will always be true for more or less everyone.
But everything else… is no. Please allow me to explain.
1.) No one has a “push” to have sexual release. Which is to say, sex is not a drive, it is an “incentive motivation system,” which means that instead of being a push from the inside, it’s a pull toward some appealing stimulus, like a sexy person or a sexy smell or even a sexy thought.
Unlike Dr. Chapman, I cite sources extensively in Come As You Are, so feel free to browse those (it’s chapter 7), but this science goes back at least to 1956, when Frank Beach said “No one ever suffered tissue damage for lack of sex.” It’s among the least controversial, best established scientific ideas in all of Come As You Are.
And hey listen, this is the only idea in CAYA that has caused anyone on Twitter to call me a “stupid fucking c*nt,” so I’m hesitant to write about it on the internet. People get very defensive about the idea that they don’t “need” sex. They decide that I’m trying to tell them they don’t want sex or they don’t deserve sex or… I don’t know what all. What I’m saying is nobody dies from not getting laid, no matter how frustrated and uncomfortable they may feel on those occasions when they don’t get something they very much want.
So let me preempt the abuse and mansplaining: If you’re tempted to email me, asserting that oh yes you do have an push for sexual release, I will expect you to have read all of chapter 7 and all of the references in that chapter’s endnotes. Your informed disagreement will necessarily take the form of a methodological critique of the studies I cite and other academic arguments. Otherwise… my friend, oh my friend, your confident belief in the lies you’ve been told your whole life is understandable, but it is not equivalent to my Ph.D.
(Maybe I should write a desire explainer for the newsletter? Let me know in the comments if you’d like that.)
It is a longstanding and stubborn myth that men's sexual motivation is a “push” to fix a problem instead of a “pull” to explore with curiosity. But that wouldn’t be more than a basic factual error if it were not 100% used as part of the rhetoric about men being entitled to sex because it's a “need.” It's not a need. It’s a gift we can choose to share, or not.
2.) If he does not enjoy physical touch outside of sex, it might be his love language but the patriarchy (ugh) is in the way. Many boys and men are taught that sex is the only acceptable way to give and receive love and connection authentically and vulnerably, and connection, love, is a drive, a biological need without which a human will sicken and die. Of course it’s not true that sex is the only available outlet for love—women are taught and have cultural permission to use many!—and we must teach men and boys more ways to give and receive love. But as long as men think sex is the only way to experience love, it will feel like they “need” sex, when what they need is deep, authentic, loving connection.
And—credit where it’s due—I do believe that teaching people more ways to give and receive love is the heart of Dr. Chapman’s work, even if he only includes a limited range of people in it, and even if he wrong about some basic facts. Maybe this is why so many people benefitted from it, even though it wasn’t written with them in mind.
3.) Sexual desire is only a little bit different from his emotional need to feel loved, because: patriarchy (ugh)—see above.
4.) Sexual intercourse is not extremely important. Some people really, really like it, like for some people it’s their favorite thing ever and they would be really sad if they couldn’t have it.
But “sexual intercourse,” as Dr. Chapman means it—i.e., penis-in-vagina sex—is not even available to any couple that doesn’t involve both a penis and a vagina. It’s not available to a couple where the penis doesn’t get erect. It’s not available to couples where the vagina doesn’t accept penetration. It’s not available to so many different kinds of couples, at so many different stages of a relationship, that I wonder if there’s anyone left that this book is for.
Who were you thinking of, Dr. Chapman, when you wrote that sexual intercourse is extremely important to men?
Certainly not of the women survivors of interpersonal and sexual violence, who’ve been taught their whole lives that they have an obligation to meet men’s needs regardless of their own desires, and that’s a lot of us. If you are a survivor and you were taught you owe men sex because they “need” it, I want you to know and feel deep in your heart that that was a lie. Sexual connection with you is a gift you can choose to share or not, and no one is simply entitled to it.
Not of the men starving for deep intimacy and connection, who’ve been taught that penetration is “The Way,” but then they feel let down, discouraged, broken, and even lonelier when they have intercourse but they don’t feel connected, and that’s a lot of them. If you’re among the men who has felt lonelier after intercourse and wondered why, I want you to know and feel deep in your heart that you were lied to. PiV sex can be a way to connect deeply, but only in the right context. You are not broken. You are stuck in a difficult context. When Dr. Chapman writes “sexual intercourse alone will not meet his need to feel loved,” read “even sexual intercourse will only meet even a part of his need to feel loved, and only if you create a context of love and trust around it.”
Not for people experiencing sexual dysfunction like dyspareunia, vaginismus, erectile dysfunction, or many other challenges that make PiV sex inaccessible. If that’s you or your partner, I want you to know and feel deep in your heart that the “extreme importance” of PiV sex is a lie that erases the glorious pleasure available to us with so many other ways of connecting erotically. If PiV isn’t part of your erotic connection right now, and it used to be something you really enjoyed, it’s normal to mourn the change. But allow the mourning to be a letting go, to create space for all the other ways you can love and enjoy each other’s bodies.
And, it goes without saying, Dr. Chapman, you were not thinking of any trans, non-binary, or genderqueer people, and not of any gay, lesbian, or otherwise queer person or couple, and not of any polyamorous couple, thruple or multuple. (I just made up the word “multuple,” but it sounds right, right?) If you are among those people, you don’t need me to tell you you were lied to. You already know. And I want you to know that I see you, and I believe you deserve to feel welcome and included in your sex and relationship education.
So. Sex is not a drive. The myth lives on because we keep teaching men that sex is the only way they can access love, which is a drive. Solution: teach men and boys more ways to give and receive love. Maybe you can use the five love languages to do that.
Hope that helps!