Many times when people who are not of the fundamentalist persuasion hear the phrase “sex is a gift that you give your partner” we shudder. We cringe. It sounds objectifying and just kind of weird. It’s often code for the idea that you owe your partner your body, and that your body must be undamaged, or only for them. There are good reasons to dislike that phrase, especially in contexts that are promoting virginity and purity culture.
I recently used the wording of sex as a gift in a blog post at Skepchick, and some people found that unacceptable or wrong. I’d like to explore here why we should or should not view sex as a gift. What are the implications of that? How is it helpful? What does it clarify?
So first, what is a gift? “A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.” By “thing” we often mean non-physical things. You can give someone the gift of time, kindness, an event, an enjoyable experience…there are all kinds of things we gift on each other. Generally when you’re in a relationship with someone, you give them gifts because you like and enjoy them and you want them to be happy. You give them things you think would enhance their life, their pleasure, or their well-being. Sometimes gifts come with strings attached, but hopefully if you have a good relationship with someone or if you’re a kind person, you give your gift out of the desire to make someone else happy.
Now how does that fit into sex? Generally we have sex with someone as an experience of mutual pleasure and an expression of affection and/or love (or at least if we have a positive relationship to consent we do). Generally it’s not a good idea to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex. But if you aren’t that interested in sex, is it moral for you to “gift” sex to your partner: take your time, your energy, your body, and give those things to the other person for a time in order to show affection and make them happier? It seems to me that this falls directly under the definition of a gift as traditionally understood, and that we often do things like this with other experiences that we don’t wholly enjoy. I’ve done things like take my guy to a baseball game even though I despise baseball, or try foods that scare me, because it makes my partner happy. I doubt anyone would say that my partner had done anything wrong by accepting those gifts, and I certainly didn’t think I had. I enjoyed making my partner happy.
What is it about sex that means we cannot or should not gift it in the same way we might a different experience that we don’t enjoy? One element of “sex as a gift” that many people seem to find upsetting is the idea that you can have unenthusiastic sex without it being rapey or creepy. This is understandable. Because sex is so intimate and involves your body so intimately, and because many people feel uncomfortable saying no, sex without enthusiasm can often feel unethical. In addition, when people try to signal their nonconsent through being unenthusiastic, it is often ignored. Enthusiasm is an important signal to consent, however there are other ways to express your consent (like with your words).
However if we go into unenthusiastic sex with our eyes open, it doesn’t have to be unethical. If one partner decides for themselves that they want to have sex with an enthusiastic partner, communicates that to their partner, and they then proceed, I don’t see how that is unethical. And the best word to describe that situation is, to me, gift. One person is choosing to give something without asking for something in return. I will say that this type of situation is incredibly rare, and one must exercise extreme caution not to pressure or coerce one’s partner into consenting to sex despite their lack of enthusiasm. And as the partner consenting without enthusiasm, it’s important to take care of yourself: you have to pay extremely close attention to whether you’re feeling used, unwanted, hurt, or uncomfortable and take that into account when granting your consent. But consenting without enthusiasm, giving a gift of a good time to your partner does not seem to me per se to be unethical.
There is however another element to sex as a gift that is troubling, and that’s the idea that sex as a gift involves giving your body as a gift. This is somewhat objectifying. Your body is more than just a thing for your partner to use. It’s you. Can you really give yourself as a gift for someone else to enjoy? I do see this as a potential problem with viewing sex as a gift rather than an experience shared together. However I will say that we do often use the phrasing “giving the gift of time” or “giving the gift of company”. There are other times and places that we view being present and reciprocating something as a gift, and a wholly acceptable and good one. I think that including your body complicates things, but again, we might imagine someone giving their partner a massage as a gift.
Overall I think this language is complicated. It may work for some people and some situations and it can be incredibly harmful in others. When we do use it, I think it’s important to specify that we’re not giving our bodies to each other, but that we’re giving someone our time and energy and joy because we love them and want them to be happy, and because we don’t see it as harming ourselves. A gift given that harms the giver (and I don’t mean involves some small sacrifice I mean truly harms) is a bad gift. A gift is not the same thing as turning oneself into a martyr or a sacrifice. And particularly if you want your relationship to continue to function in the long run, gifts should not come at the expense of your physical or mental well-being. Just like any other gift you give in a relationship, you can’t break the bank.
So perhaps the language of “gifts” does make sense, particularly in relationships where people have differing sex drives and need to have a conversation about consent that includes meeting everybody’s needs without harming everybody. When it’s surrounding things like virginity and purity? Probably not appropriate.