Their Sexual Life

A patient in this study regarded sexual intercourse as primarily an idiosyncratic habit of men in which the wife was expected to participate dutifully if not willingly. She felt that a good wife should indulge the husband in his sexual needs so as to keep his interest from wandering to other women. Although she denied that it was a source of pleasure to her, she was ever-watchful that her husband does not bring this prerogative, which she felt to be hers alone, elsewhere. She did say on further questioning that she derived some pleasure from it, but described this feeling more on the level of being wanted, feeling close, feeling loved. Hardly was there any wife who said she made the initial overture to have sexual intercourse. Talking with male patients, however, it seemed that men could perceive many varied hints from the wife to indicate a desire for sex on her part, e.g. picking an argument with him, general short-temperedness, sleeping with the children in another room, cooking his favorite food, waiting up for him, taking a bath after supper, etc.

These wives also felt that sex is primarily the man’s pleasure and it should be denied him if he has misbehaved. It was not surprising that whenever she had an emotional ax to grind against him, her interest in sex was the first to suffer. There were three women who flatly told their husbands that they had never achieved orgasm with them, to the great chagrin of the men and irreparable damage to their self-esteem. Many of the women did pretend to have orgasms, sometimes successfully deceiving their husbands, sometimes not.

Attempting birth control through withdrawal of the penis before ejaculation or through the use of a condom was an irritant in several instances. While the women were most anxious to avoid pregnancy, the men were upset with anything which interfered with their sexual pleasure. This was also a frequently given reason why the rhythm method could not be followed closely. Many of these women were taking birth control pills prescribed by an obstetrician or gynecologist for a variety of gynecological condiri9ns, but sometimes for the express purpose of avoiding pregnancy. There was no guilt regarding their use, in spite of the women being actively practicing Catholics. They felt quite justified in taking them.

Quite common among the single women, and only rarely in the married group, was their expressed fear of sex. This was particularly striking in the adolescent group who had horrendous fantasies about what sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and delivery do to the body. One young secretary, not a part of this study, came to my office one day and asked me to please give her a lecture on the beauty of sex. She said that so far, she had heard only very ugly things about it. What struck me was not the naivete of her request, but her statement that she was getting married the following week and did not know whether she should take along some sedative pills to get through the first night. Such fear was not at all unusual, even in women past their teens.

On the other hand, intimate sexual activity with the boy friend, seemed to be an unconscious way of precipitating marriage. The young woman in encouraging sexual activity, often by merely not objecting strenuously, seemed suddenly to step out of character. She would become sexually aggressive, although she might do this in subtle ways, and would then feel compromised and committed. In her mind, she had taken a drastic step towards breaking away from her parents and taking her life into her own hands. Of course if they are ever caught in a compromising situation or if she gets pregnant, marriage must take place. But even if they were not caught or she did not get pregnant, marriage had to follow. It may be safe to conclude that this was a psychological maneuver on her part to resolve an issue, about which she was greatly ambivalent. Years later, she would look back in disbelief and wonder how she could ever have been capable of such sexual aggressiveness.

There were five women who became rather seriously involved in extra-marital relationships. Several more had a fleeting involvement which did not prosper. Four women after a long history of unstable marriage finally separated or obtained a divorce from their husbands and married other men. This limited sample gave the impression that interest in another man provoked intense feelings of guilt. There was never any wanton, heartless intention to obtain pleasure and ignore the fact that the husband was being deceived. The five women who found themselves in sticky extramarital relationships had in fact presented this as their principal problem. The man involved was invariably the opposite of the husband in personality. There were also strong indications that the lover resembled either the woman’s mother or father in many respects. The irrationality of the relationship was obvious to the patient, but like all neurotic commitments, she found it hard to give it up. In other aspects, she seemed to do quite well. She had little trouble making or keeping friends. She especially relished her relationships with her girlfriends with whom she shared regularly many bits of interpersonal problems. She adapted herself well to her husband’s friends, although he does not always reciprocate with hers. A less frequent type is the woman who could not keep girlfriends and tended to be more comfortable with men. She was likely to be more sophisticated, more assertive, and a little distrustful of women.

The working women derived a good deal of gratification from their work. In this area, they felt confident, fulfilled. Suffering a great deal of suppression in the hands of parents, husband, and children, these women found work a welcome outlet and an opportunity to boost their self-esteem. They found the strains and stresses of work minor and easily resolved. Undercurrents of competition or the formation of cliques in the office did not throw them off. Except where there was an inordinately tyrannical boss, they took their work in stride and enjoyed the little games with companions at an office or in business which added spice to their work.

There was an impressive streak of competitiveness in nearly all the women subjects. This was most marked in the group who were achievement-oriented, but even in the passive, dependent type, there were many evidences of it. There was constant comparison between the self and others. The overriding theme was that of excelling, standing out, lording it over others (usually, other women, although occasionally in the achievement-oriented, over men as well) whether it be in very trivial ways or in major endeavors.

One must point out, however, that much of this competitiveness was concealed or well-disguised from even their own selves. To others, there was a continuous denial that one was exerting great effort towards anything. The activity or success was rationalized as something “that could not be helped” or “a stroke of luck.” So successful was this ability to deny and rationalize such wishes that it seemed as if competitiveness was completely natural or egosyntonic for women. The significant difference was whether the competitiveness existed more in fantasy than in actual behavior. But the fact remains that it is invariably present or potentially present.