My recent Zenit pieces on marital consummation precipitated a delicate question related to the satisfaction of spouses—particularly wives—in marital conjugal relations. I offer here some general thoughts on the question. This essay’s content may not be appropriate for children to read.
The question is this: Does a husband have a duty to assist his wife to achieve sexual climax in their conjugal relations?
I will give my answer first, and then set forth my reasoning. I think that ordinarily he does and that doing so is a matter of justice towards his wife.
Marriage, Vatican II teaches, is “an intimate community of conjugal life and love” (Gaudium et spes, no 48). This community “is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children” (Can. 1055, §1). Just as marriage is ordered to these two goods, so too is the marital act, which draws its identity and justification from marriage itself.
Although Catholic moral teaching specifies fairly clearly the negative norms necessary for protecting and promoting the goods of marriage (in particular, that couples should never intend anything contrary to unity and procreation), the positive implications are not always so clear. But our positive duties are derived from the same two goods. So to answer the question of the duties of a husband towards his wife during intercourse, we ask, what duties arise from the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage?
Karol Wojtyla—later Pope John Paul II—wrote in his book Love and Responsibility that because love, and especially married love, entails the firm purpose to ensure the good of the other, love is “the antithesis of egoism.” Because egoism easily infects our motives for sexual intercourse, a spouse should be solicitous to consider the subjective happiness of his or her spouse in their sexual relationship. Intercourse must not serve merely as a means of one spouse seeking sexual satisfaction for himself. (Wojtyla thinks that this form of egoism “is more likely to be … on the part of the man.”)
By God’s design, intense (Aquinas uses the term “vehement”) pleasure accompanies sexual intercourse. This serves both as a motive for and fruit of a man and woman joining together in a one-flesh communion. Vatican II teaches that through this communion spouses both “experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it” (GS 48); moreover, as John Paul II says, spouses also “place their humanity in some way under the blessing of fruitfulness, that is, of ‘procreation’” (Theology of the Body, 14.6). And so, like marriage, intercourse is ordered to spousal unity and procreation.
Orgasm is part of marriage and the marital act’s wider meaning, insofar as it helps motivate spouses to unite as one flesh and belongs to and facilitates psychological, moral and physical bonding; it also makes the act by which children are conceived more attractive to choose. But the unitive and procreative significances of intercourse should not be reduced to orgasm.
In Catholic moral teaching, orgasm is morally appropriate to intend only in the context of a complete marital act. In the definitions of canon law and moral theology, a “complete marital act” takes place when a husband ejaculates into the vagina of his wife. The man’s experience of sexual climax ordinarily accompanies his ejaculation. A wife may reach orgasm before, during, or after her husband; or she may not reach it at all. This seems to suggest that male orgasm is more important than female to a complete marital act. With others, I think this conclusion is mistaken. Canon law and moral theology define the conjugal act as “complete” in this way because of the procreative aptness of the type of behavior, not its aptness for male pleasure. A wife’s pleasure is no less important to a couple’s conjugal life than a husband’s. But after ejaculating a husband may lose interest in the conjugal encounter and forget about his wife’s climax. Because a wife may feel embarrassed to ask her husband to assist her in reaching orgasm after he has ejaculated, her subjective sexual pleasure may effectively drop out of their conjugal life.
At least two harms can come to a wife because of a husband’s sexual egoism. First, she might grow sexually unresponsive and lose the ability to orgasm (grow “frigid”). Second, she might become tempted to masturbate or seek sexual satisfaction with someone other than her husband. John Paul II (Wojtyla) says that “if a woman does not obtain natural gratification from the sexual act there is a danger that her experience of it will be qualitatively inferior, will not involve her fully as a person” (Love and Responsibility, 273). A husband who sexually relates to his wife merely as means to his own gratification dehumanizes her. This is not to say that spouses should not have a lively regard to provide for each other in and through their sexual life a remedium concupiscentiae (a noble outlet for the expression of sexual desire). To deny this would be foolish. But this remedium should be offered by a husband and wife to each other in the context of the spousal gift of self. It should never be callously presumed upon, selfishly insisted upon and certainly never demanded with outright hostility.
If a husband loses tenderness for his wife and sensitivity to her emotional well-being and satisfaction in their sexual life, marital affection can grow cold and couples can become alienated from one another. Spouses therefore, and especially husbands, should be concerned to assist their spouses to achieve climax in their conjugal relations. It is unfair and hence unjust for a husband to concern himself only with his own satisfaction. A husband, who because of insensibility to his wife’s subjective sexual experience causes her to grow frigid, or to seriously contemplate masturbation, does his wife an injustice—he wrongs her. In my opinion the wrong can constitute grave matter. This is not to say that all of the temptations of a wife should be laid at her husband’s feet. They may be a result of her own weaknesses or sins.
Finally, although it is always disordered for a wife to self-stimulate outside the context of a marital act, she can and should help her husband to understand how he can assist her to reach sexual climax. She can tell him how to stimulate her. Her orgasm need not be immediately contemporaneous with his; but it should be an integral part of their “complete” marital act, sought and experienced during their reciprocal love-giving and love-receiving. If her (or his) sexual stimulation is unrelated to their conjugal act (e.g., by herself later in the day), then it is an act of (what Catholic teaching calls) “autoeroticism,” which is always wrong to choose. The God-given pleasure of orgasm is—morally speaking—meant always to be connected to the one-flesh act of marital intercourse.
Some husbands feel awkward or emotionally averse to assisting their wives to achieve orgasm after their own post-orgasmic let down. My next comments are addressed to them. If you wish to love your wife as Christ loved his Church (Eph. 5:25), exert a salutary effort to overcome your petty aversions. Take your wife’s sexual satisfaction as seriously as you do your own. Treat her body, as St. Paul teaches, as your own body; cherish it; and nourish it (Eph. 5:28-29). Work hard to ensure that she knows and feels your concern for her sexual satisfaction. And if, during a conjugal encounter, you’ve achieved climax and she still has not; for heaven’s sake, don’t make her ask you to assist her. Take the initiative. These are ways of expressing the truth that the conjugal act is by God’s design first and foremost an act of self-giving.
Psychologists tell us that the likelihood of conflict resolution in marriage can be measured by the respect a couple shows to each other in their most “intimate” encounters. Few things are more intimate than a couple’s conjugal life; few things therefore are more deserving of a clear and constant expression of mutual respect.
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