Examining Good Sex in Bad Relationships

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Conversation /
October 1, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

Mid 20s HR professional Catherine finds herself in the perfect relationship. Hunky Lee is gorgeous and devoted and protective. Apparently he’s everything a woman could want in a bloke.

At least until he proves himself to be a bit psycho.

Suddenly what initially looks like commitment seems smothering; the sex that once felt all new and exciting and spontaneous feels a whole lot like rape.

Think Sleeping With The Enemy, although a bit deeper and a lot less Julia Roberts.

Like all of the books I tend to crow about, Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner can spawn any number of juicy conversations.

On one level, it raises some really worthwhile conversations about consent. The crazy boyfriend turns up at 3am and Catherine opens her door to him. They have sex, it was rough, she was in pain during – and afterwards – and at no point did she say no. Was it rape?

Equally worth discussing – and unusual for a crime novel – the book spotlights that hard-to-confront reality that the bloke in her bed is far more likely to be a woman’s real source of threat than any “man in the bushes”.

A third issue exploits my fascination with “emotional work”: those labours women too often do to keep relationships functional. In numerous scenes Catherine tries to calm down the abusive Lee; to try and make him feel better about his bastardry. Awful to read but worse to acknowledge that this women-making-everything-okay-in-spite-of-themselves nonsense feels very bloody familiar.

Three fascinating topics to discuss, but I’m going to focus on a fourth.

A debate Catherine has with herself during an early split with Lee is whether the sex – sex she considered, at least initially, as great – was grounds for reconciliation. For perseverance.

Admittedly, its very tempting to devote this entire post to defining good sex.

For Catherine it was sex with variety: each time with Lee was different and she quite liked that. At least to begin with. I’m not sure I’d prioritise variety so highly, but for this post let’s keep the definition simple: good sex is the Snickers-type; sex that really satisfies whichever way “satisfies” gets defined.

By the time Catherine debates this question, Lee has already demonstrated his bad-boyfriend attributes: he’s snuck into her place and rearranged things to disorient her, he’s toyed with a little light stalking and he’s had the kind of sex with her that I’d consider brutal.

So when is good sex enough to compensate for a bad relationship?

Can a few evenings of the good stuff compensate for all those less good times?

How good does the sex have to be for it to act as a relationship panacea?

Certainly for me the presence of sex – regardless of the degrees of satisfaction – is a dealbreaker. While I’m sure there are relationships that are are functional – are satisfying – sans sex, I’m not particularly interested in one.

So on one level I’m completely convinced that you can’t get everything you want or need from one person. To assume that your partner can satisfy all of your intellectual/emotional/physical needs is setting yourself up for failure.

With that in mind then, if I can have fantastic conversations with my friends, vent to them, seek solace from them, go out and have fun with them, then what’s the one thing – the one dealbreaker – that I should want from a partner?

What’s the one thing – the only thing – that in most relationships would be considered unacceptable to source outside of the dyad?


So shouldn’t this be grounds to prioritise good sex over pretty much everything else?

It seems logical and yet I’m not so sure.

A friend and I often discuss the mind/body split in sex: she’s very apt at what writer Erica Jong termed the zipless fuck; she can do it recreationally, just for fun, without all the head chaos. I can’t. I’m seduced by good conversation, by intimacy and I can’t indulge in any kind of sex without an emotional investment.

For me, if the relationship is bad – if there’s no trust or if outside of the bedroom it all feels strained and lonely – then for me good sex means little.

So what can good sex compensate for?

Equally worth asking, how fantastic does a relationship need to be to compensate for bad sex? If the coupling is warm and trusting and romantic, does it really matter if the sex is all a bit crap?

If the sex is lacklustre – if you could take or leave it – then just how important is it really?

Into The Darkest Corner is an engaging read raising important issues about sexual madness and OCD, manipulation and exit strategies. More so, it puts on the agenda questions about prioritising sex and querying the role of quality in comparison to all our other relationship priorities.

© Lauren Rosewarne