Economic dependency and sexual infidelity

Financial dependence is frequently a major consideration whether a person, especially the wife, stays in a sexually unhappy marriage or not. Many South African women born in the 1950s and 1960s often gave up their careers once their children were born or continued working on a part-time basis in order to take care of their children. Stay-at-home mother seldom received any compensation for the work they did as childminders and taking care of their homes. Most did not have any pension fund: this left them financially totally dependent on their husbands in their later years.

The patriarchal system promoted idea that the husband was the provider for the family. Within South African society, males were (and in some communities are) seen as the breadwinners and – until 1994 at least most senior positions were reserved for White males. This meant that the majority of women who did return to the official labour force after the birth of their children, often still needed their husband’s income to subsidise their own. For many women this financial dependence meant that, after being married for twenty years or more, divorce was not really an option. By that time, women are often in their forties, they had no work experience in the formal labour market, nor did they have their own pension or medical fund. For such women, divorce was often not an option.

The partnership between husband and wife on an economic level may persist long after the marriage’s loving origins have ceased, and therefore the couple stay married (Lake & Hills 1979:20). The effort required to unbundle the marriage and its assets is not seen as sufficient to justify a divorce – and thus: ‘[h]oly wedlock is often sustained by financial deadlock’ (Lake & Hills 1979:21). When women live in sexually unhappy marriages – with little or no option of leaving the marriage because of their financial dependence on their husbands – many women regard an affair as a way to escape their situation.

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria.


Discourses regarding penis size

Within a patriarchal ideology men are often portrayed as the hunter with power and physical ability as the mark of a man. Since biblical times a man’s worth was often linked to his penis size and ability to perform sexually. The discourse of penile penetration for satisfactory sexual intercourse is often associated with another discourse: namely, that penis size – and by implication the size of the erection – is directly coupled to the pleasure afforded. Erections have always been important to men: the discourse regarding the size of the male penis was circulating even in biblical times. In 1 Kings 12:10, King Rehoboam boasts that his little finger is thicker than his father’s waist to indicate that he – Rehoboam – was a more capable and powerful king than his father. The Hebrew word that was translated as ‘little finger’ could have referred to his penis, as in antiquity a man’s penis size was seen as an indication of his power and abilities.

Dr Abraham Morgentaler (2009), Professor of Urology at Harvard Medical School and a medical doctor who specializes in male reproductive and sexual health, also comments on the discourse of penis size. He states that man’s obsession with penis size is nothing new. Ancient drawings in the ruins of Pompeii provide clear evidence of this obsession:

“Painted on the wall, with only minor decay since the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in the year 79 AD, was the picture of a nobleman with an enormous erect penis, the length and girth larger than a man’s leg, placed on an ancient scale, with sacks of gold balanced on the other side. Some time ago I rediscovered that image on the Internet and have occasionally used it in lectures, with the quip that men have always viewed a large penis as worth its weight in gold” (Morgentaler 2009).

Closely linked to these ideas of strength and virility are the dominant discourses which see a man’s sexuality as instinctive and natural, as well as the idea that men are always ready for sex. Research shows that erectile dysfunction (ED) is a common problem: up to 52% of men older than forty are affected by it. Moreover, 50% of men will at one stage or another struggle with impotency due to varied factors. Finally, when men have challenges regarding their sexual function it influences their self confidence as well as their self esteem. I suggest that if discourses which link maleness to sexual functioning are internalised, sexual challenges will have an exponentially greater effect. The implications of these discourses are that if a man does not conform and perform to these standards, he is ‘unnatural’ or not a man.

Patriarchal discourses which symbolise men with strength and power can be very damaging to the male sexual experience. Discourses of strength and power portray men as unfailing. Therefore, if a man should ‘fail’ sexually, he has ‘failed’ as a man. Since this implication is often too overwhelming for men to acknowledge, many men find it almost impossible to speak about their sexual challenges. It is not only men that are exposed to discourse regarding male sexual functioning: many women have also internalised these discourses regarding male potency.

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria.

Is sex an expression of love for both men and women?

Sex as expression of love

I have often heard the statement: ‘Man gives love to have sex and woman gives sex to have love’. Many academics speak about the gender differences in the experiences of Eros (sex) as an expression of love. Some argue that men express their love both in practical ways – such as assisting with household chores – and in sexual actions. Others believe that both men and women find intimacy in verbal and sexual intimacy as this is in line with the cultural script of love. However, the majority of work that I read state that a few years into the marriage, gender differences appear as men will continue to find intimacy in sexual fulfillment but minimize their verbal intimacy, whereas women will tend to increase their need for verbal intimacy and decrease sexual intimacy. Consequently, men express and experience love when having sex, whilst women experience being loved in other ways: for instance, in kind deeds, talking and help with household chores.

I would like to challenge this point of view. During my research on sexually unhappy marriages, the co-searchers confirmed my suspicion that this idea may be another patriarchal discourse taken as the truth. The women who researched with me, all regarded sex as a way in which they experienced being loved and giving love. Sex for them was not reserved to the male experience of love. They also shared that when their sexual needs were neglected, they did not feel loved, no matter how many times he did the dishes. Practical help in the absence of sex did not build their intimate relationships. It would seem that sexual intimacy is an important expression of love to both men and women and cannot be replaced by practical deeds.

Sex should not be reserved to the male experience of love. We need to challenge gender discourses regarding sexual intimacy. Sex is important to both men and women, as is communication, practical help and deeds of kindness. Why do so many people insist in holding on to these gender stereotypes which are so life-restricting to both men and women? What is your take on this?

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria. 

Electronic version available at –

Seks, plesier en geloof: hoe meisies gesosialiseer word ten opsigte van seksualiteit


Die sosialiseringproses van meisies ten opsigte van hul seksualiteit is onlosmaakbaar van hulle gender rol wat ‘n sosiale konstruksie is.

Met sosiale konstruksie bedoel ek die manier hoe ons iets verstaan en die waarde wat ons aan iets heg word bepaal deur die dominante diskoerse in daardie gemeenskap. ‘n Voorbeeld van so ‘n dominante diskoers in die Christelike psige van meeste Suid-Afrikaners, is dat mans die hoof van die huis is. Julle mag nou dadelik wonder hoekom ek hier van ‘n diskoers uit die Christelike tradisie aangaande sosialisering praat. In die 2001 Suid-Afrikaanse bevolkingsensus het die oorweldigende meerderheid van Suid-Afrikaners hulself beskryf as Christene beskryf, om die waarheid te sê, 79,8% waarvan 42,8% van die Wit deelnemers aangedui het dat hulle in die Gereformeerde kerke is. Ek maak dus die aanname dat die manier hoe die gereformeerde kerke die rol van mans en vroue sien, ‘n groot impak het op hoe die verskillende geslagte gesosialiseer word.

Een van die mees dominante diskoerse in die kerk was en in sommige gevalle is steeds dat mans die hoof van die huis is en dat vroue ongeskik of onderdanig moet wees aan hulle mans. Saam met hierdie diskoers vind ons die idee dat mans die broodwinner of ten minste die primêre broodwinner moet wees en dat vroue die versorgers van die gesin is. Uit my navorsing het dit geblyk dat hierdie diskoers ‘n groot impak het op hoe vroue hul seksualiteit ervaar.

Vir dekades was vroue se seksualiteit gekoppel aan voortplanting. Met die ontwikkeling van  veilige gesinsbeplanning het die klem van seks begin skuif van voortplanting tot dit van plesier en ‘n spesiale vorm van intimiteit. In my navorsing, wat meestal met ouer vroue was, het dit egter duidelik geblyk dat baie vroue steeds sukkel om hul seksualiteit te skei van die voorgeskrewe gender rolle en daarom dikwels hul seksuele behoeftes onderskik stel aan hulle intieme partner of eggenoot sin.

Uittreksel uit my doktorale tesis:

Mayer and Mayer (cited by Mager 1996:19) believe that it is important to acknowledge that women, like men, have sexual desires that require fulfillment. Nevertheless, there is a distinct difference in how men and women’s sexuality is defined. McFadden (2003:1-3) argues in Sexual pleasure as a feminist choice that, for many years, African women’s sexual and erotic inclinations have been suppressed by the patriarchal system which merged female sexuality with reproduction within a hetero-normative culture and society. In my experience, this is also true for westernised White Protestant women. McFadden links the suppression of female sexuality by tradition and religion with being a mother and a nurturer. Isherwood and McEwan (1994:18) concur, arguing that patriarchy established the role of the woman as nurturer with the aid of religion: ‘[r]eligions have reinforced…. [and] prescribed roles of wife and mother [to women]’. For many centuries the Bible was used to justify and maintain the construction of the wife within the nurturing role (Landman 2002:25).

The discourse of woman as the nurturer is reinforced by the way in which girls are socialised to be complaisant and accommodating (Fredman & Potgieter 1996:52). In their interaction with others and in gender discourses, girls soon learn that their worlds are much more limited than boys. The effects of the socialisation process are often seen in how women view their sexuality: they focus on their partners’ sexual needs instead of focusing on their own. Fredman and Potgieter (1996:52) conclude that girls tend to experience their sexuality as something that others do to them and define for them rather than something they can initiate and define. Buys (2010:2), a well known and ‘modern’ South African sexologist, confirm the belief that men and women are created differently:

Men were created as the ‘hunters’, the providers, and the protectors. They need physical strength. Women were created as the nurturers and the carers. They need emotional strength….Another big difference between men and women is the ways in [which] we perceive love and affection. Women often see kind deeds – like her husband washing the dishes without being asked – as acts of love. Men feel loved when they are intimate with their partners.

I argue that the conditioning of women to be sexually accommodating and/or complaisant can set them up for sexual disappointment and disillusionment, especially in the presence of the expectation of marital sexual fulfilment. Although women might expect a sexually happy marriage, they are often reluctant to pursue this actively in their marriages, especially in the early stages of the marriage. Within Christian marriages sexuality is often shrouded in silence due to many of the discourses as explored earlier in this chapter. All these factors contribute towards women becoming sexually frustrated in their marriages and the establishment of patterns that undermines sexual happiness for both partners. Due to a variety of reasons (which will be explored in the following chapters) many women in sexually unhappy marriages are not able to leave such marriages. This causes great predicaments, dilemmas, relational complexities and challenges, especially for Christian women.

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria. 

Electronic version available at –