Maybe it started unintentionally: You finally got around to deep-cleaning the kitchen, and your wife was so delighted about it that the two of you ended up hopping into bed together.
Or maybe it was more direct: You’d been putting off a task for a while, and your partner mentioned that they’d thank you with a little something-something if you’d just up and do it already — so, of course, you stopped everything and finally did the thing.
However it started, it’s now become an established arrangement, spoken or unspoken.
Couples sometimes find themselves in a dynamic where sex has essentially become a reward in their relationship. It’s “given” or “granted” by one partner in exchange for the other person doing something the giver wanted them to do — usually a household chore of some sort, but also sometimes things like hitting a goal you set or doing something thoughtful. And although any couple might slip into this arrangement, it’s worth noting that in relationships between men and women, its often men on the receiving end of this sexual reward.
Now, this exchange isn’t always a bad thing. Using sex to reward each other can be totally fine if it’s only done on a whim every now and then, functioning more as a spicy game, playful bet, or shared celebration than as an actual quid pro quo. Importantly, though, this only works if it’s part of an otherwise mutually satisfying sex life that’s active outside of these situations.
But if sex is exclusively used as a bargaining chip between a couple, that could signal underlying issues in the relationship — and potentially invite further dysfunction. Here are five reasons why the arrangement can be problematic.
1. It Turns Sex Into a Transaction.
Making sex into a reward turns something that’s supposed to be fun and connective into something transactional and potentially alienating.
Couples have sex for many different reasons: to express affection, to feel more connected, to celebrate good news, to just enjoy something physically and mentally pleasurable together. All of these motivators involve viewing sex as something that’s mutually satisfying and also positive for the relationship.
But when the motivation for having sex is to get your partner to do something, the sex is no longer about connection and feeling good as much as it is tool for personal gain. Likewise, if you’re viewing sex as something you have to “get” from your partner, your partner becomes an obstacle or conduit to getting your own sexual needs meet — as opposed to someone that you’re trying to bond with through shared pleasure.
To make matters worse, it’s possible that the person offering the “reward” ends up having sex that they don’t necessarily enjoy or even personally want. Or they’re having sex that’s focused solely on the reward recipient’s satisfaction.
Unwanted or one-sided sex is rarely pleasurable. If someone isn’t liking the sex they’re having, it’s likely to make them less interested in sex in general. In other words, reward sex can ironically be a libido killer for some people. In many cases, this is also the opposite of what the reward recipient actually wants: more sex, more often.
2. It Assumes One Person Just Doesn’t Like Sex.
A sex-as-reward arrangement often operates under the assumption that there’s only one partner who likes and wants sex, and the other partner just “gives it up.” Typically in relationships between men and women, men are often seen as the ones who always want sex, while women are seen as the gatekeepers who decide whether the men will have access to it. Among many other flaws, this mental framework misses a crucial truth: Women also like having sex.
Yes, in some cases, one person in a relationship is on the asexual spectrum and truly has little to no interest in sex. But in most cases, good sex is something that both partners do want and enjoy. What’s often missing is the right context (for example, fewer toddlers screaming) or the right sex (that is, sex that actually makes her toes curl). So if your partner is only ever willing to have sex with you if it means you’ll finally clean a toilet, there’s a much larger conversation to be had.
Sex isn’t something that you have to “get” from your partner. It should be something that feels good and exciting for you both of you. If your wife doesn’t feel that way about sex, talk to her about why that is. Focus less on trying to figure out how to “convince” her to have sex and more on how to help her actually have a good time in bed so that she wants to have sex with you.
3. It Usually Implies a Domestic Imbalance.
When sex is exchanged for chores getting done, it almost always indicates an underlying imbalance around household labor. Ideally, both partners are equally involved in housework and child care, or whatever way the work is divided up, each person at least accomplishes their set of duties without the other needing to push them along. Instead, one person feels the need to dangle the possibility of sex to get the other to do their part — a tactic that may end up being effective at getting all the tasks done, but doesn’t address the root issue, which might be laziness, lack of responsibility, or stress from other parts of life getting in the way.
The reward sex is just a Band-Aid, but as long as the underlying imbalance persists, frustration and resentment are still likely to fester for the person who feels like they’re doing all the work around the house (without anyone giving them any rewards, mind you) all the while having to also now sexually “thank” a person who largely isn’t pulling their weight.
Often, it comes to this because the person carrying the weight feels powerless and out of options. They may feel like there’s no other way their partner would ever change their behavior and start to be more engaged with the housework — an indicator, by the way, that they’re starting to see their partner less as a teammate, adult, and human being who can be reasoned with and more as an inscrutable object to solve or a child who needs to be managed. Unsurprisingly, that infantilization or even dehumanization of your partner in your mind can decay your relationship over time.
4. It Indicates a Lack of Generosity.
Relationships thrive on generosity: the earnest desire to give and care for your partner, for no other reason than that you love them and want to make them happy.
When sex becomes a reward, often it’s because there’s a core lack of generosity on both ends. The person who decides whether to have sex with their partner based on whether their partner is completing certain tasks is functionally creating an environment where love must be earned. They’re essentially saying, I’ll love you only if and when you work hard enough for it. You need to work to be deserving of affection, touch, and care.
As for the person expecting to be rewarded for accomplishing necessary household tasks or for doing something that makes your partner happy, the underlying message is, I will only help you if I get something out of it. If I don’t, then I just don’t care enough about helping you or making your life better.
Some research has shown that couples who overly focus on trying to “trade benefits equally” (both sexually and otherwise) tend to have both lower relationship satisfaction and lower sexual satisfaction, whereas those who are just intrinsically motivated to meet each other’s needs tend to have more satisfying relationships. In general, research has found the most successful relationships are those where partners are willing to be generous, to give love freely, even when it involves a little effort.
That means being motivated to be proactive around the house just because you know it’s important to your partner, not because you think it’s going to win you any favors. Likewise, it means being motivated to care about your partner’s sexual needs just because you care about their happiness, and for no other reason.
5. Manipulation Is Never OK
Last but not least, the truth is that manipulating your partner is never OK. They should do things — whether that’s having sex or doing the dishes — because they want to do them and not because you tricked them, pressured them, or goaded them into it.
Ultimately, this is about respect: respecting your partner’s agency, trusting that your partner will step up and help you if they understand what you need, and thoughtfully addressing any hang-ups they might be having instead of papering over them with trades and ultimatums.
The bottom line is, a couple that’s treating sex as a commodity to be traded between them is wading into tricky waters. While it might feel like an effective compromise on the surface, they often end up skimming over underlying issues that can, over time, cause rot in a relationship. They also ultimately miss out on some of the core elements that make relationships stronger: true teamwork, generosity, and the kind of sex you both just can’t get enough of.