Sex is an important part of marriage. So much so, that having it (or not) is a focus of both religious doctrine and law. If a married couple doesn’t consummate a marriage, the church says either partner can seek an annulment. If a spouse refuses to engage in coitus, the state says you can file for divorce — it’s called constructive abandonment, and according to some parties, it counts as cruel and inhumane treatment. Within a marriage, sex is never just sex. It is the enactment of a binding contract that is, unfortunately, poorly understood by many people who sign it. This is why some couples take an extra step and create explicit (in all senses of the word) sex contracts. If sex is subject to agreement, the thinking goes, it makes sense to put that agreement down on paper.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Sex After Kids
Roy and Sarah Pierson are all about contracts. Their book, I Love You, Sign Here: Contracts For Couples, humorously packages more than 60 contracts couples can fall back on, from the relatable to the somewhat ridiculous. It seems tongue-in-cheek, but actually isn’t — except in a few places where it clearly is. “The first contract we ever made for ourselves was about limiting spending,” Roy explains. “This book is a meant to be a fun conversation starter for couples.… Sex can be super weird to talk about, even with the person you have sex with all the time.”
In putting pen to paper, the Piersons joined the increasing number of married couples
“Contracts work by establishing expectations,” says psychologist and relationship expert Lisa Vallejos. “If one person wants sex daily and the other is a weekly person, that will create problems. Contracts help avoid those issues.”
According to Vallejos, there are certain things that a sex contract should cover. How often sex should happen is a big one. Who needs to initiate things is another. Fantasies, hygiene rituals, limits, and interests in exploration should all be addressed as well. And, of course, it’s important to carve out some space for circumstances in which sex won’t take place, too.
“Negotiating clear contracts in relationships is the best way to avoid misunderstanding,” says Vallejos.
But not everyone shares her enthusiasm.
“Sex contracts make me nervous,” says Jenn Kennedy, a marriage and family therapist base in Santa Barbara, California. “I feel like couples hear ‘contract’ and think ‘obligation.’”
Kennedy argues that it’s best to leave the legal language for something a little more palatable. She suggests a “commitment to closeness” instead. That way, couples can address other important elements of intimacy, apart from sex. Scheduled breakfasts in bed may not necessarily belong in a sex contract, but they can certainly help keep romance alive.
Others believe the fault lies not in the wording, but the concept itself. “While scheduling sex can be fun, a ‘contract’ about how much sex should be had is problematic and doomed to fail,” says Dr. Lexx Brown-James, founder of The Institute for Sexuality and Intimacy. “There are so many things that get in the way of intimacy and sexual connection, that a set expectation can make sex rigid and obligatory,” she says. “Obligatory sex builds resentment, and kills the passion, pleasure, and connection.” She recommends couples stay away from the paper and stick to conversation instead.
That said, there is one easy way to avoid any resentment the idea of a contractual obligation may spark, and it revolves around the ability to renegotiate. According to the Piersons, couples should know they can always redraft the document should the situation not pan out as planned. “If you fall short it’s not a biggie,” they explain. “If the contract isn’t working out, then have a chat, go back and amend it.”
As time goes by, couples may find it necessary to return to the drawing board more often than not. Pierson makes it clear that doing so is not only perfectly okay, but indicative of healthy communication.
Still, while contracts may help in the way of making sex and intimacy a priority, they can’t fix a genuinely broken relationship. One anonymous signer Fatherly spoke with says he and his partner tried scheduling sex twice a week. When asked if that agreement helped improve things on the intimacy front, he responded with three short words: “It didn’t work.”
Most people won’t sign sex contracts. But those who do see value in doing so will, by definition, have to talk about what they want and what their partners want in order to move forward. Before you can sign a contract you have to talk about what goes into the contract. And that’s significant, specifically in a culture where prudishness and access to sex outside of relationships paradoxically coexist.
There’s also this: Before the talk can take place, partners need to consider what it is that they want. Not everyone knows. It’s a question that often goes unasked.