Don’t Use Sex As A Weapon
In Judaism, there are rules for sex to protect it and its role in your relationship. The renowned torah commentator Maimonides explains that a man may not have sex with his wife if she is afraid, while he is drunk, or out of spite.
So what are the rules when it comes to not having sex in marriage?
It is natural to not want to have sex with your partner sometimes. Sex acts as a bridge between you and your partner and when you feel distant, the inclination is to pull back physically. Again, that’s only natural. Also, a marriage does not mean that sex is always on the table and if a person does not feel like engaging sexually, that must be respected- no moping!
Sex facilitates closeness. The act is intrinsically connecting, linking not just two bodies, but their minds too. so when the mind is wounded, needs space, or simply doesn’t feel like it- sex can’t do its job to the utmost. Judaism understands this. What judaism does not permit is using sex as a weapon. Using the act to cause someone else pain or manipulate them.
In the Talmud, the withholder is called a “rebellious spouse” and being married to one is grounds for divorce. So if a couple is married and one is denying sex from the other, the marriage can be dissolved. The rabbis get into some back and forth about what constitutes these rebels and decided that it is someone who purposefully denies sex from their partner with no intention of getting a divorce. Rabbi Amemar said: One who says, “I want him but wish to cause him anguish.”
Now remember there are nuances here. There’s a difference between going on a sex strike during a rut in the marriage and expecting a certain level of behavior that earns sexual access and closeness. In that case, they are refraining from sex in order to a become closer. But the Talmud says that what crosses the line is when one partner withholds sex in order to torment their partner and cause them distress, with no intention of letting them go or improving the marriage. Just to hurt them.
But sex can never be forced, G-d forbid and the punishment for denying a partner intimacy is dealt with in the marriage contract/ “Ketubah.” In the case where a wife denies sex, money is first deducted weekly from her settlement- if a husband withholds, he must pay additional funds to her. Ultimately, if this dynamic continues a divorce is granted.
In Judaism, sex encompasses two people fully, which is why it known as “knowledge”. This act of intimacy requires total surrender and vulnerability, so when the act is commoditized and becomes transactional, it rids the experience of safety. When one spouse takes such an intimate act and holds it over the other’s head, not only does it undermine the act itself but the marriage as well. The effects of holding out on intimacy purely to manipulate can often spiral out of control and start to erode at other areas of the relationship too. When the physical connection stops, it is likely that the emotional one will suffer as well. Whatever the issue, it must be dealt with And communicated- without exacting intentional pain.
This is Judaism acknowledging that marriage without sex is essentially the functional termination of the marriage. Because sex and marriage go hand in hand.