Random header image... Refresh for more!

Sex, Infertility, and Where to Shove the 40 Beads

Last week, The Today Show featured a new book called Forty Beads: The Simple, Sexy Secret for Transforming Your Marriage.  It’s the sex book of the moment.

The backstory is that this couple had gotten to a terrible place in their marriage, and the woman’s SIL gave her the advice that they should have sex daily. (I’m really hoping that the SIL is her brother’s wife and not her husband’s sister.  Because nothing says creepy like a woman who eagerly tells her SIL, “please screw my brother nightly!”)

She tried it and it worked.  Time passed again and their marriage unraveled again.  Now it was a few days before her husband’s 40th birthday.  She remembered — according to The Today Show — that her parents also enjoyed a nightly porking session:

Every year, at least for as long as I’ve been aware of it, my mom has given my dad an entire month of sex for his birthday. I hadn’t really given their steamy Septembers much thought until then.

Do you know this much about your parent’s sex life?  No?  Me neither.

So for her husband’s 40th birthday, she promised him 40 nights of sex.  At first, the nights were supposed to be consecutive, but in the end, the idea Carolyn Evans proposes (and what you need to do to become a Beader) is to give her husband a jar of 40 beads.  When he wants sex, he drops one in her bead catcher, a bowl she keeps by the side of the bed.

The reason I find this book so incredibly disturbing is not because it takes the act of sex — which can range from a spontaneous satiation of the intense feelings you have for another person to the obligatory romp that occurs around ovulation — and reduces it to a chore to be demanded by one person in the partnership.

I find this book disturbing because the point of the book is to use sex to fix a marriage.

That’s not only a lot of pressure to put on an act, but it takes the focus away from the actual problem and places it on this physical act that should be one of the tangential arms to a marriage, not the sole body of a marriage.

It’s like saying that my weight problem has nothing to do with the fact that I eat out of anxiety or sadness and instead I should focus on sitting down while eating my meals and that would solve! my! problem!

I obviously think I should focus on why the fuck I turn to food when I’m anxious or sad rather than something else.  I think I should focus on why I’m anxious or sad.

By making sex the “body” of the marriage, by giving it that amount of power, you relegate other parts of marriage that need to be in balance to the outer limbs.

Whereas all of those items on the limbs should actually be in the body and sex should become an extension of having a strong core.  Just one of the fun things a couple does together along with whatever else floats your boat.  If not, sex becomes the end-all-and-be-all, the judge of the strength of the marriage, and when that happens — and if your sex life isn’t perfect — it throws all those other, more important things out of whack when they may have been fine if you had a different way of viewing your partnership.  In other words, making sex the focus has more potential to break things than fix things.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think a sex life is important.  I’m a big fan of sex — perhaps Josh should be giving me the jar if we did this instead of keeping to Evan’s heterosexual caricature of sexual desires.  I enjoy sex frequently.

But I think anyone infertile knows that sex takes on a very different meaning if you entered into your relationship believing you’d be able to use sex to procreate (and I’m sure that someone will inform me that it’s also true for those who go into family building with known problems, but I only know based on my experience).

Sex becomes this physical act that stands as the gatekeeper for what you can’t do — make a child.  It becomes this act that you need to do regardless of how you’re feeling in the moment when you’re ovulating, which makes sex as appealing as Brussels sprouts.  It can be a huge relief not to need to have sex anymore if you’re doing treatments.  It can be a reminder of loss — it’s the act that brought you to your  emotional pain.  It’s frustrating.  It’s painful.  It’s saddening.  I have yet to meet an infertile couple who said, “I am so thrilled we’re infertile because it means we get to have lots of sex” despite what dumb-asses think is one of the benefits of being unable to procreate.

Unlike other marital problems, sex is at the core of infertility.  And I don’t think bringing back a desire to have sex is as simple as placing a bead in a bowl.

I think you do need to at some point come back to a place of wanting to be physical, though that physicality shouldn’t be this one-sided, small-minded idea that a physical relationship = missionary-position, woman-submitting sex (you have hands, you have a mouth, you have an imagination — use them!).  But it takes time to get there and there aren’t shortcuts.  Rebuilding a sex life that has taken a hit due to infertility is more of a math equation than a self-help book:

time + commitment on both people’s parts to address the issue + leniency and understanding when the other person isn’t working on your time line = better sex life.

I think you need to come at it with the understanding that it takes time — and some “times” are more right than others.  I think it takes a commitment and flexibility on the part of both people to say they are willing to do what the other person needs them to do within reason.  And when that doesn’t mesh because the needs are in direct opposition, to take that third part of the equation.  Leniency.  Not taking your frustrations out on the person.  That leniency has to flow in two directions; and both people need to feel safe that they can express themselves.  They can push themselves without having the other person push them.

The way I mentally approach the idea of sex in a marriage is that the action is not a given.  There are plenty of life situations (including old age) where sex might not be possible.  Not where it’s being withheld as a weapon, but where it is simply impossible for physical or emotional reasons.  And is it possible to still have a happy, healthy marriage sans sex — yes, I believe it is.  Therefore, it’s a limb; it’s not the body of the marriage.  Is it possible to have a happy, healthy marriage sans understanding or support — no, I don’t believe you can have that.  Do you see the skewed focus of the 40 beads?

For a book to place it in that position of importance is to create more pressure, creating more problems.

So that’s how I feel about the concept of the 40 beads.  If you’re using the book as a sex game because sex games rocks your boat, let it rock your boat.  But to use it to fix a marriage is no better than having a child or buying a house or starting a new business venture to fix what is broken in the marriage.  Those things are all gimmicks.  To fix a marriage, you need to get to the heart.  Which is located in the body.

As I was writing this, I went outside to see two squirrels fucking under my car only to chase them away and have them return for a three-way.  Sex seems to be on everyone’s mind.  So if you’ll excuse me… cough.


1 a { 06.05.11 at 11:36 am }

Wow. Typical of today’s society – trying to treat a symptom instead of curing the disease. Lots of people have plenty of sex even when there are problems. I suspect that when the sex stops (for reasons other than physical), it’s probably because the other issues have overshadowed everything else.

2 Marissa { 06.05.11 at 2:00 pm }

So should I put a bead in a bowl every time I need my husband to jerk off into a cup?

Sex is confusing during infertility. Moving onto IVF and no more timed-intercourse was absolutely wonderful…except it still came with some restrictions (no ejaculating for 3 days before “giving a sample”, “pelvic rest” following OHSS, etc).

The first time we had sex following my miscarriage, I cried. Why? Our baby didn’t even *come* from sex. But the association with sex=new life was there nonetheless.

I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. I guess that, in my marriage, sex is more than physical. (Except for when we were doing TI.) It’s emotional. And I can’t imagine giving it “as a gift”, because that seems to imply that it’s something I’m sacrificing, something I don’t want, that I’m “doing it for him”.

And that wouldn’t fix a marriage.

Although, frankly, if I got 40 beads worth of “I’ll do the dishes without even being asked”, that might help. 😉

Maybe the author thinks sex is a chore? Whatever. Maybe we should buy her some anal beads.

3 Theresa Erickson { 06.05.11 at 2:19 pm }

Awesome commentary as always, Melissa! Agree on all points.

4 Justine { 06.05.11 at 2:33 pm }

I don’t like the one-sided initiation of sexual contact … to me, that would actually destroy a marriage, not save it. Because what if he wants to and she doesn’t? Should she just lie back and think of England?

That’s not even taking into consideration the additional complication of sex in the context of a marriage where the couple is dealing with infertility … which you’ve commented on beautifully here.

Thanks for this post, Mel.

5 Miriam { 06.05.11 at 5:48 pm }

Posting under my pseudonym to keep the search engines from crawling. Sex has REALLY changed for me post-IF. I dont know that I’ve really shared that fact with my husband, but it just feels so disappointing afterward; it’s not for a lack of skill or enjoyment, but it has become such an emotional disappointment. There will NEVER be an oops baby. I was a total horndog in HS, college, moving in/livin’ in sin and our first year of marriage. But w/even the hormonal changes as a result of POF, something just changed for me. Would I like to bone my husband with a little more regularity? Sure! But I/d also like to disassociate the act with such a sense of (procreative) failure.

6 L. { 06.05.11 at 6:22 pm }

Just as the book’s advice is not for everyone, I think you offer up a lot of “shoulds” about marriage that are not right for everyone. Sex can be the engine for a marriage. It is no more “impossible” than any of the other things listed that can be elusive to couples despite loving each other. I could go on – but I find it as offensive to my relationship when people want to tell me that what I know is the glue, what I know is special about our relationship, should be tangential.

7 JuliaS { 06.05.11 at 6:27 pm }

Love this post Mel! Thank you! I remember my first visit with a “specialist” I was referred to who after disinterestedly listening to my history and giving me the most invasive and humiliating exam I’ve ever had, told me (despite having my 2″ thick medical file which clearly documented each and every pg/miscarriage and hand delivered by me to him) “I don’t think you’ve had as many miscarriages as you think you’ve had” (I was on the 5th one at this point) “Why don’t you take the summer off, have all the sex you want and then come back and see me then and we’ll see about getting your pregnant.” He said this as if he were giving me some sort of gift. I cried the entire 2 hour ride home from his office.

Having loads of sex didn’t solve my fertility/RPL issues anymore than it fixes my marriage issues. I really don’t have complaints about the sex in my relationship – the other aspects, hmmmm, different blog.

Once I had my hysterectomy – sex became so much better. As Miriam stated – that act sometimes gets entangled in that sense of “procreative failure”. Once it was no longer an option, sex wasn’t so much a means to an end or a fruitless endeavor – it was just for the hell of it and so much more freaking awesome without all those “strings” attached. I could relax, I wasn’t pumped full of hormones and hurting and emotional. I wasn’t thinking “will this be it? Will this end up a baby? Will this baby make it?” It dramatically reduced a significant number of “what if’s” In the end though, it’s not going to be what saves my marriage. Lack of sex, or rotten sex didn’t cause our issues either. I believe though, that IF and my RPL have played their role in that we both had to cope with these events, which we didn’t do well or well together at times.

I haven’t read the book, however, I did want to point out something that I didn’t see mentioned – there is a difference between just having sex and making love. During my IF days – we just had sex – sex as a means to an end: Make a baby

Now I want love: Feel connected and that is going to require more than just the physical act.

8 Mel { 06.05.11 at 7:46 pm }


I think it could go wither way. When you’re placing a bead in a dish, you could turn that into making love. Or, you could see the bead in the dish and have it become just another chore that needs to be accomplished before bed. Personally, if Josh left a bead in a dish, he’d get as good as he gave — meaning, if you demand sex passively like that, you’ll get a completely disengaged Mel. Give me foreplay. Read MY mood and see if it seems like I’m in the mood for sex, etc.

9 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.05.11 at 7:56 pm }

Thank you. I saw that clip and was very disturbed. I’m so relieved you tackled it. I couldn’t.

10 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 06.05.11 at 9:34 pm }

Knowing about your parents’ annual sex month is way creepier than a woman telling you to bang her brother repeatedly.

Also, what if there’s a bead in the bowl but she really doesn’t want to? Coerced sex doesn’t sound like a recipe for strengthening a marriage.

11 Kristin { 06.05.11 at 11:52 pm }

Brilliant commentary Mel…and, I agree with Baby Smiling…”Knowing about your parents’ annual sex month is way creepier than a woman telling you to bang her brother repeatedly.”

12 Annie { 06.05.11 at 11:56 pm }

Great post! Well-reasoned as always and also hilarious. I find that what little I know about my parents’ sex life is deeply disturbing. I was thinking earlier this week about what my husband and I have written on my blog about sex. Hubby’s post on jacking off for IVF was HILARIOUS, but what will our kids think should they ever come across it?! Do you ever wonder what your kids will think about your blog, which certainly covers some “cough” sensitive topics?

I want to print my whole blog in book form for myself once it’s done, and I want my kids to someday know the story but I think it will have to be heavily edited!

13 mash { 06.06.11 at 4:06 am }

I haven’t seen the clip, but I’ve heard of the concept. OK. So my sex life wasn’t great with my DH before the infertility either. And we tried all those solutions, talking about it, therapy, etc. Because that’s how women solve things right? So that’s what I tried to do. Get to the bottom of something, in the hope that there would be some kind of lightbulb intellectual moment that would make me feel sexy and want sex. It didn’t happen. What happened eventually, was that I realised sex is more important to my DH than it is to me. WAY more important. And he really has tried to come to the table with all my emotional demands, and all the things that are important to me, so I decided to make a little personal commitment to myself to “submit” a little more often (as unliberated as that sounds). And whaddya know. You cannot wipe the smile off DH’s face. I get these excited, happy, upbeat phonecalls during the day, and I have to remind myself why he’s so happy – did we have a great conversation, no…. OH YES! We had sex (honestly, that’s how little I care for it, I don’t even remember having it). So I’ve decided that this is a gift that I’m giving him, something he enjoys, and that means so much to him. Because in a myriad of other ways, he tries to make me happy too. And there’s been a gift for me in it too, I’ve started to enjoy it a little more myself. It’s unlikely that it’s going to become the centre focus of my life in any way, but I’m really not seeing it as a chore at all!

14 Dev { 06.06.11 at 8:15 am }

Yes. Yes. Exactly! I read this post nodding my head the entire time.

15 geochick { 06.06.11 at 9:46 am }

Thanks! I couldn’t agree more with your commentary. Sex has been confusing for me for a long time beginning with vulv.odynia and culminating in an infertility diagnosis. No fucking way could my DH and I have a solid relationship if we thought it was the end all be all…

16 Alexis { 06.06.11 at 4:46 pm }

IF nearly ruined our sex life. The decision to move on to IUI was a relief, because it was going to separate sex from having a baby. Once we made that decision, we could actually enjoy the process again. Timed intercourse was the worst thing we ever did, maritally speaking.

17 Alexicographer { 06.07.11 at 1:57 pm }

We did come to infertility knowingly (old vasectomy/failed reversal) and honestly, I think it’s been comparatively wonderful. Not that there’s a pain olympics, and don’t get me wrong; there have been plenty of disappointments and surprises (I had knowingly signed up for the MF, not so much my subsequent high FSH dx nor the implications of combining those 2), but the fact that his MF meant that (a) sex and procreation are totally unrelated and (b) if we didn’t have tx this month, it doesn’t matter *how* late AF is or *what* symptoms I’m having — I’m not pregnant have been weirdly great (as well as annoying as all get out at times, don’t get me wrong).

And yeah, the beads idea doesn’t really work for me, unless it’s part of a game. At a minimum, I want my own bowl of beads, too.

Oh, and also, what Baby in the Back Seat said about relative creepiness.

18 IF { 06.08.11 at 1:05 am }

no one knows what goes on in a relationship apart from the people that are IN that relationship and it goes without saying that what works for one couple probably won’t work for another and vice versa.

so yes while you [and many others] may find the idea of the bead theory horribly and a tad creepy if it works for them, then so be it.

i believe that it’s become way too common to judge others and their relationships and what goes on in them – since when was it any of our business? perhaps it’s time to stop judging others and what goes on in their relationship and focus on our own?

19 Dr Spouse { 06.08.11 at 3:15 pm }

Two thoughts:
Having sex when you are slightly lower on the “wow, I really want to” scale does tend to raise you up the scale. But there is probably a lower limit.

Someone once told me something rather cheesy but with an element of truth: sex is a good roof for a marriage but a bad foundation.

20 Barb { 06.21.11 at 11:53 am }

If we forced it, it would suck. But there are times when if you just get in there and do it, it becomes fun. But you’re right… not a good fix all.

21 Michelle { 12.18.11 at 3:11 pm }

I think you should read the book before bashing it. I have read it and she does not mention it as a cure for a marriage damaged by infertility. That sounds like an issue for a therapist. She IS very clear that if you already love your husband and want to stay with him but are having a hard time getting in enough sex this “might” be for you. The women can initate sex with the beading method, so that person should also read the book. Like you said it is a sex game – it may help you keep it in the forefront of the marriage instead of on the back burner with all the busy things in like. If you are going to get on the internet in rant you may want to know what you are talking about, just saying….

22 Jme { 01.17.12 at 4:19 am }

Great writing. I like the Brussels sprouts comment- a much needed giggle after finishing an ovulation week that I’ve come to simultaneously dread and look forward to each month.

23 Rob { 12.21.12 at 11:45 am }

no one said sex fixes everything but for a lot of couples, sex is the only problem. thanks to feminists. have a nice day.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
The contents of this website are protected by applicable copyright laws. All rights are reserved by the author