The husband had always made it painfully clear that he couldn't stand the female half of a couple he and his wife were to dine with. His wife couldn't bear the idea that her husband might be rude to the woman, who had traveled from Europe with her spouse for a visit. So the wife promised her husband a valued sexual favor at the end of the evening if he would only be pleasant to the woman he so loathed.
"He was over-the-top nice to her," recounted the 40-year-old wife, who lives in Santa Ana and asked that her name not be
used. "All night this woman kept saying to me 'I always thought he hated me, but now I feel differently.' If I really want something from him, I can get it if I promise sex."
The exchange of sex for things desired, whether it is good behavior, a new car or takeout dinner of one cuisine over another, is one of the oldest games played out between the sexes. But it is a game in which women have the upper hand--even in relationships where sex is frequent and satisfying, even when women have economic parity with their mates and even when women have their own lusty sex drives.
"Women do it all the time," said Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Women will make love to a man to appease him even when she is tired. The exchange of sex for resources is older than humanity."
"It works for me because my husband loves sex so much that I usually get what I want," said a 29-year-old Santa Monica mother of two. She said she has bartered sexual favors to get a sewing machine and a minivan.
And if she doesn't deliver, she said, her husband will say to her, only half in jest, "Hey, you got what you wanted. Where is my half of the deal?"
Sexual quid pro quo works for more mundane items, too.
"I definitely barter with sex," said a happily married woman and mother of two who works as a hotel concierge. "I will ask my husband to go the grocery store. Or I will say, 'C'mon, let's get Italian takeout' which he doesn't really like. He will say, 'No, no, no.' " But as soon as she offers a sexual favor, she said, all he wants to know is whether she wants her pizza plain or with pepperoni.
Relationship experts say that if sex can only happen in the context of bargain, then it is unhealthy. Bartering with sex can be playful, titillating and seductive, but only if the sex is not denigrating. Couples who barter with sex probably have a robust sexual bond and a good sense of humor, said Gina Ogden, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Cambridge.
"It requires easy communication between lovers," said Ogden. "They have to have a good feeling about their sex life. It doesn't matter that much about the outcome, although if she never comes through, it becomes a tease. But it is more about the excitement, anticipation, humor and sometimes the juxtaposition of a really straight-laced task next to something sexual."
Is there an amorous offer a man can make a woman to get her to, say, change the oil in his car?
"My husband wants it all the time," said the Santa Monica wife. "So I don't have to do anything for a sexual favor."
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.