Last month, my husband and I went to see my gynecologist. We’d been trying to conceive for six months, but since I had recently turned 36, I was antsy and wanted to make sure nothing was wrong. My doctor asked a bunch of questions like how often we were intimate and whether I was checking my basal temperature, then suggested that we track my cycle so we could have sex when I was ovulating. “I know scheduling sex can be kind of a buzzkill,” she said, “but it’s worth trying before ordering a bunch of expensive fertility tests.”
She looked so sorry, like she was suggesting something everyone hates. But I loved the idea of having an especially sexually active week with my partner when the time was right. And, anyway, planning sex was something my husband and I already did — just not formally. It was more like one of us would roll over, too sleepy to proposition the other, and say, “Hey, should we bone tomorrow?” It’s not the picture of passion, but it works for us. This way, we know we’ll stop reading before we’re nodding off over our Kindles, and we don’t have to fret over who’s going to initiate or how long we’ll go between sexual encounters.
Still, it wasn’t something I was open about at first. I felt like people might judge me and my husband, pity our “sad” sex life, or assume that, because he doesn’t pounce on me at all hours of the day, he must not be attracted to me (likely my fault, for “letting myself go”). It wasn’t until I told my best friend about the doctor visit that I began to understand that those negative instincts weren’t actually my own thoughts, but rather common social perceptions that I’d internalized. When I told her I was going to have to schedule sex, my friend looked sympathetic, just as I’d expected — her expression was almost exactly the same as the doctor’s had been. But when I added that we already casually plan intimacy anyway and that I like it that way, her expression relaxed into one of agreement.
I started telling other people too, and saw their faces shift out of pity and into relief every time I expressed my preference for planning intimacy. I began to wonder how common this “secret” was. Maybe I wasn’t the only person who actually liked communicating about sex ahead of time. So I sought out more people who felt the same, and it turned out that many of us are scheduling sex — we’re just not talking about it.
If movies, TV shows, and pop songs are to be believed, sex is supposed to be spontaneous; a couple’s attraction for one another should be so undeniable that they can’t even make it to a bedroom before ravaging one another. Olivia Pope and Fitz have sex in the Oval Office on Scandal. Rose’s hand famously streaks through the fog on the window of the car she and Jack have broken into in Titanic. And sure, some real-life sex is spur of the moment — but the implication is that any sexual encounter that’s not rooted in insatiability must therefore be forced or clinical. What I’ve experienced, and what the people I spoke with described, however, has the opposite effect: Planning intimacy makes it a priority and allows couples to find space for more excitement, not less.
Veronica Kirin, entrepreneur coach, public speaker, and author of the forthcoming book Stories of Covid, began scheduling intimacy with her partner during the pandemic. “We were always home at the same time, but our energy had been spent on other things throughout the day,” she said. “There were always things that were in the way, whether it was actual events or just an energy drain.”
Kirin initially resisted the idea of scheduling sex because it didn’t meet her expectations of romance, which she associated with spontaneity. “I live such a highly scheduled life,” she said, “so I didn’t want my personal life scheduled. It felt like another checkbox in my life so full of checkboxes.” Kirin’s partner, though, felt that scheduling something denoted its importance in his life, and after discussing the idea with him further, she came around. “I shifted my mindset,” she said. “This is a partnership, and we are a team. Why wouldn't we approach this in the same way?”
The pair set aside a default day for intimacy every week on their Google Calendar, and it’s been going so well that Kirin says she only wishes she’d discovered the benefits sooner. “There’s a sense of peace now that I know we’re going to connect,” she said. “I know that my partner doesn’t feel lonely or forgotten, and I don’t feel lonely or forgotten.”
Far from the common perception that couples only schedule sex if they’re on the brink of separation, many sex experts recommend it as a way to ease anxiety and make space for each other in our increasingly busy, exhausting lives. Dr. Kelly Casperson, urologist and founder of the sexuality podcast You Are Not Broken, likens it to exercise. “Exercise is actually always available to you; you can spontaneously exercise whenever you want to, but we don’t,” she said. “So if we want exercise to be an important part of our life, we’re going to set aside time for it.”
She added that scheduling sex isn’t a new concept — it’s just something we didn’t realize we were already doing, especially at the beginning of relationships. “We weren’t going to see this person until Friday night, so that was the night that maybe sex was going to happen,” she said.
For Jenny True, author of You Look Tired: An Excruciatingly Honest Guide to New Parenthood, sex fell to the bottom of the priorities list when she got pregnant just six months into her relationship. True really enjoys sex, she said; before her current relationship, she had a lot of it. When life kept getting in the way with her current partner, she realized just how much of her identity had been bound up in her sex life, and how important it was that she and her partner prioritize it more.
About a year after their son was born, True suggested scheduling one day a week for sex, but her anxiety actually increased during the lead-up to their date. What worked for them was a more casual arrangement. “The planning is more short term,” she said. “So it’ll be like, OK, both the kids are out of the house today. Should we have sex? And we’ll have sex that day.”
Dustin Shepler, a psychologist, an American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists–certified sex therapist, and faculty member at the Michigan School of Psychology, said his clients often react to the idea of sex scheduling with hesitation. “They’ll look at each other: Are we to the point that this is what our life looks like? Does this mean my partner isn't interested in me anymore? They worry that scheduling sex means their partner will feel obligated to have sex with them, that there’s no desire anymore.”
But Shepler noted that this shows a lack of understanding about the nature of desire. It can be spontaneously generated, meaning a person can become turned on and then seek out intimacy — the out-of-the-blue horniness we always see in media — but it is more often responsive, meaning a person can become aroused in response to a situation or the initiation of touch. Casperson said that responsive desire is significantly more common than the spontaneous kind, and that waiting for desire to strike isn’t always necessary. “It’s a myth that you have to be ‘in the mood’ to enjoy sex,” she said. “While you should never have sex when you don’t want to, for many people, especially women, desire comes while doing.” Shepler added that “for folks who schedule sex, [an] understanding of how they become ‘turned on’ is important. There is a component of knowing that if my partner and I start kissing and caressing each other, we can both become interested in sex.”
Scheduling can be great for couples where there’s a sex drive discrepancy, as in the marriage of one woman I spoke with (who requested that her name be withheld for privacy). Her husband requested that they have sex three times a week, and what works for them is to nominate one day a week together, then each of them initiates sex one other night per week. This takes the burden of constantly having to initiate off the partner with the higher sex drive while also easing the feeling of pressure on the partner with the lower sex drive.
Shepler has seen firsthand how scheduling can help reduce anxiety around sex. “If there’s a desire discrepancy, it helps increase communication about differing expectations and how they plan to approach them,” he said. He added that, on days when sex isn’t on the menu, people with lower sex drives may be more present in the relationship because they’re not worried about any physical touch leading to a proposition they might have to turn down: “Folks who might otherwise withdraw from cuddling or hugging or just sitting close to each other on the couch might feel more comfortable expressing intimacy in those ways, knowing that it’s not going to necessarily lead into sex.”
It’s not only heterosexual relationships where differences in sex drive arise, nor is it always men who want more sex. Sex and relationship coach Sylvie Bee of Sex and Sensibility said, “I see this sexual discrepancy with my lesbian couples, and I also have several female clients with a higher sex drive than their male partners — nonbinary partners face this issue too.” Bee noted that when a man does push for more sex with a woman, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has a naturally higher sex drive than she does. “Women have more of a load on their shoulders: work, kids, the burden of having to plan all social activities,” she said. “More seems to be expected of women in our modern society, so women are understandably tired and stressed. And tiredness and stress are arousal killers.”
Shepler has recommended scheduling for couples who are in a long-distance relationship or adapting to parenthood, as well as in situations where someone needs to work through anxiety or trauma. Sometimes one person needs time to prepare their body or their mind or both, and that can be a good reason to make a plan.
He’s also seen scheduling work for couples who want to experiment with a new sexual interest. That’s exactly how Reba Thomas, sex educator and CEO of Sexpert Consultants LLC, and her husband came to scheduling. In addition to being extremely busy professionals with young children, Thomas said, “We were also really interested in learning about BDSM and practicing it ourselves and diving into ‘what does that look like for us?’” It was a way to make sure they took the practice seriously. “BDSM is not just like all of a sudden waking up one day and knowing exactly how to tie a rope or whatever,” she said. “We had to make time to learn how to do things.”
Scheduling intimacy can look different for everyone. For example, sex doesn’t even have to explicitly be on the table. In Kirin’s case, it’s intimacy and connection that matter most — the dedicated time for one another. If one or both of them aren’t feeling it on the designated day, she said, “We might have a movie day and build a fort, or go to the park and have a picnic. It's still about our relationship, but it may not be as physical as the time slot on Google Calendar says it should be.”
For some of the people I spoke with, physicality was important, but for most how they use the time is fairly flexible. For example, Thomas and her partner have what she calls “office hours,” a chance for them to focus on each other and spend quality time together away from work and kids and the other parts of life that so often crowd out nurturing our romantic relationships. That may or may not include sex.
Andrew Thomas Roth, a relationship coach who schedules what he referred to as “an oasis” of time to connect with his partner, told me: “When you plan something like sex, it can seem artificial...the way around that [for us] was not to actually schedule sex but to schedule the opportunity for sex,” which he called “planned spontaneity.” They build in enough time to go beyond just the physical part. “I really need to have that connection. I don’t want to be the next item on the agenda or to-do list.”
Both Shepler and Casperson said that flexibility helps people avoid feeling “forced” to engage in sex simply because it’s been planned. As Casperson said, “the heterosexual definition of sex is so limited that [some consider it] a failure every time completed penetrative intercourse doesn’t happen. But everything can create intimacy — holding hands and listening to each other can be foreplay too. You can’t fail at this.” Roth said enthusiastic consent is a must: “I don't like having a reluctant partner in any way whatsoever. If it’s not a hell yes, then let’s revisit it when we’re both fully engaged.”
Shepler’s advice to couples who are thinking about scheduling intimacy is to lower their expectations. “The first time is going to be awkward: We’ve never done this before, and it’s weird, but we’re going to show up. Maybe that first time all we’re doing is lying together in bed, maybe no intercourse or oral sex happens — maybe we’re just lying there, but we showed up for each other.”
Most of all, recognize that scheduling is supposed to enhance the relationship you have with a partner, not conform to arbitrary ideals. Thomas noted, “I wish I had known sooner that ‘normal’ is defined by you...I just wish I had given myself the space to be flexible and to figure it out.” She added that couples should remember to prioritize “communication, connection, and compassion. These are big feelings that we’re talking about; sex is not just ‘Oh, let's get naked and have a laugh.’ There’s a lot to unpack.”
For Kirin, the initial awkwardness or discomfort has paid off immensely. “I was really concerned that scheduling sex would result in this very rote activity, but the reality is we’ve taken the baseline from potentially zero interactions per week, and we’ve raised that to one.” She plans to maintain some form of schedule for the foreseeable future.
True is less certain. “I have this idea that might be fallacious, that once the kids are older, or out of the house, we are going to fall into some sort of spontaneous routine.” But, she said, she plans to schedule vacations without the kids in the future, which, as she pointed out, could also involve planned sex. Intimacy-focused vacations are also on Thomas’s radar: “Schedules don't have to be daily or weekly — they can be quarterly and monthly too,” she said. “So quarterly now we’re taking a pleasure trip, just for us.”
Scheduling intimacy — whatever “scheduling” and “intimacy” mean to you and your partner — doesn’t have to portend doom for your relationship. On the contrary, it often signals a dedication to the health of your relationship. Just because you carve out time for intimacy doesn’t mean there’s not also a place for spur-of-the-moment horniness. Like Kirin said, the schedule is just a baseline, to make sure people get what they need. I schedule yoga and therapy, so why not sex? And much like yoga and therapy, the more time I make for sex, the more I get out of it. What’s more positive than that? ●