The Ethicist: My Wife Is Done With Sex. Can I Turn Elsewhere?

November 19, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “My Wife Is Done With Sex. Can I Turn Elsewhere?

I am in my mid-60s and have been happily married for decades. I have always been a very sexual person and consider myself healthy and normal, though at one end of the bell curve. A few years ago, my wife’s health worsened, and she declared herself no longer interested in sex of any kind. I continue to cherish her, but find the lack of sexual intimacy exceedingly difficult. I asked her permission to seek a friendly but not competitive sexual relationship elsewhere. There are many ethical issues already, but I wish to address another.

In my description on a dating site, I explained the situation in some detail, as I did not wish to mislead anyone. My profile received a great deal of rejection, vituperation, condemnation and accusation. This calumny seemed to have two roots: I was a “dirty old man”; and I was — even with permission — “cheating” and should be punished. Both of these responses struck me as themselves immoral and unfair.

My situation is not unique. However, there seems no pathway to address the ageism and biblical rigidity of a society that spends billions on youthfulness and eroticism and nothing on thought. What should I do? Name Withheld

My response: As far as I can tell, you’re describing a situation where all parties involved are consenting adults. Uninvolved people condemn, but no two people agree on everything, again as far as I can tell, so someone will condemn you no matter what you do. You seem to agree in seeing their condemnations as immoral and unfair.

What should you do? I recommend thinking and acting for yourself, not asking others to tell you what you should do, especially something so intimate as sex. If you think something is moral and fair, why are you asking a newspaper columnist what you should do?

By the way, in describing their reactions as ageist and rigid, you left out the anti-male sexism, which seemed clear to me.

The New York Times response:

Marital vows should not, in ordinary circumstances, be subject to renegotiation. But you have taken your wife’s declaration to mark a departure from ordinary circumstances. What now? Sex requires the consent of all parties involved, and real consent rules out substantial misrepresentation. So you’ll have to find a partner who’s O.K. with your situation. This, as you’ve discovered, may be difficult, given the attitudes of the women on your dating site, most of whom will want at least the prospect of a romantic relationship. (You refer to having your wife’s permission; some of your respondents may have wondered whether she really felt she had a choice. But presumably you’ve decided that her consent was in fact full-hearted and freely given.)

So you could work through the nasty comments on the dating site and see if your luck changes. Or you could find a site that caters to those in open relationships. Either way, I worry a bit. Sexual desire can addle the brain; even if your wife genuinely accepts the opening of your relationship, you don’t actually know where an affair might lead. This may be an argument for the sin of Onan, where there’s only yourself to fall in love with.


An extended family member posted very private information about me on a social media platform under the guise of honoring me. I do not value this person, whose past actions reveal the character flaws that would lead someone to do such a thing. I do, however, value the person’s family.

I am a very private person who only uses social media to observe what is happening in the lives of close friends and family. I never post anything about my private life. The shock of this invasion caused me to close my account immediately, but many people did see the post and commented on it. One person who saw the post and then the disappearance of my account contacted a close family member to inquire about it. Although this has caused me great anguish and embarrassment, I have not yet confronted the individual. My immediate family believes it demands a response, but I feel incapable of responding in an evenhanded way. Still, I want to make clear that this person crossed a line. Name Withheld

My response: Not knowing what the person revealed nor his or her motivation, it’s impossible to say. Maybe even you would think you’re overreacting after some reflection. Maybe the person did something criminal. We don’t know.

In any case, you didn’t ask any questions so I thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear you don’t seem to see a strategy to resolve things.

The New York Times response:

This is all a little indirect and abstract; you clearly find writing about this affront exquisitely painful. But the standard contemporary way of putting what I think you are talking about is to say that someone “outed” you. The word originally referred to the exposure of someone as gay or lesbian, but now people speak of the outing of any of a host of identities or circumstances that a person may have a reason to keep private.

Norms against outing are rightly strong. (There isn’t an absolute ban, but there have to be compelling reasons to out someone.) And if you want to do something to honor someone, you should reflect on whether he or she is likely to be pleased by what you’re doing. Your relation got at least two things seriously wrong, then, and you’re entitled to resent what this person has done. Letting the person know that you resent it might be better than seething in private. But if you can’t bring yourself to do so directly, you can surely ask someone in the family to make your feelings clear. (And if you return to the world of social media, you can block him or her.)

An apology is obviously in order. But the most productive role of apology is in repairing a broken relationship, and this is not what you are after. Indeed, your firm statement that you “do not value this person” invites the suspicion that your feelings may be reciprocated.


A friend forwarded me an email she received about a college classmate of ours who recently died. It turns out that this classmate ended her life because of some psychological issues relating to an unusual condition that materialized in the last two years.

The woman who wrote the email that was circulating was my classmate’s sister; she shared some conversation screenshots with time stamps that demonstrated her sister’s growing mental distress. She made it clear that she was sharing this material because she wanted to raise awareness of this condition.

I had never heard of the condition, so it was illuminating, but I feel unsettled and guilty for knowing these details, as my classmate took so much care to keep them secret while she was alive. We weren’t close, and while I was fond of her, I wouldn’t want someone whom I knew only peripherally to be privy to such private details. But considering that this information could potentially lead me to help a friend in the future, is it O.K. that it is circulating after her death? Name Withheld

My response: Well, the sister thought it was okay. You didn’t. If there were an absolute measure of okay-ness, you’d look it up and have your answer. There isn’t, so you can’t.

I recommend instead of asking for others’ judgment, which comes from people who feel differently about these issues than you in general, that you reflect more on why you feel how you do, how you might change, how your feelings and actions affect others, and such things you can sense as opposed to abstract labels like if something is okay.

The New York Times response:

A person’s interest in privacy — the topic of our previous letter — doesn’t disappear when he or she dies, though over time it diminishes. Little time has passed in this case; whatever desire this woman had for privacy carries real weight. On the other hand, the person who is circulating this information is her sister, who is motivated by the desire that others should be able to succeed in saving a life where she couldn’t. She’s turning her grief to a positive purpose. Both her motive and the importance of what she’s trying to do strike me as sufficient to justify her decision.

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