Don’t Read While You’re Having Sex

Otherwise it won’t be good sex.

When you stop to think about it—as I do from time to time—there are all kinds of unspoken rules that govern the way we conduct ourselves. I don’t mean just good manners—who opens the door or who holds the chair for someone else, or how one dresses at a formal party or a job interview. I mean how should one act while walking down the street, or in a work meeting, or when picking up a child from school? Everyone is expected to behave within certain parameters, although those limits are not written down anywhere. For instance, someone wanting to pay for groceries is supposed to get on the end of the line. A husband who gets up in the middle of the night is not supposed to turn on all the lights and make a lot of noise, waking his wife. Adults are not supposed to scratch their behinds in public. Anyone who violates these unwritten rules will upset the people around that person.

There are all sorts of unwritten rules that govern every aspect of social behavior. Take eating. I could just as well take how we sit on the subway, or how we should act when meeting someone new, or the proper way to behave while taking a communal shower after participating in a sports event. But, take eating. No one has written down anywhere that you shouldn’t drool on the table or throw the food you don’t like on the floor, or eat your soup with your fingers; but if you were to do any of those things, the other people at the table would react negatively.

Similarly, there are unwritten rules about sex.

When I first started in practice, I saw patients in the Bronx. I remember a man who lived down the block and came in one day complaining that the woman he was dating read comic books while the two of them were having sexual intercourse. He felt she wasn’t behaving properly, but wasn’t sure whether he was entitled to complain. He certainly was, I told him. One of the unspoken rules about sex is that you should not read during sex. Perhaps a very young girl might not understand that she was supposed to be paying attention during sex; but this woman was forty-two. She was too old to be reading comic books in the first place. It wasn’t exactly like she was reading War and Peace—which still would not have been excusable in my opinion. You’re supposed to pretend you are interested when you are having sex. In fact, it’s a good idea to pretend to be enthusiastic, but that’s asking too much from some people.

Another man told me his wife did not agree to sex very often so he snuck up on her usually when she was asleep. Sometimes, he told me, he thought she woke up during the act, but he wasn’t sure. I told him that having sex with someone who is asleep or unconscious is only one step away from necrophilia, which means having sex with a dead person—which, I guess, some people do, otherwise there wouldn’t be a name for it. In fact, there are laws against necrophilia. Necrophilia must be very uncommon; but some states do not like to take any chances.  This patient and I then entered into a discussion about whether his relationship with his wife was more satisfactory when he had sex with her asleep or when they did not have sex at all, which seemed to him a real possibility. I try not to take a stand on some of these complicated issues which might be construed in ethical terms. In other words, do the unspoken, unwritten rules of marital sex imply a certain minimum sexual interaction? I don’t know. (See my blog post “Sex: How Much is Just Right? Part 1 and 2”)

I am sure there is an unspoken rule against having sex with someone who is asleep or dead drunk, as opposed to the explicit objections some people have against masturbating, or wearing a condom, or having sex with someone not your spouse, or, for that matter, thinking dirty thoughts. These ideas, some of which are religious in origin, have not caught on.

While I still had my office in the Bronx, I saw another young man who was psychotic and who was sent to me initially because he kept standing up in class and opening the window, then closing it, then opening it again. Then standing up and closing it again. His professor, who happened to teach philosophy, could not find it in his heart to treat this matter philosophically; and my patient was expelled. He was strange in many ways, which I don’t have to go into now. (I wrote about him, much disguised, as usual, in “Come One, Come All.”) He was so out of step, however, with the usual unwritten rules about how to behave socially that he was unable to get a woman to date him, or stand next to him, for that matter. Being innocent, he still thought that women had penises. (He really knew they did not, he explained to me, but he did not believe it was truly possible to live without a penis.) Also, he could not masturbate unless he was smoking one of his mother’s cigarettes. This would have been a bonanza if I was still committed to Freud and to psychoanalysis, but I was not. I tried to explain to him what exactly was expected of him when he interacted with girls, and a number of years later, unbelievably, he had a steady girlfriend. And a steady job working in the post office.

Thinking back on those days, I realize that since I moved my office to Westchester, I no longer hear outré stories about sex. As part of a psychiatric history, I always ask if someone has had sexual problems, and sometimes the patients look at me strangely and say “What do you mean?” So, I explain about reaching orgasms or being unresponsive or losing an erection, or something similar. They usually deny having any problems, even when they tell me subsequently that they have not had sex in years.

Is it possible that the men and women in suburbia have a more subdued sexual life than those who live in the Bronx? I doubt it. Another explanation occurs to me. It may not be that the people are different from one place to another—or even from one time to another—it may be that I am different. Maybe I am not hearing these stories anymore because of my age. I am now much older than I was when I practiced in the Bronx. In fact, I am old. I am not gray at all; but, I hate to admit it, I am perceptibly old. I think it is possible that patients think of me as wise, but somewhat unworldly, sort of like a village elder. I think they may hesitate to tell me stories they think might upset me. I try to present myself as sophisticated, but they may see me as a parental figure. And, if you were brought up properly, you don’t talk about sex with your parents. (c) Fredric Neuman Author of “Detroit Tom and His Gang.” Follow Dr. Neuman’s blog at or ask advice at