The new season of House of Cards is live this week and Claire and Frank Underwood have to be one of the most fascinating on-screen relationships when it comes to the portrayal of their individual sexual personas and their sex life as a couple.
Claire is an attractive, confident, sexually liberated woman, but despite their (mostly) solid relationship, experiences both subtle and overt rejection from Frank when asking for what she needs in relation to sex.
There are subtle clues demonstrated by the separate bedrooms, buttoned up pyjamas and awkward almost-sexual interactions, as well as the overt indications, such as her rejection from Frank regarding her desire for rough sex in one episode of season three. Claire and Frank show high levels of emotional and physical intimacy, but Frank’s interest in sex has declined over time, in many ways correlated with the more power that he’s attained professionally. In an early episode, he iterates Oscar Wilde’s statement that…
Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.
Is this one of the reasons he prefers to get his sexual pleasure outside his relationship with Claire? Franks sexual conquests are frequently with those much less powerful than him, those he can dominate (Zoe, young journalist, Edward Meechum, his security guard). It’s interesting to note that the more power they gain as a couple and individually the less sex they have in their relationship together.
What’s most impressive about the story of Claire and Frank’s sexual relationship for a mainstream TV show is the portrayal of a healthy, strong, non-monogamous relationship. Claire and Frank have a high functioning negotiated open/polyamorous relationship in the form of threesomes together and sex outside of the relationship allowing them both to get their sexual needs met by others, in a way that is not seen to detract from the strength of their marriage.
As a Clinical Psychologist working with sex, I’m fascinated by the impact that this storyline might have on our tendency to hold monogamy in a higher esteem than other relationship set ups.
Too often, open or polyamorous relationships get a bad press, and too often we are monogamous not as it’s best for us, our partners or our sex lives, just because it’s the default in our society.
In a modern western world where 50% of marriages end in divorce and 60% of men and 45% of women in ‘monogamous’ relationship have non- negotiated sex outside it in the form of infidelity, perhaps we should rethink whether our needs relating to emotional intimacy and sex can, and have to, be met by one person, for our whole lifetime?
Perhaps we should also consider whether a large majority of us are having polyamorous relationships anyway, just without the open communication?
One of the most moving and tender scene demonstrating the intimacy and unwavering commitment to their future together came from Frank, in response to Claire’s ongoing and intensifying sexual relationship with their speechwriter…
He should stay on, because he can give you things that I can’t. Look, Claire, we’ve been a great team. But one person—one person cannot give everything to another person. I can’t travel with you. I don’t keep you warm at night. I don’t see you the way he sees you. It’s not my permission to give, but you’ll do what’s right for you. But I want you to know, if you wanted, I know you’ll be careful. And I’ll be fine. I mean, if we’re gonna go beyond marriage, let’s go beyond it.