New research shows it’s the woman with the higher libido more often than we think, but that there is a way to turn down sex without harming your union.
“I’m horny” I playfully text my boyfriend.
After about a minute, a wink face emerges on my screen.
I get bolder, and send him a picture that leaves very little to the imagination.
“Wow!” his message reads. “You look amazing.”
“Then come over tonight and I’ll show you in person” I type back, smugly.
There’s no response for about 45 minutes.
Perhaps he’s taking a shower? Or eating dinner? Or maybe he got a phone call? Wait – what if he’s been abducted??!
I’m mentally running through Law & Order episodes involving kidnappings when my phone lights up.
“Sorry, can’t tonight. I’m exhausted. About to hit the hay.”
I’d like to say I react in the way most boyfriends I’ve had have reacted when this scenario has been flipped. That, while I’m disappointed, my self confidence is so rock solid I don’t even for a second question if his apathy has to do with me. That I wish him a good night’s shut-eye and tell him I’m sorry to hear he’s had a rough day at work. I’d like to say all that. I really would.
But I can’t.
Instead, my reaction is excruciatingly self-centered. I call him and immediately hurl accusations he’s no longer attracted to me (is it the couple of pounds I gained from the new birth control I switched to? Or the sweat-stained sports bra I wore to bed last night in lieu of a clean top?). I attempt to make him feel even worse than he no doubt already does by asking when the last time he had his testosterone levels checked was (yeah…I really said that), and then spiral into mostly incoherent hysterics.
The sound of his contempt bubbling over is almost audible as he hangs up the receiver.
This wasn’t a once-off. In fact, it’s happened plenty of times throughout our relationship. And it’s not because my boyfriend has a low sex drive – conversely, it’s quite healthy – it’s just that mine happens to be, well, higher.
It should be no big deal. I should know not to take it personally. And it really shouldn’t affect my self-esteem. But it does. Because, like most women, I’ve been fed the line that “Men always want sex” ever since I was old enough to know what sex was. However, the reality is, this simply isn’t true. In fact, a 2015 study published in the journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior found that, when presented with the opportunity to engage in safe, covert sex with a stranger, participants of both genders responded enthusiastically; 100 percent of men and 97 percent of women said they’d go for it.
The problem with most of the research into the male and female libido – the stuff that apparently proves men always want sex and women only do it as a favor to our partners – is it tends to neglect one key factor: Social consequences.
Whereas men suffer few negative judgements in the face of accepting or initiating sexual invitations, women tend to be labeled in a variety of derogatory ways when we engage in frequent sexual encounters. And poignantly, we have more at stake: In a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey a startling 45 percent of female respondents reported having experienced some form of sexual violence throughout their lives.
I work among a team of sexually empowered women who happily and openly write about their love lives, and I regularly hear from readers who contact us privately on some of these stories, and the response is almost always something along the lines of “I’m the one in my relationship who wants sex more. Is there something wrong with me?”
In a society where women continue to be repressed as a result of our gender – whether it be via lower pay, judgement over how we dress, or criticism for expressing our opinions – sex is just another way we’re compelled to feel shame for something that, as it turns out, is completely (and I cringe to use this word, but it’s necessary here) normal.
So let’s pause here and set a few things straight. There is no correct way to be sexual; provided you and your partner can come to some kind of agreement and neither one of you feels coerced or that they’re participating without consent, however frequently or infrequently you want to get it on is okay. Whether you’re the one who’s turning sex down more, or the one on the receiving end of the rejection, it’s important to understand that your partner’s libido does not (and really should not) define their attraction to you, and commitment to the relationship.
It took me the better part of a year to really come to terms with this idea in my own relationship. To accept that there was – still isn’t – anything wrong with me. My partner loves and accepts me exactly as I am (and if that’s not a turn on, I don’t know what is), so worrying about whether he’s noticed the extra layer of fat on my stomach or if he’s sick of looking at my naked body is folly. Instead, we now approach sex with a different attitude. Rather than simply bluntly turning me down if he’s had a long day and doesn’t have the stamina required for a late-night lovemaking session, my boyfriend is conscious of letting me know he’s still attracted to me, but that, now’s just not a good time.
And a new study backs up this approach. Published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships last month, the study attempted to discern whether there was a way to keep a relationship’s health intact in the face of dramatically varying libidos between partners. The study, which looked at 642 adults across two surveys, asked individuals identifying as having the lower sex drive in their relationship, how they handled their partner’s advances when they weren’t in the mood.
Inevitably, respondents fell into one of three groups; they engaged in “avoidance goals” (having obligatory sex for the sake of avoiding conflict or not wanting to bruise their partner’s ego), they responded with a cold, critical rejection, or they gave a warm, reassuring response. The warm, reassuring response involved reaffirming their attraction to their partner while kindly explaining they weren’t in the mood, and was found to be the most effective out of all three response types.
In relationships where a partner regularly responded by having obligatory sex to avoid conflict, couples reported overall lower relationship satisfaction levels than the partners who were honest, but validating. And no surprises, the partners who dished out cruel rejections didn’t do their relationships any favors, either.
What was interesting, was that both partners, including the partner being turned down for sex, reported no negative impact to their relationship satisfaction level when the response included loving, validating language. (Read: “I’d love to have sex with you, I’m so attracted to you, but tonight’s not a good time, can we try for another time? I love you.”)
This research essentially flies in the face of the propaganda we’ve been fed that we should always “make an effort” to try to get in the mood for our partners, even when we’re not feeling up to it, and employ contrived techniques like scheduling sex.
The last time I propositioned my boyfriend for sex was last night. He’d worked 16 hours and was, unsurprisingly, spent. This time however, I didn’t question my own desirability, or the relationship, when he turned me down, because it went something like this; “Gosh I’m lucky to have a sex goddess girlfriend like you. I wish I could tonight, but I can’t keep my eyes open and I’m really stressed. How about we raincheck for tomorrow night?”
My answer, obviously, was, “Yes.”
Nadia Bokody is a journalist, media commentator and editor with a penchant for hoarding makeup and an opinion on just about everything. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Cosmopolitan, and many more. She’s a passionate advocate for destroying mental health stigma and sexually empowering women, and has absolutely no concept of TMI.
This originally appeared on SHESAID. Republished here with permission.