When you're in a long-term relationship, once the initial phase of being unable to keep your hands off each other passes, initiating sex can start to feel tricky – especially for women. But why is this? And how can couples avoid making sex a negotiation nightmare?
Unfortunately there's still a real double standard around sex, where men are seen positively if they are very sexual and women are seen negatively. The pressures of these stereotypes can make it difficult for women to feel empowered by their own sexual desires.
"At the same time there's a stigma about women not being sexual enough, and an idea that they should be 'up for it'," say sex and relationship educators Justin Hancock and Meg-John Barker. "Understandably this makes many women feel nervous about initiating sex."
"No one talks about men going off sex long-term," adds sexpert Tracey Cox. "Men won't because they're embarrassed, and women don't because they think it means they're not sexy any more or bad in bed. But it does need to be talked about."
Establish the boundaries
The perpetuated myth that the frequency of sex tapers off the longer you keep dating can cast a shadow over a relationship and obscure the real root of the problem. But sex can mean very different things to different people and it's important to establish in a relationship where these boundaries lie. Problems can equally exist in partnerships of the same sex or heterosexual. It can all relate back to communication and making assumptions about each other.
"One person may feel that leaning in for a kiss is an initiation of further sex whilst the other may just see this as an affectionate non-sexual form of contact," say Meg-John and Justin. "It's always worth trying to pay attention to non-verbal communication (eye contact, noises, whether they seem to tense up or relax) to see whether the other person is indeed interested in continuing with sex or whether they would rather do something else."
People seek out different outcomes from sex: feeling desirable, stress release, connecting with someone, demonstrating love, getting an orgasm, having an exciting experience, and performing well.
"Often sex with a partner is not the only way of getting these needs met, so it's a great idea to communicate the need first," Meg-John and Justin explain.
Sex doesn't just always mean penetration
So how do we get the message across that we want to 'get down to it' whilst keeping everyone's needs in consideration? Enjoying being with each other and experiencing each other's bodies without nervously attaching value-judgements to the experience is a good place to start.
"It's helpful for everyone if we can get away from the idea of 'proper' sex and that 'proper' sex should always involve some kind of penetration", say Meg-John and Justin.
"This doesn't help people to explore what they actually may enjoy but is also potentially non-consensual a lot of the time. It's easier for people to initiate sex that they may actually enjoy if they think about all the different kinds of activities they may like."
Create your own sex menu
Something which may help with expanding the sexual repertoire is to go through a sexual inventory or a sex menu exercise:
- Write down what you love or would be up for trying during sex
- Then get your partner to do the same
Establishing this spectrum of what is enjoyable for you both can help to mean that initiating sexual interaction needn't feel laboured or repetitive.
"It could be something as simple as a kiss which lasts longer than usual with added tongue. It could be stroking your partner somewhere near a sexual zone to see what response you get," says Tracey.
Remove the blame
Communication can also help dispel the common fear for women that they are the sole cause of any sexual dissatisfaction.
"Women are self-blamers!" continues Tracey. "They think they're too unfit, not sexy enough, not good in bed. They worry about initiating in case their partner's interested in sex, just not having sex with them."
If your partner is frequently turning down sex, then it's definitely worth looking at their lifestyle before leaping to the conclusion that the fault must be yours.
"It's usually not about you at all - there are many reasons why men go off sex," Tracey explains. "Look at his lifestyle. Get him to cut back on alcohol, quit smoking, exercise, reduce stress wherever possible, get enough sleep. Ask him to see a doctor if you think he may be suffering from low testosterone or struggling with erection problems so avoiding sex out of embarrassment."
The sexual spectrum
It's important to remember that all of us sit somewhere on a spectrum, from being completely non-sexual to highly sexual, and its fine for that to change over time.
"It's vital that nobody is ever made to feel like they should have sex when they don't want to," say Meg-John and Justin.
If somebody is deliberately shaming you or trying to coerce or persuade you into having sex, or not being sexual when you feel like it, then it's worth thinking very carefully about the relationship. Additionally, being made to feel ashamed, guilty, or even insulted for suggesting sex, should definitely set alarm bells ringing.
"If he's just putting you down for no justifiable reason, I'd take a good, long hard look at how much you want to stay in the relationship – it's really not acceptable," says Tracey.
Justin Hancock and Meg John-Barker are the authors of Enjoy Sex (How, when and if you want to): A Practical and Inclusive Guide
Last updated: 30-04-2020
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