Sex Life of the American Male

How new technology, new mores, and current events impact male sexuality.

Navigating Sexual Discrepancies in Relationships

Males say "yes" to sex in long-term relationships when they really mean "no."

Readers of my last blog might recall that popular magazines targeting men promote obtaining as much sex—and from as many different sexual partners—as possible.  In spite of this dubious directive the reality is that there are times when men, for any number of reasons, simply don’t want to engage in sexual activity.  However, for men in committed relationships, deferring sex might not be as easy as saying, “sorry, but not tonight.”

In a 2010 study, Vannier and O’Sullivan found that 46% of participants reported engaging in sexual activity with a romantic partner even when they had no desire for the activity.  Their study purposely ruled out forced sexual activity and coercion but instead focused on “[S]ituations in which the sexual activity is not wanted or desired, yet the individual freely consents to it.”[i]  This was labeled “sexual compliance.”  What is most intriguing about this study is that male participants were just as likely as females to engage in sexual activity when they didn’t want to.  Additionally, men were more likely to initiate sexual interactions than were women even when they weren’t feeling sexual desire

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The male participants in the Vannier and O’Sullivan were young (between the ages of 18 and 24), and the average length of their relationship was 26 months.  Not surprisingly, they reported a generally high level of desire to engage in sexual activity.  Still, there were occasion when they didn’t feel like engaging in sexual activity with their partners, and the most common reasons for this were feeling tired, stressed, or angry.  Many however engaged in sexual activity even when they had no interest.

I work with countless men who occasionally engage in sexual activity with a spouse and/or romantic partner when they are not in the least aroused.  Some report that once they get going they find their arousal increases and the sex act evolves into a mutually enjoyable experience. Others though rejoin it remains a chore the entire time.  Some even admit to faking an orgasm (a topic for a future blog) to bring sex to an expedited conclusion.  In my clinical experience the number one culprit for a lack of arousal is exhaustion and resulting desire for sleep.

The study of Vannier and O’Sullivan found that sexual compliance was most often the result of an implicit agreement of sexual availability even if it is occasionally unwanted by one partner.  According to one male in the study, “If she wants to, you gotta make her happy ‘cause there’s gonna’ be days…she won’t want to have intercourse, she’ll do it for you so you know, it’s like a sacrifice.”[ii]  In other words, partners won’t always have the same levels of sexual desire; occasional sexual “sacrifices” must occur so that the same will be reciprocated in the future.  Study participants additionally mentioned engaging in sexual compliance to protect a partner’s feelings and to maintain a harmonious relationship.

In addition to the aforementioned reasons for sexual compliance as found by Vannier and O’Sullivan, I commonly hear two other explanations surprisingly not detected in their study.  First, a concern that a female partner will suspect infidelity.  According to one of my patients, “If I say I’m too tired for sex, she won’t believe me.  She’ll think I’m cheating on her.”  Second, a concern that if “I don’t give her what she wants, she’ll go out and find it with someone else.”  Or, in other words, a lack of sexual compliance will lead her to engage in infidelity.  I’ve heard both of these rationales for sexual compliance from hundreds of men over the past decade, so they are certainly not uncommon. 

Sarah Vannier, one of the two researchers for the study, was particularly stuck by the finding that men initiate sexual activity even when not aroused.  She explained, “I think this really speaks to the power of gender roles that equate masculinity with sexual initiation and pursuit and the pressure placed on men to always want sex.”[iii]  Lucia O’Sullivan, the second researcher, reminded me, “Ideally, people engage in sex when they are really desirous. Sure, it's okay, now and then, to agree then hopefully eventually get in the mood once things get rolling (part of the implicit contract), but if one is really not desiring sex (for whatever reason) over a longer period of time but doesn't communicate that to his/her partner or doesn't really "check in" with one’s own body about what is wanted and instead just keeps having sex, this pattern might lead to problems.”[iv]  She also cautioned, “a persistent pattern of agreeing to unwanted sex might be linked to sexual dysfunction, in particular arousal and desire disorders.”[v]

Saying “no” to one’s romantic partner in regards to sexual activity might seem to be an easy task, and there are certainly men and women who clearly set sexual boundaries.  For others though, saying “no” is more difficult since a refusal is seen as possibly damaging and even threatening to a relationship.

 

 

[i] Sarah A. Vannier and Lucia F. O’Sullivan, “Sex Without Desire: Characteristic of Occasions of Sexual Compliance in Young Adults’ Committed Relationships,” The Journal of Sex Research 47, no. 5 (2010): 429.

[ii] Vannier and O’Sullivan, Sex Without Desire, 434.

[iii] Personal Communication, September 4, 2012.

[iv] Personal Communication, September 4, 2012.

[v] Ibid.

Michael Shelton is a writer, therapist, and educator focused on male sex and sexuality issues.

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