By Helen Gurley Brown, David M. Schnarch, published on January 1, 1994 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
Q: HOW DO YOU REFUSE A PARTNER'S SEXUAL OVERTURES WITHOUT CRUSHING
HIM OR HER?
I don't think you should ever say no. How much trouble can it
be--especially if it's someone you've been married to for 30 years? I
think you would have to be in bed with a fever of 110 degrees to say
Helen Gurley Brown, Editor in Chief,
Cosmopolitan magazine, New York, NY
Some people won't let you say no without making you feel bad about
yourself. It's a form of "tyranny of the weak" that currently pervades
society and sexual politics. There's no way to keep crushing someone
who's dependent on other people's acceptance to feel good about him- or
herself. They're bound to feel rejected when you're eventually not in the
mood, and their own cloying dependency is likely to make you less
Moreover, protecting your partner's male or female ego keeps them
vulnerable and infantile forever. You are sending the message that you
think they should take your response personally or that you think they
"can't handle it." Lots of "I don't want to hurt your feelings" makes
both people feel worse, and often stems from your own fear that people
won't love you if you don't give them what they want.
Assuming you're not totally crude or insensitive, a
straightforward, unambiguous "no thanks" works best.
David M. Schnarch, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and
Louisiana State University, New Orleans, LA
If you're trapped, like most, in our excessively linear world, sex
becomes incredibly important. The act replenishes our drained emotions.
That moment of pure feeling without intellectual involvement gives
balance to our lives. If sex is the only transcendent item on your menu
for emotional repair, refusal equals deprivation and anger. When it is
one of many avenues to pure feeling, as it is to the spiritually evolved,
the choice is no longer an imperative for either individual, and no
feelings will be hurt by refusal.
P.S. The spiritually evolved seldom refuse!
Philip Neimark, high priest of the ancient
African tradition of Ifa, Chicago, IL
Frankly, I do not refuse. But if for some reason I do not feel like
it, I satisfy his needs and look forward to an assignation when my own
needs dictate. The only wrong response, says Anais Nin, who confused love
with sex and never said "No!" after meeting Henry Miller, is the "failure
Noel Riley Fitch, author of Anais: The Erotic Life of
Anais Nin (Little, Brown & Co.; 1993), Los Angeles, CA
Your question reminds me of a man who explained what happened in
his marriage to signal sexual interest. He reported his wife used a
special perfume when she came to bed. When she did so, he knew that she
had chosen to be pursued.
This illustrates the role that nonverbal communication of interest
or disinterest plays in communicating about sex. The advantage of a
nonverbal cue is that you can merely refuse to "recognize" the cue and
thereby spare one's partner a direct refusal.
It takes a stable relationship of some duration to shift from
nonverbal to direct verbal signals of interest or disinterest. Perfume
(or aftershave) appeals to me more than the hypocrisy of claims of
headaches or conspicuous yawning to say "no thanks."
Indicating a "not interested" response depends on whether the
invitation is a subtle, nonverbal expression of interest by a partner or
an overt physical act or verbal request. It's best to respond in the same
mode in which the invitation is made.
Alice S. Rossi, Ph.D., professor emerita of sociology,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
I would say "I'm sorry, but I'm too tired to reciprocate. Let me
take a rain check." That way it makes it sound like "It ain't gonna be
good for you because I'm so tired."
Steven O. Philippi, driver, United
Parcel Service, Valley Stream, NY