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Sex

Why It's So Tough for Men to Say No to Sex

... and why saying yes to unwanted sex has consequences.

Key points

  • Men are socialized to believe that they should always want sex and that their masculinity depends on it.
  • Feeling compelled to have sex that is not wanted is linked to unhealthy consequences.
  • Bouts of low desire, especially these days, is nothing out of the ordinary.
  • Low desire is a problem only if it causes distress to you or your partner.
Crook & Marker/Unsplash
Men are expected to always make a move
Source: Crook & Marker/Unsplash

Sometimes men don’t want sex. That's a statement that is both radical and self-evident in equal measure. Yet the pressure on men to always want sex, or to accept or pursue any sexual opportunity that arises means that they often feel as if can’t say “no thanks, maybe another time.”

It is difficult for men to say no to both casual and to established sexual partners. In relationships, saying no to one’s partner can be difficult because of felt obligation to always respond sexually to a partner’s advance, given a history of having done so before and heightened concerns about hurting a partner’s feelings or causing tension and strain in one’s relationship.

Where does this pressure come from?

The standard heterosexual “script” that guides much of our socialization around sex portrays men as the opportunistic sexual agents in their interactions with women—pursuing, pushing, and pressuring for ever-higher levels of sexual intimacy. In contrast, women are portrayed as sexually reluctant, or “gate-keepers,” working to ensure that men’s sexual access is limited until romantic commitment to the woman is assured.

It is shocking how this traditional script persists across time, cultures, and generations. A recent review1 of 70 highly popular television programs aimed at young adults across a wide range of streaming platforms, as well as broadcast and cable networks, revealed these themes are still dominant. Particularly notable were the following:

  • A theme reflecting what we call the "sexual double standard," which reinforces messages that men’s sexuality reflects their virility, while women’s lack of sexuality reflects their virtue.
  • A theme centered on issues of commitment, and specifically the view that men are highly motivated to avoid and women are highly motivated to secure romantic commitment. These messages are reinforced in many other media, including music videos, pornography, and social media.

These differences are the scaffolding supporting power dynamics between sexual partners. These dynamics operate in many male couples’ relationships as well. In many cases, gay and bisexual men report greater pressure than do heterosexual men to always be willing to have sex. There is power in being in the “chooser” position rather than the initiator, but overall, we value and support the notion that conflates masculinity with sexual interest and heavy pursuit of sexual opportunities—adding to the pressure to say “yes,” even when a man, like any other person, just wants to finish this show, play one more game, get on with his job, or read his book uninterrupted.

Research2 shows that:

  • Men report faking interest in sex, initiating sex they don’t want, and agreeing to sex with a partner despite not wanting it
  • Men often report disliking the pressure to always be the initiator of sex in their established relationships
  • Both men and women are more likely to perceive men’s “no” to be fake—that is, their “no” means “yes”
  • Many people believe that men cannot be forced to have sex; like with women, there are myths surrounding men’s bodies and interest (e.g., “Why did he get an erection if he didn’t want it?”)
  • Men are more likely to decide to not report an incident when they have been sexually harassed compared to women (and after higher levels of sexual harassment, men’s negative mental health symptoms are worse than women’s)
  • Men who report being pressured or forced to have sex by women are rated as less credible and less deserving of sympathy than women who report such experiences by men

Why do men not want sex?

There are many reasons why men sometimes (or often) don’t want sex—as there are with anyone. In recent decades, we have seen steadily declining rates of sexual behavior, and these have been tracked alongside steadily increasing rates of stress, depression, and anxiety (which often seriously reduce sexual desire), as well as increased rates of medications to deal with that stress, depression, and anxiety (medications well-known to contribute further to lower desire). On the plus side, we see greater acceptance of less traditional forms of gender expression—even rejection of hypermasculine norms—yet men still are expected to want and express high desire.

Feeling compelled to participate in sex that is not wanted is linked to a number of unhealthy repercussions for men and their relationships3.

  • Agreeing to unwanted sex can have negative mental and physical health consequences. For example, researchers found higher cortisol (the "stress" hormone) levels in salivary samples among those who reported more occasions of agreeing to sex that was undesired compared to those engaging in higher levels of desired sex, indicating that agreeing to unwanted sex is stressful.
  • Occasionally agreeing to unwanted sex—especially if the motive is to get close to one’s partner rather than to avoid a fight—can be fine, now and then, but agreeing frequently to sex when it’s unwanted produces a spiraling effect of avoidance. Soon, people avoid snuggling on the couch, or a little low-level affectionate romp for fear it will result in a request for greater sexual intimacy.
  • Like faking an orgasm, pretending one’s having all the fun when that really isn’t true makes it harder to admit down the road that the fun wasn’t really there all along. No communication, no solution.

Nobody has to have sex.

Unless coerced or forced, we can live without it. If you occasionally feel no desire for sex despite willingness and interest on behalf of an attractive partner, that is normal, and given everything life throws at you, bouts of low desire are to be expected.

When is low desire a problem?

If you consistently feel no desire in situations where you have before felt desire, and, most importantly, if this low desire for sex causes you or your partner(s) distress, then it is time to talk openly about this to your partner (if you have one). Consider also talking to a trusted health care provider or counselor. They can help you find answers specific to your situation and a good way forward.

Facebook image: Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock

References

Aubrey, J. S., Yan, K., Teran, L., & Roberts, L. (2020). The heterosexual script on tween, teen, and young-adult television programs: A content analytic update and extension. Journal of Sex Research, 57(9), 1134-1145.

Emmers-Sommer, T. M. (2016). Do men and women differ in their perceptions of women’s and men’s saying “no” when they mean “yes” to sex? An examination between and within gender. Sexuality 7 Culture, 20, 373-385.

Hartmann, A. J., & Crockett, E. E. (2016). When sex isn’t the answer: Examining sexual compliance, restraint, and physiological stress. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 31(3), 312-324.

Quinn-Nilas, C., Goncalves, M. K., Kennett, D. J., & Grant, A. (2018). A thematic analysis of men’s sexual compliance with unwanted, non-coercive sex. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 19(2), 203-211.

Street, A. E., Grauds, J. L., Stafford, J., & Kelly, K. (2007). Gender differences in experiences of sexual harassment: Data from a male-dominated environment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(3), 464-474.

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