You’re at home. You’re feeling relaxed. You’ve had a great day. And you’re in the mood to make love. You turn on some music and pour two glasses of wine. Your partner comes home and you think, "Let’s get it on." You give your partner a kiss and suggest going to the bedroom. But he or she pulls away. You quickly notice your partner is cranky; they tell you they had a long day and are exhausted—far too tired to even think about having sex. But thanks for the drink!
Most women I talk to would describe feeling a bit (and sometimes very) hurt if they were the sexual initiator in this scenario. But we tend to think that sexual rejection doesn’t hurt men as much. This is based, at least in part, on two assumptions: The first is related to Masculinity Theory1,2, which proposes that men desire sex for physical and surface-level reasons rather than for emotional connection. If men initiate sex and their efforts are rejected, then, it can’t hurt that much because they have only missed out on the physical act. The second assumption, related to Sexual Script Theory3,4, suggests that in heterosexual relationships, men should initiate sexual activity and women should act as the “gatekeeper”—the one who says yes or no to those advances. If men initiate sexual activity more often, it follows that they also would experience more rejection.
This all leads us to conclude that rejection can’t hurt men that much because they must expect it. But just because the sexual rejection scenario I describe above is more likely to occur to a man, that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to handle. In fact, it may be the opposite: The more often rejection happens, the more it can really hurt a man’s confidence and ego, and even decrease his interest in sex.
For my research, I interviewed a community sample of men (age 30-65) in long-term heterosexual relationships (14 years on average) about their experiences of sexual desire5. I asked men whether there were times when they felt less desire, or maybe even experienced no sexual desire at all. Almost every man told me that their sexual desire (and sometimes their self-esteem) decreased when their sexual advances were rejected:
“When you’re the guy and you’re always the one to make the moves, and your partner’s always the one saying, 'no, no, no, no,' you start getting very depressed and wonder whether or not something is going on. Whether or not it’s you.” — Jerry, age 42
“If she doesn’t want me, she somehow is not interested in me…It offends me somewhere inside…I know she is not interested in me and she doesn’t like me. She doesn’t want me. It’s like, forget it. I don’t feel it anymore.” — Kyle, age 38
What these men are describing isn’t perceived as My partner doesn’t want sex right now. The feeling is, My partner doesn’t want me.
Most of the men I talked to weren’t describing occasional rejection that could be chalked up to bad timing—when their partner does in fact have a headache, is sick, or is in a bad mood for good reason. That happens in every relationship. The idea that we will feel sexual interest at the exact same time as our partner every time over multiple years is a nice but far-fetched idea. There are going to be plenty of times where either partner says, “Not tonight.”
The men I interviewed talked about regular rejection and how it wore them down over time, made them question themselves and their relationship, and ultimately had a negative impact on their self-esteem. They also indicated that having their advances rejected over and over again actually decreased their own level of interest in sex.
“I’m usually a very positive person, but when it comes to sex, it’s tough to stay positive or imagine [sex] when you’re always getting rejected. So it’s easier not to think about it.” — Ben, age 49
This represents the sentiments I’ve heard from more and more men during my research and in my therapy practice. Sexual rejection is difficult and, as a result, men often start to behave in ways that will help them avoid rejection, such as pulling back from sex by showing less interest in it, or reducing the frequency and quality of their sexual advances.
A recent study by Amy Muise and her colleagues supports this finding. Over the first two phases of a three-part study, the researchers explored how well 128 couples were at reading signs that their partner was interested in sex6. Muise found that across her first two studies there was a similar pattern of men under-perceiving their female partners’ interest in sex. So Muise conducted a third study to explore why this might be the case, with a focus on the potential role of rejection.
This study included 101 (mostly) heterosexual couples between the ages of 18 and 53, who were in relationships ranging in length from six months to 22 years. Over the course of three weeks, the couples were asked to keep a diary of their sexual activity. One of the statements the researchers asked participants to respond to, on a scale of 1 (indicating “not at all important”) to 7 (indicating “extremely important”) was, “I did not want my partner to reject me.”
The researchers concluded that on days when men were particularly motivated to avoid rejection, they were more likely to under-perceive their partner’s interest in sex. In other words, when men reported feeling that they were more averse to the possibility of experiencing rejection (for whatever reason—feeling insecure, having a bad day, receiving poor feedback at work) they missed sexual cues from their partner. They did not initiate sex and they were less likely to report thinking about it.
This appears to be an adaptive response: If you think your partner might not be in the mood, it seems too risky to get it wrong and experience rejection yet again.
It's understandable that someone might not be in the mood for sex if they feel their partner is just looking for physical release. But when I work with couples in therapy, I regularly see that a shift can happen when men are able to vocalize that their desire for sex isn't simply about release. Instead, they talk about wanting to connect with and feel close to their partner and receive validation of their desirability and worth.
When their partner hears that their rejection hurts more deeply than it seemed, the partner sometimes rejects less often, tries to initiate a bit more, or—and this is just as helpful—becomes more mindful of rejecting in kinder ways. A cold shrug or eye roll becomes, “Sorry, tonight I’m really not feeling it,” with a conciliatory offer such as, "Maybe we can find time tomorrow or this weekend?” or "Maybe we could just sit and cuddle on the couch instead.”
You might be surprised at what a shift like this can do for a relationship.
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1. Kimmel, M. S. (2005). The gender of desire: Essays on male sexuality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
2. Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men’s well-being: A theory of gender and health. Social Science & Medicine, 50, 1385- 1401. doi: 10.1016/S0277-9536(99)00390-1
3. Simon, W. & Gagnon, J. H. (1986). Sexual scripts: Permanence and change. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15, 97-120. doi: 0004-0002/86/0400-0097505.00/0
4. Simon, W. & Gagnon, J. H. (2003). Sexual scripts: Origins, influences and change.Qualitative Sociology, 26, 491-497. doi: 10.1023/B:QUAS.0000005053.99846.e5
5. Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. & Kuczynski, L. (2016). A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships. Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1168352
6. Muise, A., Stanton, S. C. E., Kim, J. J., & Impett, E. A. (2016). Not in the mood? Men under (not over) perceive their partner’s sexual desire in established relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 725-742. Doi: 10.1037/pspi0000046