Sex

Why Didn't We Have Sex Last Night?

New research sheds light on men's and women's reasons for not having sex.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

Did you have sex last night?

If you didn’t, why didn’t it happen? Were you sick? Or maybe you were feeling horny but your partner said no? Or perhaps it was simply a busy day and you and your partner were tired and just went to sleep?

New research suggests that your reasons for not having sex may depend on your gender, and they could also be linked to how satisfied you are sexually and in your relationship in general.

The New Research

In a new study just published in the Journal of Sex Medicine,1 researchers investigated why couples reported that sex didn’t happen and how those reasons were related to their sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction.

The study included 87 mixed-sex couples (174 individuals in total) in relationships of just over 9 years on average. Both men and women were, on average, in their early thirties and the sample was generally well educated, heterosexual, and White. While participants were required to not have any children under the age of 12 months, the majority of couples (72.1 percent) reported having older children in the home.

Over the course of 30 days, each member of the couple was sent a daily reminder via email prompting them to respond to questions based on whether they did, or did not, report having sex the day before.

When participants indicated they did not have sex the previous day, they were given a list of possible reasons that sex did not happen. Possible answers included self-related reasons (e.g., “I wasn’t in the mood”), partner-related reasons (e.g., “my partner was too tired”), joint reasons (e.g., “we didn’t have time”), or “other” reasons, which allowed participants to fill in their own answers that were not captured by the previously mentioned categories.

Why Didn’t Couples Have Sex?

The most common response that couples gave for not having sex was simply that “sex just did not happen,” a response that was endorsed on over 40 percent of the non-sexually-active days.

The most common reasons women reported for not having sex were: “I wasn’t in the mood,” “we didn’t have time,” and “I didn’t want to.”

Men’s most common responses for not having sex were “we didn’t have time,” “my partner didn’t want to,” “my partner wasn’t in the mood,” and “my partner was too tired.”

Both men and women also indicated a number of “other” factors that prevented them from engaging in sex including logistics, being sick, menstruation, relationship issues (e.g., having a fight or conflict), and stress.

The authors then examined whether there were any significant gender differences between men and women’s reasons for not having sex. They found that women were significantly more likely than men to report self-related reasons such as: “I didn’t want to,” “I wasn’t in the mood,” “I was too tired,” and “sex is painful,” while men were significantly more likely to report partner-related reasons, such as: “my partner didn’t want to,” “my partner wasn’t in the mood,” “my partner was too tired.” Men were also significantly more likely to say they didn’t have sex because “children got in the way.”

How Reasons for Not Having Sex Relate to Satisfaction

Both men and women in this study reported experiencing lower levels of sexual satisfaction when they perceived the reason for not engaging in sexual activity to be related to their partner. That is, when a participant wanted to have sex but their partner didn't, their sexual satisfaction was lower. In contrast, when both men and women perceived the reasons to be joint or shared (i.e., they mutually agreed to not have sex, or were on the same page about sex not being a top priority), they reported experiencing higher levels of sexual satisfaction.

Additionally, on days when men and women reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction, yet did not have sex, they were more likely to report their reason for not engaging in sexual activity to be a joint decision.

What Do These Findings Mean?

Both men and women reported that they "did not have time," one partner was "too tired," or one partner was "not in the mood" to have sex. However, women were more likely to endorse self-based reasons for not having sex (e.g., “I was not in the mood,” “I was too tired,” and “sex is painful”) whereas men were more likely to endorse partner-related reasons (e.g., “my partner wasn’t in the mood” or “my partner was too tired”).

While it may be tempting to lean on stereotypes about men having higher desire and women having a lower interest in sex, the authors note a few interesting alternative explanations.

First, the authors note that there is some evidence that women tend to attribute negative outcomes to their selves and positive outcomes to their partner. As such, women may be more likely to consider that they are the reason that sex did not happen, and may even blame themselves for not having sex, rather than attributing lack of sex to their male partner.

There is also a pervasive gender norm that suggests men are the ones to initiate sex in mixed-sex relationships, whereas women are more often the “gatekeeper” who says yes or no to sex. Given this dynamic, it may lead to more gendered expectations that women are more likely to say no to sex and men are more likely to initiate sex and have their advances rejected.

Take Away

The findings from this study suggest that when couples are on the same page about whether or not to have sex, they are more satisfied sexually and in their relationship. This suggests there is a benefit in trying to understand why our partner is interested (or not interested) in sexual activity and, when possible, approach the issue as a team. For example, if we're feeling horny but out partner is "too tired" we could try to understand the underlying causes (e.g., it could be a result of having too many chores or responsibilities) and tackling those barriers together. It also points to the importance of sexual communication and sharing our interest (or lack thereof) in sex so that both partners have a better chance of being on the same page.

References

Mark, K, Vowels, L., & Leistner, C. (2020). “Not Tonight, Honey”: Reasons for Not Engaging in Sex in a Daily Experience Study of Couples, Journal of Sexual Medicine, 17(3):431-441. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2019.12.011