Petra Zebroff Ph.D.

The Erotic Brain

Sex

There May Be a Better Way to Initiate Sex with Your Partner

Three questions all partners should be asking each other.

Posted Jun 12, 2019

Family TV/Shutterstock
Source: Family TV/Shutterstock

One of the most frequent questions I hear in my practice is, “I’m a considerate person, I am a good partner, and I take care of myself. So why doesn’t my partner want to have sex with me?”

When we are faced with sexual starvation in a relationship, we wrack our brains for a solution. We try to imagine what our partner might be thinking. Or we fall back on gender norms, like, "Women just have lower desire, right?” Or a man might muse, “My partner complains about not feeling sexy and becomes a victim of her body-image issues. But I think she is sexy, so why doesn’t she?" Or we imagine that perhaps stress is to blame: “After all, he/she has been really busy lately. But, then, so have I!”

But one critical reason sex stalls that is not often discussed is how sex starts—that is to say, sexual initiation.

Let’s begin by looking at why people initiate sex. Most people will say, “To have sex, of course!” But wait: For most people the goal is not only to get a partner to have sex, but also to get our partner to want to have sex, and at the same time as we do.

If you want your partner to want sex, you have to know what ignites their erotic flame. Your partner may be rejecting your advances not because they don’t want to have sex with you, but because they don’t want sex initiated at that particular time, or in that particular way.

I have asked thousands of men and women in long-term relationships to weigh in on their experiences with sexual initiation—how they like it, what turns them on, and whether they are satisfied with how sex is initiated in their current relationship. Two results stand out:

  1. Many people are unhappy with the way their partner initiates sex.
  2. Everyone is different when it comes to how they want sex to start.

Don’t assume: Research shows that many people have only some idea of what works for their partner (MacNeil & Byers, 2005), and others are just wrong about their partner's interest in sex (Muise et al, 2016). For example, too often we assume that our partner is not interested when they actually are, or that they like to start sex in the same way as we do: “If I am turned on by kissing, then my partner must get hot with kissing, too.” This is a big mistake, and it reveals a secret obstacle to successful sexual initiation—namely, that if you don’t know what your partner prefers, you may be getting rejected unnecessarily.

It is not surprising that so many of us are in the dark about our partner’s initiation-preference. After all, for most people the topic of sex is difficult to bring up. But in long-term relationships, it is absolutely essential to do so if you want to have good sex.

One danger I see regularly is people relying on clichéd gender stereotypes to understand their partner. Venus and Mars-era advice taught us to treat all women the same—mostly with romance. But sex researchers and therapists have found that when it comes to sex, gender roles do not tell the whole story. For example, while some women reported being turned on by stereotypical “romance,” they were in the minority; many more got turned on by other things, such as being “pushed against a wall" in a fit of passion.

Men, too, have been stereotyped as being “visual and act-oriented” when, in fact, we found that many of them prefer an emotional connection, such as romance. (Meston & Buss, 2007)

So, how do you find out a partner’s initiation style? In studying the preferences for sexual initiation of tens of thousands of members of both sexes, we found three common places where couples get stuck. To make it easier to get started, we have identified three questions you can ask your partner to bypass common sticking points:

Ask: “Would you rather be…

  1.  ...asked (verbal) or touched (physical)? There is a clear distinction between talkers and touchers. Some people love to have clear, verbal invitations to sex; for them, talking is a form of foreplay. Others are turned off by the use of words; they would rather be turned on with a graze of their skin or a prolonged hug or kiss.
  2.  … approached subtly or directly? Some people love to lay their cards on the table, with direct requests or suggestions that leave no room for misunderstanding: “Are you in the mood?” or “Get into bed now!” But others would find such directness startling, cold, or abrupt. Instead, they’ll talk about a preference for the seduction game, with subtle teasing or flirting that allows them to get them in the mood.
  3.  … be surprised, or see it coming? One person may want to anticipate, think about, and/or plan for the event as their arousal evolves, while others find that their arousal erupts when they are surprised. These people will often talk about “spontaneity": Do you want me to give you a "heads-up" that I am thinking about sex, or do you want to be surprised?

Ask your partner these questions and listen closely to the answers. Find out what really “lights up” him or her, and your invitation will be much more likely to be accepted. And don’t be worried if the two of you have differences in how you like to initiate sex. Those differences can add the spice we crave in long-term relationships. In the short term, we can offer you some solutions to this dilemma of differences:

  1. Get creative and find a way to eroticize your partner’s initiation style.
  2. Or, simply take turns.

For more, see our Sexual Initiation Style with an Initiation Quiz

Facebook image: pixs4u/Shutterstock

References

MacNeil, S., & Byers, E. S. (2005). Dyadic assessment of sexual self-disclosure and sexual satisfaction in heterosexual dating couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(2), 169-181.

Meston, C. M., & Buss, D. M. (2007). Why humans have sex. Archives of sexual behavior, 36(4), 477-507.

Muise, A., Stanton, S. C., Kim, J. J., & Impett, E. A. (2016). Not in the mood? Men under-(not over-) perceive their partner’s sexual desire in established intimate relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 110(5), 725.

Zebroff, P. (2019) Sexual Initiation Scale of Arousal Development and Reliability (and preliminary Validity). Unpublished Manuscript.