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Why Couples Can Struggle with Who's Supposed to Initiate Sex

It may be time for a sexual check-in.

Key points

  • Heterosexual women tend to want to initiate sex more often than they currently do; heterosexual men tend to want to initiate less.
  • Pressure to adhere to traditional gender roles can prevent us from getting what we want.
  • Sometimes we use initiation strategies that our partners don't recognize, or that inadvertently turn them off.
  • Initiating at different times of day or thinking of initiation as a slower process can help.
Photo by We-Vibe Toys on Unsplash
Source: Photo by We-Vibe Toys on Unsplash

Sexual initiation is something that seems challenging to navigate for many people. Over the years, I’ve heard from a lot of readers who want tips on initiation, with some saying they want to initiate more, and others saying they want their partner to initiate more.

The struggle is real—and it’s something I’ve seen emerge in my own research as well. However, there’s an interesting gender pattern I see in the data.

In the survey of 4,175 Americans I conducted for my book Tell Me What You Want, I asked people to report how often they initiate sex in real life and, separately, how often they fantasize about initiating sex. It turns out that there’s a fairly sizable discrepancy between the two and that it goes in different directions for heterosexual men and women.

Straight Women Want to Initiate More, Straight Men Want to Initiate Less

What I found is that, on average, heterosexual women report initiating sex in real life less often than heterosexual men. Specifically, among heterosexual women, 28 percent reported that they are often or always the initiators of sex, compared to 50 percent of heterosexual men who said the same. In other words, men were about twice as likely to say they are the primary sexual initiators.

Fantasy tells a different story, though: the number of women who said they are usually or always the initiators of sex increases by 25 percent when you look at fantasy instead of reality. By contrast, the number of men who say they usually or always initiate sex decreases by 15 percent when you look at fantasy instead of reality. The gender difference is thus much smaller in terms of how people think about sex compared to what they actually do in their own sex lives.

This suggests that there are a lot of women who are turned on by the idea of initiating sex more often than they do in reality—and a lot of men who are turned on by the idea of their partner initiating sex more often.

Initiation Patterns Differ for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Persons

It’s interesting when you compare these findings to those of gay and bisexual men and women. For sexual minorities, when you look at the number of people who say they are usually or always the initiators of sex in real life, the number who say they are usually or always the initiators of sex in fantasy is almost identical (there’s only about a one percentage point difference). Thus, initiation patterns in fantasy more closely mirror initiation patterns in reality for gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks.

It’s also worth noting that, on average, sexual minority women say they initiate sex more often than heterosexual women, whereas sexual minority men initiate sex less often than heterosexual men.

Why We Struggle With Initiation

What all of this suggests is that heterosexual persons appear most likely to experience a discrepancy between how often they want to initiate sex and how often they actually do it. Why is that?

In part, it’s likely because there’s more pressure to adhere to traditional gender roles of women as the “gatekeepers” of sex and men as the “initiators” of it in a heterosexual context. By contrast, in research on same-sex relationships, we consistently see that there’s less pressure to fit a traditional role and more opportunity to find equity both in and out of the bedroom. (To be clear, this isn’t to say that initiation issues never arise in same-sex relationships—they certainly can!)

My data also suggest that initiation struggles are tied to religious beliefs, particularly among women. For example, I found that heterosexual women who report a religious affiliation say that they initiate sex less often on average than women without a religious affiliation. Also, the gap between the fantasy and reality of sexual initiation is more than twice as large for religious compared to non-religious women.

For men, having a religious affiliation wasn’t really linked to how often they initiate sex. Men’s gap between initiation fantasy and reality is similar regardless of religious belief status, with heterosexual men in general fantasizing about initiating sex less frequently than they do in real life. This suggests that, for men, the pressure to initiate might have more to do with broader cultural ideas of masculinity and perhaps less to do with religiosity.

Socio-cultural factors are only part of the story, however. My data show that people who initiate sex more frequently in real life tend to be highly extraverted (outgoing and sociable), more emotionally stable, more self-confident, more conscientious (detail-oriented), and more comfortable with intimacy. They also tend to have more positive attitudes toward sex, fewer sexual difficulties, and are in more satisfying relationships. When these traits aren't present, people may initiate sex less often than they'd like to (for example, because they aren't very sexually outgoing or are worried about being rejected).

When we feel pressure to be a certain way sexually or lack sexual self-confidence, our fantasies are sometimes a way that we break free of these constraints and explore different sexual sides of ourselves. This isn’t to say that fantasies always reflect what we desire (i.e., what we really want to do sexually), of course. Sometimes a fantasy is just a fantasy—but at the same time, fantasies can also be revealing of unfulfilled needs and secret desires.

How to Make Sexual Initiation Easier

So if you struggle with sexual initiation in a relationship, what can you do about it? Here are a few tips:

  • Do a sexual check-in with your partner. If you want your partner to initiate more, it’s important to get a broader picture of your sex life first. Note that this isn’t about complaining, blaming, or shaming—it’s about really trying to understand one another as sexual beings so that you can cultivate a great sex life together. For example, maybe your partner wants to initiate more, but is depressed or under a lot of stress and just isn’t in the mood for sex very often. Or maybe sex is painful for them or they have a sexual difficulty that they haven’t told you about that's leading them to avoid sex. Maybe they just don’t experience a lot of spontaneous desire, or perhaps just don’t recognize that you’d like them to initiate more. The more you understand each other, the better equipped you’ll be to find an effective solution.
  • Try mixing up your initiation strategy. After all, there isn’t just one way to initiate sex! Research finds that people don’t always pick up on their partners’ initiation cues, which means that sometimes a partner is initiating, but the other isn’t recognizing it. Some initiation attempts can also be perceived as irritating or annoying—so sometimes we inadvertently turn our partners off because we’re not approaching sex in a way that gets them going. Initiation attempts can involve verbal requests, sexting, intimate touch, use of nudity (e.g., walking out of the bedroom naked), and more. Try different things and figure out what your partner does and does not respond to.
  • Initiate at different times of the day. Some people are hornier in the morning, while others find themselves more aroused in the afternoon or evening. Sometimes we’re out of synch when we initiate, which again goes back to the importance of really understanding one another sexually.
  • Think about initiation as a slower process, as opposed to “let’s have sex right now!” You (and your partner) may benefit from giving arousal time to build. Change your mindset from thinking that sex must immediately follow initiation attempts to one that is more flexible. Initiation can start earlier in the evening, earlier in the day, or earlier in the week. Let the arousal and anticipation build, and you just might find yourself having more and/or better sex.

Facebook image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

References

Lehmiller, J. J. (2018). Tell me what you want: The science of sexual desire and how it can help you improve your sex life. Hachette.

Curtis, Y., Eddy, L., Ashdown, B. K., Feder, H., & Lower, T. (2012). Prelude to a coitus: Sexual initiation cues among heterosexual married couples. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 27(4), 322-334.

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