Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Debby Herbenick Ph.D., M.P.H.

The Pleasures of Sex


How Saying No to Sex Can Help You Learn to Love It Again

Too many women and men are caught in Cycles of Dread. Here's your way out.

Posted Nov 14, 2009

People often ask me to tell them one single thing they can do that will change their sex life for the better. My often surprising response? Say no to sex. That’s right: I firmly believe that the occasional, well-delivered "no" can make for more loving, pleasurable, mindful sex – a topic I spent a good amount of ink writing about in my book, Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, and an idea that has resonated with many women and men I speak with at book clubs, parties, conferences and events. So how does this work?

We know from research studies that both women and men – but most often women – have sex that they don’t want to have. They may feel obligated to have sex, as if it’s their duty to their husband or partner or that if they don’t have sex with their partner then they may lose them. Many women have resigned themselves to believe that it’s easier to lie there and have sex, even to feign enjoyment, than to deal with their feelings of guilt, conflict or worries about being somehow sexually inadequate.

Sometimes having sex when you don’t want to turns out well. A few minutes into kissing or touching you may think “Hey, this feels good! How come we don’t do this more often?”

Other times, sex feels the opposite of good. It feels sad. It feels disconnecting or empty. You wonder why your partner can’t tell that you don’t want to be there doing what you’re doing. And soon you enter what I call a Cycle of Dread where bad sex begets dread which begs more bad sex which begets more dread: On the way home from work, you start thinking about how your partner is going to try to have sex with you or you go to sleep early, or fall asleep in your toddler’s bed after story time, hoping to avoid another attempt at sex.

This is where the “no” comes in.

You may shy away from saying “no” to sex because you worry – or have seen first hand – that your partner will feel rejected, unloved, or unwanted. He may have asked if you still find him attractive or if you’re in love with someone else. Trying to explain and deal with your different desires can be overwhelming or just plain annoying.

But what if you learned to say “no” in a way that didn’t hurt the relationship but actually enhanced it? What if it could free you of the Cycle of Dread and bring back pleasurable sex?

In Because It Feels Good – my attempt to turn science-backed information about sex into concrete tips that women and men can apply to their everyday lives – I wrote in depth about the concept of the enhancing “no”. To deliver an effective, enhancing, better-sex-no, you need to:

1)   Be personally aware of, and honest with yourself, about the true reason you don’t want to have sex (Too tired? Stressed? Angry at your partner? Feeling sick? Different sex drives?)

2)   Communicate the true reason to your partner.

3)   Offer something else that is relationship-enhancing.

What does this look like?  Consider something like this:

“As much as I love you and want you and need you, I’ve got to tell you: I am utterly exhausted after chasing the kids around today and it’s easier for me to get into sex, and to enjoy it, when I’m relaxed and rested. I’d love to take a rain check for another night or for the weekend, when your parents have the kids.”

Or this:

“I want to be sexual with you tonight but for some reason, the idea of sex the way we normally do it isn’t where my mind’s at tonight. What do you think about making out for a while and then maybe masturbating together or having oral sex? It’s been a while since we did that.”

As I say in Because It Feels Good, there’s no way around it: a “no” is still a “no.” But a “no, not tonight” feels a lot like rejection to many of us whereas a “no, but can we do this other thing?” helps us to feel closer and stay in the game. It also opens the door to opportunities for making out, oral sex, or sex on another night that feels deliciously pleasurable and, most of all, wanted. Which, over time, helps get women (or men) out of a Cycle of Dread and back into the real of desire. 

Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is a research scientist at Indiana University, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and the author ofBecause It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction. Her personal blog can be found at