In bed, I pawed at my boyfriend’s chest like a cat wanting attention. I kissed his cheek. Propping myself up on my elbow, I smiled like a girl holding a platter of wings in a Super Bowl ad. I wanted sex, but I didn’t want to say I wanted sex.
My sexual expression is often dictated by a couple of internalized voices: the feminist fairy godmother who sits on my shoulder and tells me that gender roles are a fiction of the patriarchy, and the spectre of a 1950s dating advice columnist who insists that “you must be pursued, my dear! Let the man chase!” The latter voice has most of history and pretty much every romantic comedy echoing her advice, so, yes, she is persuasive.
Shame also plays a role. As a child and certified Good Girl, I learned quickly to hide my sexual curiosity, certain that if people knew of my fascination with the music video for Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty,” for example, I would be considered dirty by association and my wholesome identity would implode, baffling my friends and upsetting my family. Hiding my desire made me feel like a liar, but this secret shame seemed easier to navigate than an entire identity shift. Once hiding became a habit, it was difficult to stop.
Now, over three years into my relationship, I wish I could say I’m completely comfortable initiating sex but I’m just not—it makes me feel awkward and exposed. Kristen Mark, a sex and relationships researcher at the University of Kentucky, says many women are hesitant to initiate because they’ve been socialized to be the gatekeepers of sex. “We put a lot of pressure on men to initiate sexual activity,” she says. In turn, women feel pressure to not initiate—to gatekeep, or control access to sex. We may think we’re not affected by societal pressures like these, but it’s one thing to recognize these pressures and another to be immune to them.
Angela, 46, says her high sex drive causes her to experience a mental tug-of-war, despite being in a happy and communicative relationship: “I tell myself that most men would be really grateful to have a girl that’s climbing them like a tree all day, and then I’m back to the other mentality where I’m like, what is wrong with me? Am I like a nineteen-year-old boy in that I think about sex sixty times a day?” Angela says these mixed feelings have a lot to do with her ex-husband’s criticism of her high libido. Once, he even asked if she should get her testosterone checked, thinking an excess of male hormone was causing her to act outside what was “normal” for a woman. “It was incredibly hurtful.”
But it’s not just old-fashioned gender stereotypes or misinformed partners that might make women suppress a desire to initiate. #MeToo has emphasized the importance of verbal consent and respecting a “no” in sexual scenarios (it’s about time!), but rarely do these conversations position women as the ones who initiate sex, receive a rejection, and then fail to handle it properly. Women may have a far better track record than men when it comes to respecting sexual boundaries, but we’re not perfect. And by failing to talk about women who receive and mishandle a “no” to sex, we end up ignoring a crucial part of the initiation experience: the possibility of rejection. If no one is discussing what sexual rejection actually looks or feels like for women—and normalizing the fact that yes, women too get rejected—initiating sex becomes an even more daunting task.
Which brings me back to my own bedroom. That night, after exhausting my choreography, I decided to actually talk. “Want to…roll around for a bit?” I asked, still unable to directly say what I wanted.
My boyfriend was silent at first, then: “Sorry, but I’m just really tired. Another time?”
Comedian Jimmy Carr has a stand-up joke where he claims the reason no one ever talks about women initiating sex is because “when women ask for sex, it happens!” He’s saying discussion is not necessary because men want sex with women they find attractive—24/7.
Lying in bed, it took me all of two seconds to catastrophize that “tired” was an excuse and my boyfriend’s attraction to me was waning. And so instead of respecting his “no thanks” (something I’d expect of any man if the situation were reversed) I rolled over dramatically and muttered something passive-aggressive about the “sting of rejection.” I felt about as unsexy as a cabbage—and I wanted him to feel responsible.
My reaction may have been manipulative and childish, but it was partly a product of feeling alone inside an experience: Woman Wants Sex With Male Partner, Is Turned Down. I had also interpreted the rejection as a comment on my desirability—as opposed to an expression of my partner’s needs. The impulse to see the experience through the lens of Me and My Appeal might sound narcissistic, but science is here to cut us all some slack: Mark’s research has shown that the primary object of women’s desire is often being desired. Being wanted turns us on—which is great in terms of setting up mutually pleasurable sexual experiences (which are the only kind we should be having) but what happens when our own want is not reflected back? We’re turned off, but sometimes that “turning off” feels less like a sexual switch being flipped and more like an emotional gut-punch. The (partial) solution? “We need to stop and assess [experiences that run counter to cultural norms] rather than react,” says Mark. “It’s hard to do.”
In queer relationships, gender scripts may not impose the same expectations as in hetereosexual ones, but there are still plenty of stereotypes to bump up against. Lizxnn, 37, is a queer non-binary woman who says she’s constantly censoring her sexual expression because she doesn’t want to come off like stereotypical men who make women uncomfortable. “This is a projection because I am often harassed and propositioned by cisgender men, and so I internalize a direct correlation, as if I am the cis man with bad boundaries,” she says. For Lizxnn, extreme directness has been a solution, which sounds counterintuitive, but in asking point-blank if someone is interested in having sex with her, she eliminates the anxiety-inducing guesswork of “is this creepy or is this cool?”. “I have gotten feedback from people that they appreciate the consent broached up front, and that it comes off as charming.”
Sam, 28, says that negative stereotypes about larger-bodied women cause her to constantly question herself. “Fat bodies have long been filtered through lenses that stigmatize and make jokes out of our sexuality,” she says. “We’re portrayed as desperate, sad, et cetera, and so it’s hard to break through all these barriers when you want to experience intimacy. It’s like the world’s worst orgy because it’s you, your partner, and then all your baggage!”
Considering all the identity-based variables that could set up power imbalances and affect who feels free enough to express their wants (see: race, sexuality, ability, class, etc.) it’s clear that my own journey, initiating-wise, has been fairly simple. I have only one item of so-called baggage to drag around: the bundle of expectations that accompanies my womanhood.
So how can we set fire to our baggage, rise out of its charred remains, and ascend to that level of empowerment where asking for what we want seems un-terrifying? Mark says we need to trace the origin of negative feelings we have related to initiation. Are those feelings coming from a partner’s insensitive remarks, internalized gender roles, past traumas, and/or other negative stereotypes? “You might tell yourself, oh, this reaction is coming from the societal expectation of me to be a gatekeeper of sex. I’m acknowledging that, now let’s push through the discomfort and move towards what I want.”
Also key is building up a repertoire of positive experiences related to sexual free expression. Mark says that, if we don’t receive some type of positive feedback, verbally or physically, from our partner when we initiate, we’re discouraged from continuing to express our sexual selves freely.
This is not to say we require a “yes, let’s have sex!” from a partner to have a positive experience with initiation. Nor do we even need a “no, but.” (But I love you. But let’s do it another time when we’re both into it.) This external validation helps—a lot—but perhaps the most empowering scenario of all occurs that first time you receive a rejection and digest it without issue. You realize, oh, this is not the poisoned apple it once was, and what a relief! Thinking of whatever answer you get as a crucial piece of communication shared by a partner—as opposed to a comment on your value as a lover or a human—means not letting the body next to you control your sense of self. If you ask me, there’s no better feeling.