Sexual Style Differences and Sex-Negative Messages Can Contribute to Tension in Relationships

Deborah J Fox, MSW

By Deborah J Fox, MSW

The thirty-something couple in my office, married for ten years with a young son, sit across from each other, tension and despair written on their faces. When I hear their story of sexual disconnection, it sounds all too familiar. Ben’s story is one of frustration that they only occasionally have sex. Sara’s story is also one of frustration because she’s at a loss as to how to fix this between them. They both agree that when they do engage in sex, the encounter itself goes well enough. Yet that doesn’t lead to another roll in the hay for quite some time.

Then there’s the group of men meeting for happy hour, bemoaning their lot as married men who’ve accepted the ‘fact’ that women lose interest in sex after they’ve been married for a few years. Anecdotes abound, yet the understanding of why sex diminishes is the result of the astounding lack of information about female sexuality.

Some women do say, “I don’t care if I ever have sex again as long as I live.” I think the truth is more likely, “I don’t care if I ever have the kind of sex, or the circumstances under which I’m having sex, again.” The sources of all this distress seem to be, unfortunately, among the world’s best kept secrets. How does sexuality really work for women?

Two Types of Desire

A major source of sexual frustration in couples is that they’re under the impression that sexual desire just pops up for everyone in the same way. And when it doesn’t, there’s a lot of confusion and blame.

There are two basic types of sexual desire – spontaneous and responsive. We’re very familiar with the spontaneous type. You know, those who walk down the street on an average day regularly struck with a desire for sex. They seem to up for sex most anytime. Sexuality researcher, Emily Nagoski, tells us that about 75% of men are members of this group, but only about 15% percentage of women. Because women often aren’t exposed to what is more typical of female sexual desire, they often end up feeling, “What’s wrong with me?” or falsely concluding, “I’m just not a sexual person.”

The majority of women are members of a secret society called responsive sexual desire. Often women like Sara don’t even know they’re members. No one told them that this group existed. I was once describing responsive sexual desire to my husband and he said, “That’s interesting, that’s not what you see in the movies.” Exactly. The media, a major provider of sex education, only depicts spontaneous sexual desire.

What is responsive sexual desire? In this group, the context of the moment is critical to your openness to the idea of sex. If you’re tired, preoccupied with a work project or a troubled family member, stressed, or feeling blah, interest in sex is going to be hard to come by. These are not just factors affecting your interest in sex, they are central. There’s nothing wrong with you for not being interested, it’s just the context isn’t right.

A common experience for responsive people is that desire shows up after arousal. This is normal. It’s just not advertised. What this means is that the question, “Am I feeling desire for sex?” isn’t the right question. “Am I open to engaging in touch?” is the right one. With physical touch arousal may well show up.

Fundamentally context is relevant for everyone. It’s just that for the spontaneous crowd, that context covers a huge swath of territory. As it turns out, spontaneous people are usually in relationship with responsive people. I’ve found this often to be true in same-gender couples as well. These groups need to get to know each other. When I explain responsive desire to Ben, his jaw drops and doesn’t close for a while. Whereas Sara is nodding vigorously, “That’s me, that’s me, I’ve just never known how to explain it.” Likewise, when I explain that Ben likely walks down the street with every sixth thought being a sexual one, her eyes pop out of her head.

A consequence for many women growing up is that sexuality wasn’t about them and their pleasure. With inadequate information about sex, young women are often left to apply to themselves what they learn from their experiences with males – or the movies. If males just dive into erogenous zones at the outset of a physical encounter, then that must be the way to have sex. However, when desire tends to follow arousal, a direct focus on erogenous zones can feel like an assault. Their bodies aren’t yet ready to be stimulated sexually.

This understanding exposes the myth that women lose interest in sex for being just that – false. They do lose interest in the kind of sex they’ve been expected to enjoy – late at night when they’re ready to go to sleep, regardless of what else is going on for them. In sexuality, knowledge is truly powerful.

The Power of Negative Messages

The negative messages that girls are bombarded with since they found out they were girls have created enormous barriers to feeling sexually comfortable. There is a staggering number of “good girls don’t” messages, all designed to modulate what might come naturally:

Don’t be too loud/expressive.

Don’t sit that way in a chair.

Don’t be “too much.”

Don’t get pregnant (which translates to ‘sex is dangerous’).

The boys won’t like you if do such and such kind of behavior.

Your body isn’t quite right.

Have you ever heard a cliché of “girls will be girls” the way you hear, “boys will be boys?” Never. The lingering impact of negative messages is powerful.

The Bottom Line

Knowledge is power. Understanding what makes you tick and what negative messages and experiences have impacted you can clear up much confusion and blame.

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Deborah Fox is a couples and sex therapist. She is passionate about supporting relationships and writes on topics that help couples grow and sustain the emotional connection in their relationships.

Washington, DC
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