Reasons to Not Have Sex
There are lots of factors that kill the mood, prevent arousal from building at all, or create heightened risk (emotional or physical) that isn’t worth the temporary pleasure of having sex. To name a few:
“I’m in the middle of a sexually contagious outbreak.”
“I’m honestly just not feeling very close to you right now.”
“I don’t feel safe having sex with you yet.”
“I’m worried about being shamed for it afterward.”
“I always take so long to climax and I feel guilty that my partner has to work so hard and sometimes it doesn’t happen and then I feel broken and he feels like a bad lover and I just don’t want to deal with it.”
“I’m worried I won’t be able to perform.”
“I’m just not feeling sexual chemistry or attraction.”
Reasons for not having sex can also ebb and flow among entire generations. A recent Washington Post article discusses a widely observed trend of young Americans setting records for the generation having the least frequent sex (and fewest partners) in their 20s and 30s, in part because many of them live with their parents, are unemployed, and/or are finding other ways to spend their evenings (e.g. video games and social media).
With all these forces at work, it seems almost miraculous that people EVER have sex…
I’m lucky, though. I live with my partner. I’m employed full-time. My birth control is solid. I feel emotionally and physically safe with him and the location we’re in. My libido is at its normal level. I’m not stressed out. I’m not too tired (usually). I am still enjoying an emotionally blissful honeymoon phase, and no one is going to slut-shame me for having sex with my fiance. I’ve figured out my body and have orgasms consistently, and there are no additional health risks to consider.
Yet, I still say no to sex sometimes.
What’s the deal? What possible reason could I have?
“I don’t feel sexy.”
That’s it. Body image.
It’s this underlying belief that I don’t deserve sex, or can’t enjoy it, without feeling like I look the part of a sexy woman.
Body image has always been my primary reason for saying no to sex in relationships, and I hate it. It’s the worst reason.
I want to be clear about something: when I insist that poor body image is the worst reason for not having sex, I am not undercutting its legitimacy. It is a valid reason. And I’m sure I’ll use it many many more times in my life.
“I don’t feel sexy” is the worst reason to not have sex simply because it comes from such a painful and heartbreaking place: the sexual objectification of my own female body.
When I say no to sex because of poor body image, it’s because I have internalized a lifetime of messages about what I need to look like, the shape and features I need to have, and the emotional state I need to be in about my body, before I can be ready for sex.
These mental patterns arise from a phenomenon that is so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that we forget how recently it developed, which is this:
Feeling sexually desirable has become completely synonymous with feeling sexual at all.
At this point in my life, how attractive I feel is a better predictor of my desire for sex than wanting to connect with my partner or how much pleasure I want to feel in my body. I’m not okay with that.
So how did this happen?
The Beauty Myth
In the feminist classic The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf explains the historical origins of this phenomenon. It began as recently as the 1980s, when the conventions of high-class photography started to be leveraged by the marketing industry as a means to sell products to women. These airbrushed photographs often depicted women who looked like centerfold models in states of sexual arousal, because as we all know, “sex sells”:
“Seeing a face anticipating orgasm, even if it is staged, is a powerful sell: In the absence of other sexual images, many women came to believe that they must have that face, that body, to achieve that ecstasy.”
“In the absence of other sexual images” is key.
My long-time aversion to female nudity in movies, strip clubs, and porn all stem from my frustration and shame that my own body doesn’t look like theirs. These women who are are portrayed as — and paid for — being sexually desirable shared many of the same proportions, facial features, hair and skin tone, etc. Over time, I bought into the message that I must have “that face, that body, to achieve that ecstasy” because those are the only people I saw experiencing it (never mind that many of those experiences are being faked).
Fortunately, with a wider diversity of body types getting naked (including men) on stages or camera for Hollywood or PornHub, I find myself feeling less body shame, defensiveness, and less triggered in general around it all.
What I’ve realized is that my discomfort was never about the nudity or the sex itself. It was about how it impacted my body image. It was about who was allowed to get naked without ridicule. It was about whether I felt inspired or discouraged by their sexual expression. It was about whether I could see myself included among the people being portrayed as sexually relevant.
The good news
What I find encouraging about all this is that our tendency to equate a specific type of female body with female sexual pleasure had a culturally- and politically-driven beginning. This means it can also have a culturally- and politically-driven ending.
Flipping the Narrative
“Beauty pornography…claims that women’s ‘beauty’ is our sexuality, when the truth goes the other way around.”
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
The last thing I intend to do is provoke guilt in anyone about the times they have said no to sex because they didn’t feel sexy in their bodies.
I’m not suggesting that you rebel against the Beauty Myth by having sex even when you don’t feel sexy, when you genuinely don’t want to.
But I will say this: the next time you notice yourself struggling with poor body image and feeling “unsexy,” it may be worth entertaining the idea of having sex anyway. Have sex with greasy hair. Do it with a zit on your nose. Make love even when you’re feeling very aware of the weight you’ve gained lately. Pleasure yourself after you get back from clothes shopping and nothing you tried on felt flattering.
Have sex not because you feel “sexy,” but because feeling sexy is not a prerequisite to enjoying sexual pleasure and connection. Give yourself permission to focus entirely on the way sex feels, rather than the way it (or your body) looks.
Consider this: Photography was invented in 1826. The silver-glassed mirror was invented in 1835. The first video camera was invented in the early 1900s. For the grand majority of our history, humans have been fucking without photography, mirrors, or video. They barely knew what their own faces looked like, let alone what they looked like having sex.
How would you show up differently in your intimate relationships if you were never exposed to a photoshopped image or videos of cosmetically enhanced people having sex — and your own reflection to compare them to multiple times a day?
In an ideal world…
With all this said, feeling sexy is a great feeling. Liking the way you look makes life more pleasant in certain ways, and I would never begrudge someone for wanting to feel beautiful and attractive. Ideally, I’d just love for you to feel sexy in the exact body you have.
But as a first step, I just want you encourage you to challenge the belief that you must conform to some external standard of sexiness before you are able to enjoy sex. The truth is that you are not obligated to meet any standard of appearance before you access that bliss and aliveness. It’s yours. There is no gatekeeper but you.
The best sex of your life might happen after 7 days of hiking in the woods when you reek of body odor, your face is breaking out from missing your usual skincare routine, your pubic hair is a forest of its own, and you’re covered in dirt and mosquito repellent.
It would be so easy to let poor body image get in the way and say “I don’t feel sexy,” and leave it at that.
Or you could say….
“My body is buzzing from the energy of the mountains and this fresh air. Being away from electronics and media has brought me into the present moment more deeply than I’ve felt in years. Now is the PERFECT time to drop into my body and enjoy sexual pleasure.”
Only when you break the association between “looking sexy” and “feeling sexual” will you have the inner freedom to choose the latter.
My freedom is tied in with yours
In writing this article, I must admit I am selfishly motivated.
I want to liberate as many other women and men to feel sexy as hell for as much of their time on earth as possible. Whenever I see anyone (especially if she doesn’t look like a supermodel or mainstream porn star) fulfilling her honest sexual desires and indulging her body’s infinite capacity for pleasure, I think: Hell yes. It is accessible to all of us. I can too.
I don’t have to envy or judge anyone else because whatever I truly desire — full-body orgasms, tender and soul-merging intimacy, or a feeling of total sexual power and magic — I can have. And I can have it in the body I am already living in.
And so can you.