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I didn’t realize how much I had internalized gendered expectations about sex until I was living them out in my relationship — my 26-year-old boyfriend wouldn’t sleep with me.
The first time my ex-boyfriend John* and I slept together, we literally slept together. After our first date, I invited him back to my place, where I had every intention of having sex with him. We started making out and it was lovely. When the momentum stalled, I tried to get it on track by asking if he had a condom.
“Can we wait?” he asked sheepishly, and then — when I said ok — “are you mad?”
Of course I wasn’t mad. Confused, yes, but not mad. I knew men like John existed — men who would want to get to know my personality before they got to know my vagina — but I had yet to come across one in the wild. At the time, I thought this was kind of romantic, if a little provincial. My attraction to John was surprising, generally, as he was an off-brand choice for me. He came from a family of Republicans and rowed crew. He had a plaid duvet. He was vanilla personified, but at the time I needed vanilla in my life. At 28, I was ready for someone who could pass a drug test and was actively contributing to his 401(k) for a change.
Weeks later, when we finally did have sex, I wasn’t expecting much, but again, John surprised me. The sex was really good, like apple pie: unadventurous but deeply satisfying. But John didn’t make a sound, not a peep, not even when he finished.
As our relationship progressed over the next couple months, so did our sex life. We had sex often, and more often than not, John was the one who got things going. He even started to let out an audible pant or groan from time to time. Then something shifted. I can’t track it to a particular moment, but it was after his mother refused to receive us at their Connecticut family home. John passed it off as some sort of family drama, but I wasn’t convinced. John had already met my meddling but golden-hearted family without incident; being excluded from his felt personal. And then we stopped having sex entirely.
It’s not like I wanted to jump right into bed with John after feeling dissed by him (and vice versa), but after a few sexless weeks, and more than a couple unceremonious rejections, I couldn’t contain my concern any longer. I’d never been sexually dismissed by a man before, and I didn’t really know how to handle it. As sexologist and sex educator Em House explains, we are “inundated with the toxic stereotypes that all men want sex all the time and women don’t want sex or shouldn’t want sex as often.” I didn’t realize to what degree I had internalized these gendered expectations about sex until I was living them out in my own relationship.
I asked John if everything was okay, he assured me he’d just been tired and stressed lately. I’d deal with this excuse a lot in my time with him.
And, sure, sleep (or lack thereof) and stress can take their toll on one’s libido. For men, getting less than eight hours can lower testosterone levels. (John wasn’t exactly a night owl.) The body may also respond to stress by narrowing its arteries, restricting blood flow to certain, ahem, appendages, which can lead to erectile dysfunction in men. (Also not a problem for John, but more on that later.)
While I knew I wasn’t alone in this experience, I still felt like part of a silent minority. There was something deeply alienating about being a woman in the twilight of her twenties having this specific issue. I felt guilty for wanting sex more than my partner did, and embarrassed for wanting sex more than a man, and John did nothing to ease those insecurities. In one of our darker spats, he accused me of using sex to self-validate. (As House explains, “These stereotypes hurt everyone.”) Like many women who like sex, I’ve been shamed for it in subtle and explicit ways my entire life. I didn’t need my boyfriend joining in.
I couldn’t fully suppress the fear that John was right. We live in a world where girls and women are taught to protect their sexuality, while boys and men learn to express it with abandon. “Per the common cultural tropes for [men], it can be considered weak to express fear or self-doubt, so these emotions are often masked with anger, blame, shaming the other partner, and/or acting cold or aloof,” as House explains, which is exactly how John reacted to my attempts to solve what I perceived to be a huge problem in our relationship.
John was really good at avoiding conflict. Our arguments (if you can call them that) were one-woman shows, and by that I mean me talking as he stared off into space or busied himself on his phone. If we fought in bed, he would literally pretend to fall asleep — fake snoring included. The closest I got to communication was when he told me, “Forcing me to talk about this only makes it worse.” Fine, but what was I supposed to do if talking was off the table? I couldn’t help but feel like I was the problem. I wasn’t desirable enough. I wanted too much. I was needy in the sex and talking departments. This did such a number on my self-esteem, I was too overwhelmed with self-doubt to leave.
Sydney*, 31, was in a similar situation in her early-twenties. She was dating a man who she says was not as interested in sex as she was. “[He] had difficulty being physically intimate, though we were emotionally very close,” Sydney explains. Even though their relationship lasted a few years, Sydney says, “I couldn’t help feeling like I was being personally rejected in the bedroom and that I was undesirable.” Because of that, she says she stopped seeing herself as a sexual being. Now that she has some distance from that relationship she’s more comfortable validating her own needs. “I of course have no idea what caused the rejection I experienced. Though it probably had nothing do do with me, it still felt like it did,” she says.
I completely empathize with Sydney’s feelings of seemingly inexplicable sexual rejection. But in my case, John had no problems with physical intimacy. He was a committed cuddler. Nor did he have any problems with arousal, he just didn’t want to act on it (especially because he most often got turned on when we argued). You could house a family of four under the tents John pitched when I cried or got upset. I explained all of this to my then-therapist, a spry woman in her 70s. While she eschewed the word “normal” to describe anyone’s sex life, she did suggest that the fact that she was having more sex with her husband than I was with my 26-year-old boyfriend meant that something was most likely amiss.
Indeed, many professionals warn against trying to standardize the idea a normal sex life. Sexuality educator, speaker, and author of the book For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, Al Vernacchio says, “I would much rather think in terms of a ‘satisfying’ sex life, which I would define as the amount of sexual activity that equally satisfies the people in the relationship. Putting any kind of arbitrary number of how many times per week (or month, or year) people in a relationship should be having sex is never a good idea, in my opinion.” House takes it one step further: “The concept of ‘a normal sex life’ is a cultural myth used to control people’s bodies, identities, and relationships. People tend to look for normalcy when we’re feeling insecure about ourselves or want to justify our judgment of someone else.”
To House’s point, I was feeling deeply insecure about my sex life with John. I pleaded for him to communicate. I covered all my bases: I asked him if there was anything he needed from me that I wasn’t giving him, or if there was something I was doing that he didn’t like. I suggested dressing up. I asked him if he needed another girl or another a guy. I scoured his belongings to see if he was taking any medications that may interfere with his desire (not my proudest moment). I even dragged him to Babeland to pick out a couple’s toy. Looking back, my full-court press approach may have made matters worse.
Eventually, I dumped John. It wasn’t just about the lack of sex, but that was obviously part of it. In our case, our sexual dysfunction was mirroring similarly unhealthy dynamics in our relationship. It was always John’s way or the Long Island Expressway. We ate what John liked to eat, and we watched the movies John wanted to see. Everything I did was wrong, down to the way I walked, which by John’s estimation was too slow. (I wish I were kidding). Nothing I did or said was safe from critique. Putting all this together, I felt that he had been manipulating me into seeking his approval, and I had been falling for it.
Perhaps my willingness, whether it to be to have sex or have a fight, intimidated John or made him feel insecure, and shutting me down and shaming me was some kind of self-preservation projection. What matters is the fact that I, a woman, like sex, and I understand that is not a problem. The problem was that my partner didn’t value sex in the same way I did, and rather than discuss our differences, he shamed me for them. There’s a saying that goes something like, “Everyone you meet in life is either your lover or your teacher.” In the end it turned out that John wasn’t my lover — he was the one who taught me that men who shame women for embracing their sexuality have a lot to learn.