Most women I talk to would describe feeling a bit (and sometimes very) hurt if they were the sexual initiator in this scenario.
In contrast, we tend to think that sexual rejection doesn’t hurt so much for men which is based, at least in part, on two assumptions.
The first is related to Masculinity Theory1,2, which proposes that men should desire sex for physical and surface level reasons rather than for an emotional connection.
So, if men initiate sex and their efforts are rejected, it can’t hurt that much because all they lost out on was the physical act of sex or “getting off.”
And the second assumption, related to Sexual Script Theory3,4, suggests that in heterosexual relationships, men should initiate sexual activity and women should act as the “gatekeeper” (i.e., the one who says yes or no to those advances).
As a result of initiating sexual activity more often, it follows that men would also tend to experience more rejection.
Which seems to lead us to conclude: Rejection can’t hurt that much because men must expect it.
But just because the sexual rejection scenario I described earlier might be more likely to occur to a man, doesn’t mean it’s any easier to handle.
In fact, it seems to be the opposite pattern. That is, the more often rejection happens the more it can really hurt a man’s confidence, his ego, and even decrease his own interest in sex.
In my research, I interviewed a community sample of men (aged 30-65) in long-term heterosexual relationships (14 years duration on average) about their experiences of sexual desire5.
I asked men about whether there were times where they felt less desire, or maybe even experienced no sexual desire at all.
And what almost every man I interviewed told me was that their sexual desire (and sometimes even their self-esteem) decreased when their sexual advances were rejected.
For example, take a look at these quotes from men I talked with that describe the impact sexual rejection had on them:
“When you’re the guy and you’re always the one to make the moves all the time, and your partner’s always the one saying “no, no, no, no” you start getting very aware… depressed, and wondering whether or not something is going on. Whether or not it’s you.” – Jerry, age 42
“If she doesn’t want me, she somehow is not interested in me… it offends me somewhere inside…I know she is not interested in me and she doesn’t like me. Doesn’t want me. It’s like forget it. I don’t feel it anymore.” – Kyle age 38
What these men are describing isn’t perceived as: my partner doesn’t want sex right now – the feeling is my partner doesn’t want me.
And most of the men I talked to didn’t describe rejection here and there that could be chalked up to bad timing.
For example, you’re in “the mood” but your partner has a legitimate headache, is sick, in a bad mood, etc.
That’s going to happen. It does happen. In every relationship. Because the idea that we would feel sexual interest at the exact same time as our partner every time over multiple years is perhaps a nice, but a pretty far-fetched idea. There are going to be plenty of times where either partner says: “no, not tonight honey.”
But many of the men I interviewed talked about the impact of regular rejection of their sexual advances that wore them down over time, that made them question themselves, their relationship, and ultimately negatively impacted their self-esteem.
Men also indicated that having their sexual advances rejected over and over again actually decreased their own level of interest in sex.
“I’m usually a very positive person, but when it comes to sex, it’s tough to stay positive or imagine [sex] when you’re always getting rejected. So it’s easier not to think about it.” – Ben, age 49
This quote represents the sentiments I’ve heard from more and more men during research and in therapy. That rejection is hard.
That sexual rejection is really hard. And, as a result, men often strategize to behave in ways to avoid that rejection.
Often by pulling back from sex by showing less of an interest and reducing the frequency and quality of their sexual advances.
A recent study by Dr. Amy Muise and her colleagues supports this finding. Over the first two phases of a three-part study, the researchers explored how well 128 couples were at reading signs their partner was interested in sex6.
Dr. Muise found that across her first two studies there was a similar pattern of men under-perceiving their female partner’s interest in sex.
So Muise conducted the third part of that study to explore why this might be the case. And they focused on the potential role of rejection.
The third of her studies included 101 (mostly) heterosexual couples between the ages of 18 and 53, in relationships that ranged from 6 months to 22 years.
Over the course of three weeks, the couples were asked to keep a diary of their sexual activity. One of the questions the researchers asked was: “I did not want my partner to reject me” (with responses ranging from “1” indicating “not at all important” to “7” indicating “extremely important”).
The researchers concluded that on days when men were particularly motivated to avoid rejection, they were more likely to under-perceived their partner’s interest in sex.
In other words, when men reported feeling that they were more averse to the possibility of experiencing rejection (for whatever reason, or reasons, that might be – feeling insecure, having a bad day, previously receiving some less than stellar feedback from their boss) they missed sexual cues from their partner. They did not initiate sex. They were less likely to even report thinking about sex.
Which appears to be an adaptive response. To consider, Hey, maybe my partner isn’t in the mood and it would be too risky today to get it wrong. Too risky to think they did have an interest and then experience rejection again. I’ll just leave it alone.
What Can We Do With This Information?
It’s understandable to not be in the mood to have sex with your partner if you feel they are just looking for a physical release and you’re the closest (or only available) option. But when I work with couples in therapy I regularly see the shift that can happen when men are able to vocalize that their desire for sex isn’t simply about sexual release and that instead, they want to connect and feel close with their partner and to receive validation of their desirability and their worth.
And when the other partner hears that their rejection hurts more deeply than they thought they sometimes reject less often, try to initiate a bit more, or something just as helpful, they are mindful of rejecting in kinder ways.
A shift from a cold shrug or eye roll becomes “sorry, tonight I’m really not feeling it” with a conciliation offering such as “but maybe we can find time tomorrow or this weekend?” Or “maybe we could just sit and cuddle on the couch instead.” You might be surprised at what a shift like this can do in your relationship.
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