I recently got a text from a guy I know about a challenge he’s facing:
How do you deal with turning down a woman you’re not interested in sex with?
At first, this might seem like the answer is obvious. Just say no, right? But there’s a lot more to it than that and it’s worth looking at.
“I’m a guy. Of course I want sex.”
There are lots of interconnected reasons that men often have difficulty saying no to sex. The performance of masculinity requires men to always be interested in sex, and to be willing and able to go at any time. And while much has been said about how this reinforces the scoring model of sex, in which having sex counts for more than the pleasure of any of the participants, there’s not as much discussion of what that does to men’s ability to consent.
I’ve always said that if you can’t say no, then you can’t say yes. Usually, this comes up around women’s agency and the many ways in which girls and women are taught that they don’t get to control their bodies or their choices. And it also happens every time someone assumes that men are always (or should always) want to have sex. It happens every time someone shames a man for not being in the mood or being too tired or not having an erection. And it happens every time someone’s masculinity is questioned because he says he doesn’t want or isn’t in the mood for sex.
What this often leads to is men not knowing how to even say that we don’t want to have sex in that moment, with that partner, or at all. We don’t get opportunities to practice it or to find the words that feel right. We don’t get the chance to figure what we honestly want because there’s no reason to when the answer is always supposed to be yes. And we don’t get the chance to see how hard it can be to turn someone down and deal with their reactions to rejection.
I know that there are a lot of forces that keep these patterns in place. Women who ask men out or proposition them are often slut-shamed. And the idea that men take the lead and women follow is tenacious. But so far, most of the discussion I’ve seen around these issues focuses on women’s experiences, for a variety of reasons. We won’t come up with alternatives until we can encompass the entire puzzle.
Dealing With Rejection
A corollary to this is that while most men have had the experience of propositioning a possible sexual partner and being turned down, far fewer women have. I can think of more than one occasion when I turned someone down and she was genuinely shocked because she assumed that I’d jump at the chance to have sex. Fortunately, I’ve never had anyone freak out about it, and I’ve heard stories of it happening.
In the conversation this fellow and I had, it came out that he feels a lot of anxiety around turning a woman’s advances down because of the reaction that he expects her to have. Rejection isn’t an easy thing, in part because it triggers some of the same portions of the brain as physical pain. It often takes a lot of fortitude and shame resilience to be turned down and not sink into a shame spiral. So we often coddle others and “play nice” in an attempt to minimize their feelings of shame.
That seems like a reasonable strategy- if I can keep you from feeling rejected, then I can protect myself from your reaction. Unfortunately, that can make us give mixed messages (“not right now”) or hide our real feelings (“ok, I guess”) or freeze in a moment of not knowing what to say. This last one is especially troubling in a world that continues to believe that a lack of no means yes. And contrary to what many people seem to think, a lot of men fall into these traps, too.
This is one of those situations in which I think a sharp knife cuts best. Sometimes, we just need to say it quickly and cleanly, trusting that the other person will have the resilience to not sink into shame. And even if they do, we need to have the strength to not topple over with them. Instead, we need to stay firmly on our own feet, which can sometimes allow us to offer a helping hand. But if we get pulled over with them, then nobody is in a position to help.
One thing I find useful is to remember that I am not responsible for anyone else’s feelings. My actions might trigger feelings for you, and that doesn’t mean that I made you feel that way. When we say things like “you made me feel like this,” we give up all of our power to that other person. When we say “you did that and now I feel this way,” we take responsibility for ourselves and, ultimately, claim a greater power over the situation. Conversely, I’ve practiced not saying things like “I made this person feel that way.” Instead, I focus on my actions and allow them the room to have their own responses. This is important because it helps me to not coddle someone else’s feelings of shame if I set a boundary or turn down an offer (whether the offer is for dinner, help with a project, or sex).
In my experience, and from talking with other queer men, this is often different when guys approach guys. One reason for that is that there aren’t the same entrenched patterns of gendered imbalances at play. Another is that queer men often have more experience with navigating these sorts of things in public, non-queer spaces, so we’re more used to minimizing any negative responses in order to remain unnoticed. And while some queer men can be jerks about it, most of us have been on both sides of this interaction, so we have more practice at being graceful about it. Or at least, more direct.
Pay Attention To Your Body
One of the unfortunate patterns that a lot of men get stuck in is not noticing what’s going on with our bodies. We often try to convince ourselves to have sex when we don’t really want to. And that’s made much easier when we use erection medications to force a physical response when our hearts aren’t really in it.
I once spoke with a man who wanted to know if a cock ring would fix his erection problems. When I asked him about his situation, it turned out that he had lost his job, his house was in foreclosure, and he and his wife were considering divorce. He hoped that sex would bring them closer together, rather than working on their relationship and stress management and allowing the sex to flow from that. And he had no idea that adrenaline makes erections less likely. Your body doesn’t care if the stress is from being stuck in traffic, fighting with your partner, or worrying about money- the physical response is going to be the same.
Similar situations can arise when we’re tired from a long day at work, dealing with health issues, or we simply want to take a break from putting our energy out. (This is one reason I like to say that pegging can help save the world. Women who have tried it have a much better understanding of how much effort and energy men often put into intercourse.) And when we try to force it, we dissociate from our bodies and our emotions, which isn’t really good for sexual pleasure.
Unfortunately, boys and men are usually taught to push through and force ourselves to perform, whether that means on the football field or in the bedroom. Learning to tune into our bodies and pay attention to what they’re telling us takes time and practice. And if our partners don’t see the difficulties in that, it’s even harder to do.
But in the end, it’s worth learning to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. Tuning into that can help us ask for what we genuinely want, to set limits that we need, and to say yes, no, maybe, or anything else we might want to.
Putting It Into Words
I’m entirely serious when I say that turning someone down takes practice. There are lots of different ways to respond to any sexual offer and the best way to do it is to use words that feel right to you. One great way to figure it out is to try it in advance. You can experiment with different phrases or words to see which ones fit best. Here are a few suggestions. None of these will work in all settings or all relationships, so you’ll need to adapt them to your circumstances.
• I’m not feeling sexual right now.
• I’m not available. Thanks for asking.
• I like you and enjoy spending time with you. I’m not available for sex.
• I really value our friendship and I think that sex would change it. I don’t want to do that.
• Thank you for the sweet offer. I’m not up for sex, and I really appreciate your asking.
• No, thank you.
Pick one or two of these and say them out loud sometime when you’re alone. Make any changes to the exact phrasing that you need to in order to make it fit.
If the person who asks you is someone you want to maintain a connection with, it might be a good idea to follow up by continuing the conversation in order to maintain the “interpersonal bridge.” Rejection can lead to shame, so expressing your thanks for the offer and spending some time with them are two great ways to do that. (In Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, these would be (Words of Appreciation and Quality Time).
One of the most powerful tools for communication that I know comes from the BDSM world. Safewords are usually described as ways to role play resisting your partner without losing the ability to make it clear where your boundaries are. If you like playing pirate and cabin boy, you might enjoy being able to beg the captain to stop without really meaning it. But there’s another really good reason to use safewords.
We start using the word “no” at a fairly young age, as any parent of a two-year-old can tell you. So by the time we’ve grown up, we’ve usually had a whole range of experiences with it and all sorts of other meanings get attached to it. That can make “no” hard to say, and that can make it hard to hear, especially during sex when the excitement is high and the hormones are moving through our bodies and brains. Safewords are a great way to sidestep that because we don’t have the same history with them. So if you find yourself already having sex and you realize that you want to stop, a safeword can make it easier to make that happen.
There are lots of different safewords that people use. Some folks like “red” for stop everything and “yellow” for “I need to pause/check in/deal with something.” Personally, I don’t use yellow since a yellow light often means “speed up to get through before it changes.” So I like “pink” because it’s not quite so red as red. Apparently, I’m not alone in that- I was talking with two folks about this and their safewords were fuchsia and magenta. Other safewords that some people use are time out, mercy, and please. Whatever your safeword, remember that it’s there to help you, so don’t forget about it. It’s a powerful tool.
In The End
When it comes down to it, we all need to be able to say no when we need to, and we all need to be able to hear it. If you’re a guy and you’ve never tried it, I suggest you think about why that is and whether there were times when you had sex that you didn’t really want to, simply because you didn’t think you could or should turn it down. I know I have, and I felt pretty crappy afterward. If we want to have the kinds of sex that make us smile when we look back on it, we need to be able to make it a choice rather than our default response. It might not be an easy skill to learn, and the payoff is that we get to have much better sex, healthier relationships, and more respect for and from our partners. And that is well worth the effort it takes to say two little letters.