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Why Saying No to Sex Is an Act of Self-Care

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Recently I came across this article about a husband sending his wife a detailed spreadsheet of all of the times she turned him down when he asked to have sex, along with her excuses for not doing so. According to the woman, she was sent this document en route to an extended business trip and when she attempted to reach out to her husband after receiving it, he refused to answer her calls or call her back. The woman states that “their lives have been crazy busy, and they spent all spring renovating their new house. She also added that she was given nearly double her usual workload after some of her colleagues were laid off, and she was also visiting the gym very regularly.”

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Let’s unpack this a bit because frankly when I read this I could feel my blood boil. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I have written about my difficulties with sex and about how I’ve worked to make sex more comfortable. But the reality is, sexual abuse or assault is not the only reason that someone might not desire sex and you know what? That’s OK.

Let’s talk about consent.

Consent is defined as: “agreement or permission expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions that are mutually understandable to all parties involved, to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time.”

Consent is not negotiable. It can be revoked at any time, it cannot be coerced and it should not be assumed as something that is automatic as part of the legal contract of marriage. Let me repeat that last part…contrary to the teachings of some religious sects, sex is not anyones right. Just because you are married, you can still be raped. If someone leverages a belief system or in any way attempts to shame or discredit you as a means of obtaining sex, that’s not consensual. Period, end of story.

The power of “no.” 

One of the things that was a game changer for me in therapy was the notion that when it comes to sex, no is a complete and acceptable answer. It doesn’t require explanation, justification or any kind of “excuse” as this man highlights and as the women includes in her Reddit post. Nobody is owed a reason for why you don’t feel like having sex. If you’re saying no is taken as a rejection or otherwise negatively interpreted, that’s on them, not you. You are not responsible for their feelings.

There’s a certain power that comes with feeling liberated to say no to sex.  To me it’s as important, if not more important, than saying yes. So many of us are socialized to feel as though our value as a partner is somehow commodified by our readiness and availability for sex at any time. That is a dangerous precedent to set. It disempowers us and removes our agency over our own bodies. Every human being is entitled to being fully in control of how, what, when, where, and with whom they share their bodies in any capacity. This is non-negotiable and a critical part of self-care.

Quality of sex begins outside of the bedroom. 

Pro tip for this husband and others who expect sex whenever they want it…if you want your partner to say yes more frequently, start paying attention to them outside of the bedroom. I can attest that for me and for many, we are not what sex educator and New York Times bestselling author Emily Nagoski calls “Spontaneous” desirers. We are “Responsive” desirers, which means we need some warming up to get in the mood, particularly when life is keeping us stressed, tired, and overworked.

The anecdote? Offer some support. Instead of shaming someone for not being in the mood, find out what’s causing them to feel too overwhelmed to be able to relax enough to engage. Do they need you to take over the grocery shopping? Do they want help with meal planning? Would they like to spend more time talking about their stressful workday? Do they respond to impromptu gifts which make them feel loved? Do they want more hugs and hand holding to feel secure? Do they like words of affirmations like leaving them notes or texting them that you love them?

Seriously, find out what’s activating the proverbial sexual emergency brakes and then you can come up with strategies to help engage the sexual accelerators. Be a part of the solution. Sex that is mutually desirable is great sex. Sex that’s just for the enjoyment of one partner is exploitation.

This is a subject that I’m passionate about because it’s something that has taken Herculean effort on my part in therapy to reconcile. I’ve spent countless sessions with my therapist disentangling my shame from my abuse from my shame at not living up to my obligations as my husband’s wife, and from our conversations, I’m hardly alone in my difficulty with this. The idea that I could ever be comfortable with saying no and not follow that with a justification seemed so foreign to me that I still sometimes catch myself doing it.

Mind you, my husband has never once pressured me or shamed me for saying no. The dialogue occurs within my own self-loathing brain that often forgets that I’m a fully realized human being whose desires and needs matter and who deserves to be loved and to love myself. I’m reclaiming my self and learning to love me one “no” at a time, and it’s one of the greatest pleasures of my life.

Getty image by Lyndon Stratford

Originally published: June 17, 2022
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