Saying “No” Does NOT Equal “Low Desire”

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One of the most common problems people come to see me about?

“I have low desire.”
“He has low desire.”
“She has low desire.”

In response, I ask lots of questions. We talk. And at least half the time, I surprise people: “I don’t think this is a desire issue.”

Saying no to something when you don’t expect to enjoy it isn’t a “problem,” it’s common sense. For example, I honestly don’t like Brussels sprouts. That does surprise some of my friends and family, who offer recipes and advice. But when I say I don’t eat Brussels sprouts because I don’t like them, no one is surprised. No one says “So just because you don’t like them, you don’t want to eat them? How strange!”

So when new patients talk about “low desire,” I ask—desire for what? Because if people are offered sex they don’t think they’ll enjoy, most of them will say no. My job is to ask people what they expect.

Boring, Painful, Annoying?

If people expect sex to be boring, painful, rushed, impersonal, scary, or just plain annoying, of course they’ll say no. They may use the word no, or a reason like headache, fatigue, cramps, work deadline, or the lack of privacy. Some people will pick a fight, ending the sexual opportunity. Others will manage to get their partner to pick a fight, and then walk away guilt-free.

Some people are sick of hearing that their partner “needs” a certain amount of sex every week. Of course, different people desire different amounts of sex. But no one “needs” a certain amount of sex—not daily, not weekly, not yearly. Some people think their “need” gives them a “right.” They’re wrong. And their partners are usually pissed off. 

While some people who say “no” a lot are genuinely low desire, many are not.

Unless you’re just shopping for a one-night stand or quick hookup, the context for sex matters. To feel desire, some people want to feel loved or special. Some people want to feel pursued or seduced. Some people want to feel dominated or taken. Some people want to feel emotionally connected. Some people want to feel attractive or desired. Some people want to feel admired for their character, not simply because of chemistry.

Without the desired context, these people simply won’t want sex very much.

And somehow, many of these people are partnered with someone who either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or hasn’t learned how to create the feelings that allow their partner to feel desire. That’s when they drag their partner in to see me and get fixed. Or when someone decides they’re “low desire” and comes to see me and get fixed.

And so I ask, “desire for what?”

“I Am Really, Really, Really Glad…”

Sex without contraceptive risk? Sex that’s playful or gentle? Sex that isn’t narrowly focused on intercourse, or on super genital function? Sex where their partner doesn’t demand an orgasm every time? Sex that goes slowly? Sex that feels personal? Sex that conveys the message “I am really, really, really glad to be here with you”?

I’m not promoting any of these things. I just know that millions of people want one or more of these experiences in sex, and they instinctively resist sex that doesn’t address these emotional desires.

People mistakenly believe that the “solution” to this impasse is a different position, a different toy, a new technique, a threesome, tantra, or watching porn together. It rarely is. The solution doesn’t start with “what should we do in bed?” It starts with “how do you want to feel in bed?”

So honest conversation is where the desire issue can get resolved. Do it with clothes on, so you can be more in tune when the clothes come off.
~ ~ ~
While some “low desire” cases aren’t, some are. There’s a range of intrinsic desire in each of us. Perverse creatures that we humans are, people with higher desire and people with lower desire somehow find each other and couple up. They’re then surprised when they struggle—often for years—to find a sexual consensus.

And those struggles can take on a long-term earnestness that colors almost everything else.

If your partner wants sex less than you do, be genuinely curious about how they think about sex, what they say they don’t like, and what they say might make them more interested. If your partner wants sex more than you do, offer to share this intimate information with them.

Each partner should be honest with themselves—are you interested in changing how you approach sex?

And if you two are genuinely mismatched in your sexual interests, discuss it like partners, not adversaries. A professional can be helpful in pursuing this kind of conversation.
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