What Would You Change About Perceptions of Sex?

I was recording a podcast last week (shoutout Hypotheticast!) and we got into one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard regarding sex: if you could change something about the way society perceives or approaches sex, what would it be?

If you want to hear my first thoughts, check out the Hypotheticast in a few weeks and listen to me talk about things! But because the ‘cast is supposed to be quick, fun type things, I had more thoughts and I wanted to share them here.

There are a few nice, obvious answers to this: virginity as a construct, the idea that sex has to be just two people or PIV sex, the idea that sex is something you can take from another person…but boy oh boy do I have a lot of thoughts about the ways that queer, kinky, polyamorous, and asexual communities can really expand our definitions of sex and I want to get all the way into it here.

The many problems with the concept of virginity have been discussed ad nauseum on other parts of the internet, but I do think that the pervasiveness of “virginity” points towards a larger attitude about sex that I truly hate. This attitude is summed up by the statement “sex is a threshold”. I touch on this in the podcast, but I want to get into more depth here, because I think that this attitude, that sex is a line and when you pass it everything changes, extends into almost every realm of sex.

It’s easy to see what I’m talking about when we look at virginity: there’s before you have sex and after you have sex. Supposedly (especially for women) this is a huge change in your life that makes you into a totally different person, or changes your worth or purity, or marks a big moment in your life. But the idea that sex changes everything extends far beyond that.

As I mention in the podcast there is something called the relationship escalator, so called because you can only go one direction. Sex is a huge part of this; once you have sex with someone, many people believe that it changes the relationship forever. You can never go back to NOT having sex without it being a big damn deal (a breakup or something similar).

In fact we’re so obsessed with how sex changes a relationship that we have whole stand up routines about when you should have sex for the first time (is it three dates? first date??), we make snap judgments about people who have sex on the first date, there are tons of tropes about men who will disappear once they get sex, and entire segments of our population are convinced that if you have sex before marriage then you have sinned. Many people who don’t think that are even willing to concede that you should be very very careful about who you have sex with, because having sex will create a deep, emotional bond or make the relationship inherently more serious. Wowsers, apparently one activity completely changes relationships in a way that no other activity does.

In addition to the way that we see sex within any individual relationship, we also see it as a bar that determines which of our relationships are important and which are not. Sex supposedly makes a relationship more important. Relationships in which we have sex are seen as more serious, and are supposed to take more of your time and attention than relationships that don’t include sex. It’s a threshold that determines whether a relationship is real or not.

Sex is seen as a threshold and once you’ve passed it you can’t go back.

Tied into this is the idea that romance and sex are inextricably linked, and in some cases even the same thing. When we’re talking about attraction, many people think that there’s just one type and that it encompasses both sexual and romantic attraction. In reality those are two different things. One is the desire to have sex with someone. The other is those happy warm butterfly feelings you get when you just want to be around someone. But for many people this threshold view of sex includes the idea that romance needs sex, and that until it includes sex it’s not real or legitimate. It also implies that if you have a romantic relationship with someone you WANT sex with someone, and your relationship will be aiming towards sex.

Unfortunately, none of this is really how human beings actually work.

Sometimes we have sex with someone and then realize hey, this doesn’t work for me, and want to go back to being friends. Some people are asexual and have fulfilled romantic relationships that don’t include sex. For some people, the most important relationship in their life is entirely platonic and will never include sex: it might be a friend. And in fact there are other elements of a relationship that will often determine how important it is than whether you’re having sex. Sure, for some people sex is a sign of commitment, but it’s a pretty limited view of humans to assume that all of us connect with each other in exactly the same way. I for example become far more committed if I have long conversations with someone than if I have sex with them. Some people even manage to have sex with multiple people without it becoming a big concern about who is their One (polyamory is real y’all).

People have all different reactions to having sex. For some people it can change relationships in a big way. But for other people it really doesn’t, and putting this hyper focus on sex in relationships rather than letting people figure out for themselves what really makes relationships for them can give people tons of hang ups. It means that sex becomes a huge, scary thing and we become VERY concerned about who is having sex with whom when really it’s nobody’s business. It also limits the ways that we can organize our relationships. People have the ability to have so many different types of relationships, but when we make sex a marker like this, we tell people that there is one type of relationship that should be the most important. In my experience, when society says that there is one way to live your life that is acceptable or “normal”, a lot of people who don’t naturally work that way end up screwed over.

We also have lots of weird ideas about how much sex people should be having. We assume that everyone wants sex, or that everyone SHOULD want sex (if you don’t then there’s probably something wrong with you, you’re sick or traumatized or repressed), but at the same time we seem to believe that the more partners you have, the less important each one is. There’s a lot to unpack there. First, not everyone has the same physical relationship with sex. Some people have low libidos, some people have high libidos. Some people have been raped or traumatized by sex and feel pretty uncomfortable with it. Some people orgasm a lot and others don’t. Not everyone wants sex, and the divide is not along gender lines as many people think. Asexual people are real, and they don’t feel sexual attraction at all. Some of them are sex repulsed, or simply not interested in sex. Many people assume that sex is always better than no sex: sex is inherently good. That’s just not true. Sex can be a negative or neutral experience for all sorts of reasons.

The other major problem with statements about how much sex we should be having and with how many different people is the idea that if you do something with more people, it becomes less meaningful. I have news for you friends: I could pet every cat in the world, and it would not make my cuddles with my sweet, dear, departed Sid Vicious any less precious. Giving your time and attention to someone isn’t diminished because you also care about other people. In some ways this harkens back to the threshold view of sex: you’re supposed to have one relationship of the sex/romantic type, and it is the most important one. If you move two relationships up to that point, then neither one is the most important. Neither is getting its due. But literally all of that is bullshit. There is no reason that sex is the one type of romantic that needs to be exclusive. There’s no reason that of all the things in the world, sex is the only one that gets worse if you share (no friends, that’s chicken pox). And let’s be honest, there is something weird and arbitrary about saying that everyone loves fucking but you should only love fucking one person or it’s BAD AND WRONG.

Basically if I could change one thing about how society perceives sex, I would make it less important. Sure, sex is cool. But we create this whole mythos around it. It becomes so intensely important to us: we make moral judgments about it, we want to know who’s having sex with whom, we worry we’re not having enough sex or about sex addiction. It’s just one activity that people can do together out of hundreds of thousands of possibilities. Let’s just all calm down. It doesn’t matter that much.

The Semantics of Rape

I’m baaaack! Sorry it’s been so long, but with GISHWHES and a week on vacation without internet, there was no way I was going to be posting. I’m happy to be back in action though, and so I decided to take on a topic that I’m sure will piss some people off. Hooray! I want to give you a basic template for determining if a rape has occurred, and who is culpable.

Let’s talk about drunk sex.

Or rather, let’s talk about rape, because drunk people cannot consent and people who have sex with nonconsenting people are committing rape.

Or rather, let’s talk about what it means to “have sex with” someone. That phrase seems really simple, but it can obscure quite a bit. When you hear that phrase, do you imagine that one person is acting on another, or that two people are doing something together? Sometimes I hear it used to mean one, sometimes the other. That is a huge problem for dialogues around consent and rape, because the difference between those two parsings is the difference between sex and rape.

Most of the time we can tell if one person is the active participant or if both people are actively participating in sex. We don’t always talk about rape that way. We don’t necessarily talk about the things that the rapist did. We talk about the things the victim did: did they run away, did they fight, did they scream. But we don’t talk about who is initiating contact, who escalates from kissing to touching, who removes clothing, who initiates penetration, etc. Those are usually pretty good markers of who is an active participant in an encounter (there are obvious exceptions, particularly in BDSM situations, but those exceptions almost always require pre-negotiation or a pre-existing relationship that uses non-verbal and mutually discussed cues to indicate if someone is consenting).

Where many people get confused is when alcohol comes into play. How does consent work between two drunk people? Aren’t we all raping each other because pretty much all of us have had sex while drunk?

I think things are both more confusing than many feminists want to realize (it is not just as simple as “consent is easy, any time a penis touches a vagina while people are drunk a man has raped a woman”) and less confusing than most other people want to recognize (we can figure this out, I promise). It hinges on those two meanings of “having sex with.” Most people want there to be a single metric to understand if a rape occurred and who did it. Typically that is consent: who was capable of giving it, who gave it. When alcohol is in the mix, I think we need to have a two step process instead. Step 1: determine who could consent. Step 2: determine who “had sex with” whom. Rape is not just the presence or absence of consent: it is continuing to engage in sex without the presence of consent. So we need to determine both pieces. That can be tricky when we’re not willing to talk about the nitty gritty of what it actually looks like to be an active participant in sex, and who was being active.

A big disclaimer: this DOES NOT mean victim blaming. It DOES NOT mean that if a person was active up to a point and then stopped being active, they were “having sex” the whole time. It DOES NOT mean that any prior sexual activity is relevant. What it means is using the actual facts to determine who was the aggressor. He took off her pants and she did nothing? He was having sex with her. She pulled him upstairs and grabbed his dick? She was having sex with him. While it sucks for victims to have to relive what has happened to them, it is also important to know the details of what happened, and that is true of any crime. This is not an excuse for cops or other officials to act as if a victim is a criminal or to force them to recount it over and over. A victim should give a detailed account once, and that should be good enough, unless they have left out a detail, or someone is confused.

I will in a future post discuss how we teach young people to both be active participants in sex, EVEN IF one person is more assertive or you’re doing a sub/dom scene, or one person likes receiving. But for now, let’s accept that we do a shitty job of talking about mutual assertiveness in sex, and recognize that who is doing what is an important part of discussing rape.


So step one: if only one person can consent and sex occurred, their partner raped them. If both people can consent, then great! Go to step two to help determine IF both people consented. Can neither person consent? This is the situation that most people seem greatly concerned about, especially in college campuses. What happens if both people are drunk?

Step two: was this a mutual encounter and everyone could consent? Great! You’ve had sex, and no one raped anyone!
Could everyone consent, but only one person acted while the other didn’t reciprocate? This is probably a red flag. It could have been negotiated this way, but encounters that are entirely one sided should probably get you to look a little more closely at them, whether they’re your own or whether you’re an official trying to decide if someone was raped or not. Get some more information about who says they consented.

Now we get to the one that EEEEEVERYONE is interested in. What if no one could consent? What if everyone was drunk? Here’s where it becomes incredibly important who actually actively participated. If only one person was active, then they are the only rapist. It doesn’t matter that sex involves two bodies, if only one person is making it happen, EVEN IF both people are drunk, then only that person is culpable. We cannot assume that that person was the man because that’s bullshit. We have to ask who did what to determine who was the aggressor. Many people get caught up on step one (which really isn’t that confusing) and forget about step two (which sometimes can be confusing, and is awkward to talk about, and really sucks for victims, but is necessary).

If both people are drunk and actively participating, then they both violated each other’s consent and are both culpable. We can discuss whether it’s possible for two people to rape each other or what the harm is in this situation, but it’s NOT the same as when one drunk person takes advantage of another drunk person. These are the situations that I worry are obscured when feminists use metaphors or parallels to other crimes that someone can commit when they’re drunk: most other crimes do not also come with a high likelihood of the criminal being a victim as well. When a feminist says that a drunk rapist is still a rapist, just like someone who drives drunk is still culpable, they miss that sex always involves two people, and that we do need to take the time to ask if both people were actively involved.

This is why we can’t just say two that two drunk people had sex with each other. That phrase obscures that sometimes it’s a one sided action and sometimes it’s mutual. That’s why many people are so concerned that their child or friend or acquaintance is going to be held responsible for a mutual encounter, instead of recognizing that the majority of the time we are talking about encounters in which only one person was active. In fact, it’s incredibly common for rapists to intentionally get their victims drunk and themselves remain barely buzzed so that they can use the confusion around the phrase to defend themselves. Those situations are the reason that feminists and other activists are so concerned with alcohol and rape. So please, if you find yourself wondering why one person is being held responsible for “drunk sex” but not the other, look at who actually did things. You might learn something.



My Gray

Content notice: fairly graphic descriptions of sex. Mention of non consensual sex.

This is a post that has probably been in the works by way of rumbling around in my brain for quite some time now. I didn’t realize that it needed to be a post until I realized how important it felt to me to realize that there were other people out there who had similar experiences to my own, and that in this one element of my life I hadn’t read anyone who has experiences similar to my own. So I decided that I should probably be that person and write about it in case there are other people out there who are confused and frustrated.

A few years ago I started talking about asexuality, and identifying as asexual. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking and working through what I want since then, and now am finding that I’m probably somewhere more in the gray asexual spectrum. I do feel sexual attraction, but it’s…unpredictable at best. I have read numerous accounts of what it’s like to be demi and to only feel sexual attraction when you feel a strong emotional connection with people, and that is an element of how sex works for me.

I have wondered and worried whether there’s something broken or wrong about me because one moment the descriptions of asexuality and even sex repulsion or fear ring true to me, but later I will happily have sex with my partner. I continually wonder if it comes down to my mental health or my eating disorder, if once I stop feeling depressed, or once I stop dissociating, or once I stop feeling disgusted by my body, then I’ll simply feel sexual attraction like “normal.”

I’m trying not to pathologize myself in those ways anymore. I want to just say that this is how I am right now. My sexuality is cyclical. This is probably true to a greater or lesser extent of many people, but I have rarely or never heard a description quite to the extremity of mine. When I first start to fall in love with someone (and yes, this is basically a requirement for sexual attraction in my experience) I have extremely strong sexual attraction to them.

However within a few months to a year, all sexual attraction for anyone at all dissipates. I don’t think about sex unless someone else brings it up, or unless I’m blogging about it. I find it very hard to put myself in the headspace of attraction and arousal. I feel for all intents and purposes like I am asexual during these periods.  Typically my sexual attraction will come back about 2 years after I have first started to date someone, although rarely does the relationship last through the drop in sex.

So while there are times that FEEL entirely asexual to me, I have been confused about identifying as such because there are also times that feel entirely allo. These aren’t a day or a few weeks at a time. This isn’t a question of relationship issues or losing my libido after being with a partner for a while. I will go from one day being in a relatively average sexual relationship to the next day not even being able to contemplate sex, feeling some fear of it, and not regaining any of that desire for sex or any attraction to any partner for months. During these times I don’t find myself attracted to other people, or wishing for a new or different partner. I am still very much in love, but all my attraction has basically turned off.

One of the most difficult things about this type of sexuality is that it’s not only confusing to me, it’s also very confusing to my partners, who often come to expect me to be allosexual and then get annoyed and frustrated and feel shut out or unwanted when the shift to ace happens. This has led to many situations in which I felt extremely pressured to have sex with someone and left me with a lot of hair triggers around physical contact in those times, because I have become used to the assumption that any physical contact is an entree to sex.

I have even had partners reassure me over and over that they didn’t want to pressure me, but would ask every day, multiple times a day, like a kid on a road trip “what about now?” They would constantly be trying to up the level of physicality. If I said yes to cuddling, they’d want to kiss. If I said yes to kissing, they’d want to make out. If I said yes to making out they’d want to take clothes off. You get the idea. This led me to the inevitable conclusion that any contact was dangerous.

It’s not all bad though! Here are some things that I’ve found extremely helpful as someone in the gray spectrum navigating a sexual relationship with an allosexual partner.

First, I have learned that I love being turned down for sex. When my partner sometimes says they’re not interested, it reinforces to me that they aren’t ALWAYS looking for sex from me. I know that for the allo partner there can seem like a lot of pressure to jump on it (literally) when the opportunity is presented, because who knows when it will come around again, but when my partner models saying no for me and makes that a more acceptable thing to do in our relationship, I feel safer.

Second, I have found that expanding the territory of what constitutes sex has been incredibly beneficial to my ability to feel comfortable. PIV is probably the most traumatic form of sex for most people who have any sort of negative feelings towards sex. Penetration in general is more likely to result in pain if the person being penetrated isn’t TOTALLY into it. But for some reason PIV with orgasms is the gold standard for male/female sex. Here’s something weird: that can be overwhelming. It’s a time commitment, it requires being emotionally present (at least for me. I can’t do sex that I’ve zoned out during or it becomes truly painful), it often requires work to get people off.

So here’s what works better for me. Sometimes I’m up for oral or digital stuff but not penetration stuff. Sometimes I think I’m up for PIV and it turns out I’m not. But it takes so much of the pressure off if I can make out with my partner for a bit and he can get himself off, or if I can start PIV sex and realize it’s just not working today so we switch to oral or something else. It gives me the space to decide how I want to sexually “hang out” with my partner in this moment, and to change my mind. WHOA. This is great for everyone, not just ace people. But my partner had to make it clear that there wasn’t a better or worse version, or that if he wasn’t getting off it wasn’t a problem.

None of these things are mind blowing, but what was mind blowing was how afraid I have been for so long. I was so confused of leading someone on, of never being able to find someone who loves me but doesn’t WANT NEED NOW sex. I’m perfectly happy incorporating sex into my relationship, and so what I want at this point is just some consistency in what I want and how I approach it.

For me, one of the hardest parts about the gray space has been my own internal attempts to figure out what I want and how to communicate that to others. The ace community has been booming and has started to provide some of these for ace folks, but the gray section hasn’t gotten too much love yet. Ideally this is a start at filling in all of that gray space, giving people an idea of some of the variation of the allo/ace spectrum, and giving more strategies and scripts for figuring out how to feel comfortable with your own sexuality.


Why Don’t Men Get To Be Sexy?

I was just recently watching a video of a dance competition in which the couple competing were dancing “sexy.” When the woman shook her hips, she got cheers. When the man did a little shimmy, the announcer said “that’s just wrong.”

People talk a lot about the expectations that are placed on women to look a certain way, and how those pressures negatively affect them. Nearly every woman I know has self esteem issues surrounding their body, has dieted or is dieting, worries about their weight, and is uncomfortable identifying themselves as beautiful. This seems to come about because women are hyper-sexualized and forced to be in the role of “sexually available” pretty much all the time. If you’re a woman, beauty is the price of admission for life. So when a woman acts sexy or dresses up or puts on new makeup, people cheer.

But there’s another element to the “women are the sexual objects” bullshit that doesn’t get much airtime and it’s one that pisses me off royally. Whenever I try to tell my boyfriend that he’s sexually attractive, he gets legitimately confused. It’s rare for men to be called sexy unless they’re movie stars. When your average man dresses up or tries to shake his booty, people laugh or shrug it off or say “you clean up good,” as if that’s all the validation that men need when they’re trying to present themselves nicely.

Why don’t men get to feel sexy too? Why don’t we treat men as attractive?

I’m a straight woman. I’m more likely to describe other women as hot or sexy than I am men. Isn’t that a little bit odd? Isn’t it likely that people are going to feel uncomfortable with their sexuality, their bodies, and their relationships if they’ve never been told they’re desirable, or never seen other people of their gender labeled desirable?

Here are some problems with men never thinking they’re attractive:

1. It’s considered weird if a woman initiates sex or intimacy

2. Men think that they must be the aggressors and feel a great deal of pressure to initiate

3. The idea that women must be convinced into sex makes more sense, because men are simply not attractive. Therefore no woman would ever want sex on her own, and so must be convinced/coerced/forced to have it.

4. Physical attractiveness and other positive traits get separated. Men see themselves as intelligent/funny/capable, but not attractive, whereas women are attractive and so cannot be those other things.

5. Men are more afraid of looking at their own bodies, being open to different sexual things, or seeing sex as a mutually pleasurable experience that they can approach in a variety of ways because they can’t conceive of their bodies as something sexy or interesting or attractive, but rather as a tool or instrument for doing things.

6. It just feels really awful to think you’re unattractive, and we’re teaching boys that their bodies will never be attractive.

We can do better. We can teach our kids that every body is attractive in some ways and to some people, and probably less attractive to other people. We can teach people that their bodies are desirable, that they’re desirable, and that they can both give and receive pleasure thanks to their bodies. Even men. We can teach each other that anyone is allowed to pursue a romantic interest (until that interest indicates they do not reciprocate the interest) and that there’s nothing creepy, weird, or wrong about women being the assertive ones or even about having a mutual relationship in which each partner initiates sometimes and some things.

I think men are sexy. I think my partner is sexy. And I want men to know that they are sexy.

Arousal and Consent, A Story of Compromise

Heina wrote a great post the other day about the fact that genital arousal is not the same thing as consent, and that attraction is a very different question from arousal (this is something that gets talked about in the asexual community quite a bit: most asexuals can be aroused but don’t feel attraction, and are also capable of giving consent despite the fact that they don’t feel sexual attraction).

Heina uses a lot of great examples, like the fact that someone can be raped while aroused, or that some people may want to have sex but their parts just aren’t quite cooperating. I want to look at one other example here and in particular look at the conversations that surround a particular kind of sexual situation and its consent/ethical dimensions.

I have talked a lot about situations in which one partner has a higher sex drive than the other and the fact that no one owes sex to another person ever. One of the common responses I get from people when I say that I don’t want to have sex if I’m not aroused is that I need to compromise and if I just go with it then eventually I’ll get in the mood and it will feel good.

When someone is NOT aroused but is willing to compromise with their partner and engage in sex (consent, are attracted), most people are 100% able to understand that whether a person is hard or lubricated is not equivalent to whether or not they’re interested in having sex. It’s incredibly common wisdom (especially in conservative circles that often espouse the idea that men can’t be raped because if they’re hard they consented), it’s considered very normal advice to tell a woman to make herself available whether she wants sex or not.

This kind of situation sheds some light on the ways that we already recognize what Heina is talking about, but I think that what Heina is talking about can also be a helpful addition to how to handle differing sex drives and situations in which one partner is not immediately interested in sex. First, there are times when your body just isn’t going to respond in the ways you’d like it to. You might be distracted, anxious, sick, tipsy, or something else that means even if intellectually you really want to have sex, you just can’t quite make it happen. Heina brings up a specific example of not being to orgasm during certain times of the month. There’s nothing wrong with realizing that even if you love your partner and are willing to compromise about a lot of things, you don’t want to try to push your body when it really won’t respond.

But the second point that Heina really hits on that is an important addition to the conversation about differing sex drives is that communication is hugely important because each individual is the authority on their own body and what their responses mean. This is supposedly a very basic element of consent, but it seems to be overlooked fairly often.

A lot of people put different amounts of importance on what their body is doing, some people feel more capable of letting their body adjust to the situation. Everyone’s body is different and reacts to things differently and each person knows their body best. That means it’s part of the conversation and both you and your partner get to choose what your body’s behavior means to you. No one else gets to interpret it for you.

For me personally, trying to get in the mood to please a partner is a horribly anxiety ridden experience that usually results in resentment and a complete inability to get out of my own head. For other people it can be a great experience. But there is no right answer as to what “not turned on yet” means, just as “is physically aroused” doesn’t have a set meaning.

We all get to define our boundaries for ourselves.

Genders and Scripts

Let’s imagine two video games.

In both of these games a youngish protagonist finds that the woman they love has been abducted or in some other way put in danger. In both games the protagonist’s goal is to find and save the person they love, defeating the bad guys and living happily ever after. In both of these games, the central point is that someone is motivated by love to keep someone they care about safe.

Now let’s say that in one the main character is a man and in the other the main character is a woman.

The reaction to these two games would probably be drastically different. Especially within the gaming community, one would be seen as a fairly normal game, and depending upon the gameplay, graphics, and overall storyline, it could be considered a great game.

Meanwhile, the game with a female protagonist rescuing her female lover would be considered “political” or “radical,” boycotted by some, and probably harassed by the GamerGate style gamers who would see it as unnecessarily drawing in personal opinions to the gaming world, as beating them down with a liberal or feminist agenda, as a bad game because it broke the scripts that they were used to.

Except that the script is exactly the same.

It’s hardly exciting or new to realize that in some circles and cultures a person’s genitalia is more important than their actions, emotions, or personality. But what astounds me about these types of script flipping is that the exact same actions can be seen as normal or even praiseworthy when done by a man but as political or pandering when done by a woman. It’s amazing to me that simply writing a woman (even in exactly the same way as you might a parallel man) is considered by some people to be bad or unbelievable. It’s as if some people, even today, can’t find any way to connect with a character if they have the little tag that says “woman.”

And on the flip side, I find it fascinating that as a feminist I can be more drawn to the same script simply by adding a woman into a role typically filled by a man. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing due to representation issues, but I do hope that some day we can reach a point where the internal experiences of a character are what make them engaging and important rather than their pronouns or genitalia.

It is amazing to me how different a script becomes in its political and social role simply by changing a character from male to female.

A New Sexual Spectrum

One of the issues that comes across my radar quite often is incompatible sex drives in relationships. I frequent many asexual communities and websites, talk a lot about consent, and generally am interested in making sure that people who don’t want to have sex aren’t forced into having sex.

However it has been brought to my attention that sometimes people do want to have sex, and sometimes those people are in relationships with people who have low sex drives. This causes Unhappiness on the part of every party, and is sometimes used as an excuse for cheating, a reason to open the relationship, a reason to break up, or as some kind of horrible leverage to pressure one partner into having sex with the other. Sometimes it just results in sad resentment simmering while no one has sex.

I also hear that sometimes relationships require compromise, and that since sex is part of a relationship, both parties need to learn how to compromise and have sex sometimes when they’re not that interested or learn how to take a no from their partner. There are lots of advice books and articles out there about these kinds of compromises (some of them that drive me completely bonkers like the ones that say a wife always has to be sexually available to her husband or he will cheat). On the positive side of the advice giving I see people who promote talking to your partner, working out which sex acts feel better and worse to them, figuring out what gets them in the mood, and coming to conclusions about what’s reasonable in your relationship to ask for (some people might be real annoyed if you asked for a blowjob after they’d turned you down for sex, whereas others might see it as a way they can be giving and kind without feeling discomfort).

There’s one element of this that sometimes gets waved at but not really discussed, and that’s the role that sex plays in a relationship. Many articles (especially super sexist ones) like to talk about how sex is incredibly important for men to be able to express and feel intimacy, so women need to be willing to give it up more often. We’re going to ignore that crappy advice, and instead talk about the fact that in long term relationships sex can have different meaning for different people, a fact which is too often overlooked, or when it is recognized is often used to shame people who don’t have the “right” meaning for sex.

But sex is a great and varied thing, and people get different things out of it. For some people it’s just a nice, pleasurable experience like eating cookies. For other people, it’s incredibly intimate and one of the ways that they express and feel close to a partner. For other people, it’s contingent on feeling close to a partner, and only really happens as an extension of emotional closeness. Some people don’t see sex as an integral part of a relationship and could do without it, others feel as if it cements emotional bonds.

All of these different approaches to sex mean that people will feel comfortable with sex in different circumstances. If sex is something you do to feel nice, you might not want to do it when you’re stressed out or thinking about other things. If sex is something you do to feel close, you’ll probably want it more if you’re feeling your partner is distant. But if you see sex as an offshoot of emotional closeness, the last thing you’d want to do when your partner feels distant is have sex.

Ok so what does this have to do with compromises around differing sex drives? If one person has a lower sex drive than another, or is not feeling like having sex, or just isn’t wanting it, it might be a good time to start talking about what sex means to both partners. Especially if sex is something that is deeply connected to emotions in some way, that’s important for both partners to know. And while it’s on both people to figure out a way to make their sex life work, this kind of information can make it easier for higher sex drive person to make things comfortable and conducive for lower sex drive person to get in the mood.

Example: I don’t really feel sexually attracted to someone unless I’m feeling emotionally close to them. Not just that I like them, but emotionally intimate. Have a philosophical discussion with me or tell me your deepest, darkest secrets and I’m way more likely to get physically into you. Some partners like to only express their intimacy with their bodies and through physicality. If we’re feeling disconnected, they might try to initiate sex while the last thing that I’d want is sex. The solution? Talking about it so that they know having emotional discussions or building our relationship in other ways will make me more comfortable and interested in sex.

This might not be a straight line of emotional—>non emotional sex, but perhaps more of a crazy explosion of different attitudes and needs. Many people are proponents of communication around sex, so I’d imagine incorporating discussions of what you get from sex and how else you might be able to fulfill some of those needs would be an important part of having a good sex life. It can also help when you’re having a mismatch of needs to understand what it is that you feel like you’re missing.