Who Initiates Sex and why it Matters so Much


It can seem a highly trivial subject to get so upset aboutbeing rightly no more significant

than who should open the door first, or open a new jam jar first. And yet, judging from

the heartache it tends to generate, it appears to matter very much indeed. It’s at the

root of many affairs, it is the catalyst for vicious arguments and bitterness, the long-term

future of small children can be decided by itand couples routinely end up in therapy

or (more often) the divorce courts because of it. At the heart of the drama are all the

complexities involved when, late at night, in the darkness, one person’s hand moves

over to tentatively touch the other’s body in a way that signals a desire to initiate

either sex or a cuddleand nothing much happens in return. This move ends up being

so much more fraught than one might imagine because it has so little to do with making

love: it’s about knowing that we are wanted. The willingness to initiate sex can appear

like the litmus test of whether one is appreciated within the relationship as a wholeand

therefore whether a couple remains a going concern or not. For one person never to initiate,

or else merely to respond half-heartedly to caresses, is tantamount to declaring that

they cannot possibly love the person they are with.

©Flickr/Roman Boed In truth, a lack of initiation or response

can mean many things. It may, at points, simply be a sign of exhaustion after a long day of

childcare or office work. Sometimes an untouched hand is just an untouched hand. The real problem

in the ambiguous darkness of the bedroom is not a lack of reciprocation per se, it is

the way that that ambiguity is interpreted: the way that assumptions are formed without

discussionand grave offence is taken without the topic having first been aired.

Beneath this lies a more pernicious problem still: shame. Unreciprocated touch becomes

properly dangerous when it comes into contact with a high degree of self-suspicion or self-hatred

on the part of the person who has dared to slide their hand across. What might merely

have been judged an innocent or temporary lack of enthusiasm comes to be takensilently

and automaticallyas evidence of something far more catastrophic: proof that the other

person finds one disgusting. Ideally, if we all loved ourselves enough, we would know

better what to do when we moved a hand across and we did not get much in return: we would

address the matter within the couple through calm and kindly discussion and tried to determine

what was at stake. If the evidence pointed squarely to a profound lack of interest or

emotional capacity, we would leave. After all, there is nothing wrong with ending up

sharing a bed with an emotionally or physically withholding partner; there is something very

wrong, or at least very unfortunate, with sticking around once one knows this is the

case. ©Flickr/Joe Wolf

But these are not options open to us when we feel overly ashamed. Our unresponsive partners

reinforce pre-existing feelings of unacceptability that render us bitter, mute and fragile. A

history of not knowing how to value ourselves makes it extremely difficult for us to complain

effectively about unfortunate treatmentlet alone leave in order to seek warmer lovers

elsewhere. As self-hating lovers, we cannot say, with the requisite calm and strategic

patience, that we feel rejected, need to be understood and are looking for change. We

will either say nothing at all and might have an affairor else explode into a rage

that guarantees our message won’t be heard. We won’t have the courage to interrogate

the signs and adroitly change the course of the relationship in response. In the tensions

around unreciprocated touch, we catch sight of a more general problem in love: the difficulties

created when we aren’t able to ask for what we want in a relationship, when we suffer

from a sense that we don’t deserve to be content and cannot handle frustration or respond

to our misery adequately. We should not leave the untouched hand for too long in the darkness.

We should dare to switch on the light, express our pain and consider our options without