The Problem of Having Sex without Reciprocating Attraction or Desire

Talia recently wrote about how their lack of sexual attraction led to a problem in their relationship with an ex-partner. Even though I am not sex-favorable, this strikes at one of the issues which makes me stay away from sex.

Even without any practical experience with sex, I have gathered that people ‘get off’ on being desired by their sexual partners. Conversely, when someone senses that their partners do not desire them sexually … it is uncomfortable, and it can lead to hurt on both sides.

I took Health Ed (a large part of which is Sex Ed) during my first semester of high school. However, most students at my high school did not take Health Ed until their senior year, which meant I was a 14-year-old among a group of mostly 17 or 18-year olds, and we were studying/discussing sex together. I remember one particular conversation about orgasms. One (male) student talked about how his sexual partners always orgasmed, a (female) student said that some of those orgasms were probably fake, the male student said he believed that it was always real, and the female student replied that she fakes orgasms pretty often and that, by extension, a lot of women fake a lot of orgasms.

Why fake orgasms? Well, it is not hard to figure out, at least with a wealth of hints spread throughout the culture – people expect their sexual partners to enjoy the sex, and if they do not, they consider it a personal failing, and if they think that their partner is making them feel like a personal failure, they may lash back out at their partner. Thus, for a lot of people, it is better to fake pleasure than to risk going down that rabbit hole.

At this point, two notes should be made.

First, most people, at least in American culture, conflate sexual attraction, sexual desire, and to some extent even sexual pleasure. Thus, even though these concepts are differentiated in asexual discourse, they are not differentiated by a lot of people.

Second, gender roles have a huge impact. In American heterosexual culture, males are supposed to have the power to use sex to control women’s pleasure and pain. In other words, using sex to make another person feel pleasure can be an act of dominance. When a male has sex with a female with the intention of making her feel pleasure, and she does not feel pleasure, it can make him feel impotent (pun intended!)

Likewise, if someone clearly is not experiencing sexual attraction/desire (remember, these ideas are often conflated) to their sexual partner, well, in our culture that implies that either the sexual partner is not good enough, or at least they are lacking in power.

Emily Nagoski writes a lot about spontaneous desire vs. responsive desire (i.e. only experiencing sexual desire when already in a certain kind of sexual situation), and the stigmatization of mainly feeling responsive desire, as well as how this ties with flibanserin. I strongly suspect that the idealization of spontaneous desire and stigmatization of responsive desire is connected to these cultural ideas that people want to evoke sexual desire in others. Speaking of flibanserin, this New York Times Magazine article pointed out “And men, if they are willing to confront the truth, might not be so happy about the reminder, as their partners reach for the pill bottle, that their women need chemical assistance to want them.”

Now where do I fit into this?

With preparation – say, a good director, a well-written script, and rehearsal time – I could probably fake sexual attraction and sexual desire well enough to pass in front of, say, the audience of a play. In a real-life situation? I probably would not be able to fake it. I would not even know what to fake. Ditto faking orgasms (note: I have never had an orgasm). I probably would fool very few sexually experienced people. And then I might go down the rabbit hole of emotional drama.

Second, I would not want to fake any of that. If I am not experiencing attraction/desire/orgasm, I want to be honest about it. If that’s a problem, well, I am totally fine with living without sex.

This whole possibility of getting dragged into emotional drama because a sexual partner perceives that I am not experiencing sexual attraction/desire/pleasure and takes it personally is one of the reasons why I am not going to have sex unless there is a super-compelling reason to try it.


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13 thoughts on “The Problem of Having Sex without Reciprocating Attraction or Desire

  1. This feels to me like one of those really important discussions we end up not having because it feels too private. Or at least, that’s why I don’t talk about it too much.

    I feel afraid of not being able to give my partner pleasure, but a major part of that is that I have a fear that my partner is faking it, which entails lying. I don’t want my partner to lie to me. And unfortunately, reassurances that they are not lying doesn’t always help, because the reassurances could be lies too. This is why I need a partner who demonstrates honesty, rather than just proclaiming it.

    • It is possibly easier for me to talk about it because I’ve never had sex – I get to discuss it hypothetically without revealing too much about myself, and I am definitely not going to offend a sexual partner I have never had.

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  3. This is definitely a discussion I feel like I could use more of (and always want to write about but can never bring myself to do so).

    I know I can fake sexual attraction really well now- and have used that to halfheartedly pass as bi when I first meet people, because I find it easier. But partners react in all kind of ways when I try and explain it.

    Some people feel that the fact I’m faking it means I’m not really consenting- even though I’m choosing to fake it, intentionally, after having thought about it. Apparently consent also gets thrown into the confusion of attraction, desire, pleasure, etc. That and partners don’t believe me when I say- whatever health issues I have- at this point in my life I know myself well enough where if they just take me at my word I’ll be able to protect myself.

    Some people find it offensive (aka lying), but I’m inclined to point out how much of social interaction involves politely faking some things, and the fact that I’m not really lying as much as simply role playing. But it seems a lot of partners want to believe sex is a natural and spontaneous thing where you get to see the “real” person, instead of having to actually get to know me in all contexts to find a real me.

    Others then try to downplay their own attraction or interest, and I’m never sure why- since I like when people feel things they enjoy, and try to make that obvious. But I think in certain social dynamics they feel like they aren’t “supposed” to feel more attraction than me (such as if I, who presents male, am with a woman).

    The end result is that even though I can fake it well, and would be willing to, I rarely do so. Instead, all my faking tends to be in social situations when I need people to feel comfortable, and not when I’m actually in a relationship or during sex. But all of the weird gamey-ness of it all makes relationships with non-aces seem like so much effort that I sometimes wonder if I want to deal with them at all (otoh, being able to fake so well makes me feel out of place with asexual communities too, so even if there were a local one I don’t know how well I’d fit in or date there either).

    • You know, all of these levels of putting on a show of feeling more than you do for someone putting on a show of feeling less than they do, of being disappointed by somebody who is faking and being disappointed by someone who is not faking, etc. really make my head spin.

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  5. The two times I tried having something I considered sex with my at-the-time boyfriend, and even earlier than that, before, when I tried “making out”/”passionately kissing” him and also a previous guy, I never thought to fake anything. I mean, I did think about downplaying how much I didn’t like it, how averse I was, in fear of not offending these guys, but I also needed to be honest. I couldn’t help pulling away from the kisses until that much more uncomfortable experience that was more like sex and I felt like I must stick it out, otherwise it’d be unfair to him.

    Part of it is my complete lack of arousal that makes all forms of genital-related sexual acts slightly painful at best. I could never get so far to be faking an orgasm, because it’d mean pretending I’m not in physical pain, and why in the world would I do that. Also, how would I even believably fake something that is so foreign to my experiences. Maybe if I watched some porn, which I have less than zero desire to do??

    But I’ve noticed that yeah, if I didn’t reciprocate the excitement, the desire, the attraction, it was making my boyfriend feel bad. Feel unloved. Feel undesirable, in general, like it was him, and not me. When really it was me, and he did seem to get that on some level, knowing I couldn’t control how I felt. I wanted, so badly, to want him sexually, in an honest way. I didn’t want to fake a thing. I also didn’t really want him like that. So our relationship never worked out.

    When I think about myself in sexual situations, almost as strong as my general uncomfortableness and aversion is the idea that “I will almost definitely not be satisfying my partner anyway, they could never be made truly happy by what I could give them, what would be the point at all of “compromising” if it just means we’re both unhappy?”.

    When you said, above,

    If I am not experiencing attraction/desire/orgasm, I want to be honest about it. If that’s a problem, well, I am totally fine with living without sex.

    It just rings so completely true for me.

    • Yeah, I think a lot of the people who encourage “compromising” don’t think through this angle (or they don’t think we’re really asexual/sex averse/etc., and we just need to be with the “right” person to be totally into sex).

      I suspect it also doesn’t occur to us (or doesn’t feel right to us) to fake because … we don’t actually want sex. To someone who genuinely wants sex for for whatever reason, but is not enjoying this particular sex in the moment, might be more inclined to fake it to maintain the sexual relationship.

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  7. I’m considering translating this post to Portuguese. As most of your posts are released under public domain (CC0), and says your work is released as CC0, am I right to assume this post is under public domain too?

    I just want to be sure before starting, as I don’t want to make you unhappy by translating without permission. If it’s CC0 too, could this info be added to the post?

    • I would be honored if you would translate this post into Portuguese.

      There may occasionally be a post I would prefer not to put under CC0, but I’m fine with putting the CC0 mark on this post.

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