Published in partnership with Scarleteen
I’ve been dating my current boyfriend for 5 months now, and I really am ready and willing to have sex. But, he’s not. He wants to, and he’s curious but he feels that he shouldn’t? I don’t know what to do, I don’t understand why he’s feeling this way about it. Is there something wrong with me? Something he’s afraid to say? Or is he just really scared himself? Help!
Heather Corinna replies:
We’ve been receiving and answering a lot of questions like yours lately, but if people keep asking, I think it’s really important to keep talking about this. And, we keep hearing girls asking questions like this about guys, it seems clear that there are a lot of people who aren’t getting some things we think are really basic and really critical for everyone to have a healthy sexuality, healthy relationships, and sex lives they feel best about: things it’s so important everyone does get.
The most basic thing you need to know is this: anyone, of any gender or any age, may not feel like it is best for them to choose to be sexual in a given situation, even when presented with an opportunity for sex, even when that opportunity is an opportunity for sex with someone they have a strong desire to have sex with.
Anyone, of any gender or age, also may not want every sexual opportunity offered to them even if that opportunity has a lot of what they want and seems awesome in many ways. Just being curious about sex, having the opportunity to have sex, and feeling like, love, or lust for the person offering it doesn’t equal an instant go for a lot of people, including guys.
There is nothing any more weird or incomprehensible about a guy not feeling comfortable engaging in sex at a given time or not feeling ready for sex than there is about a girl feeling that way.
When it comes to choosing to engage in sex or choosing not to, it’s pretty much the same deal for everyone: sometimes we’ll feel it’s right for us, and other times we won’t, no matter what parts are inside our pants. There is probably no healthy person on the planet who would always say yes to every sexual opportunity that could possibly be extended to them. You probably wouldn’t either, right? I’m sure you can think of some people or scenarios or situations you’d say no to sexually, even if this isn’t one of them. And what gets us to yes or go is rarely just about wanting to have sex with someone, especially if we have any clue of all sex can be about, how it can go and what it can ask of us and our partners.
Know that in the romantic or sexual relationships—or potentially sexual relationships—you’ll have in life there are going to be times, maybe many times, when you want to be sexual and the other person doesn’t, and times when a partner of yours wants to have sex and you don’t. One person wanting sex—even both people wanting sex—doesn’t mean sex is always right for everyone or what everyone will choose to do.
Why don’t guys always feel ready to run with a sexual opportunity? That’s a biggie because there are somewhere around a gazillion reasons why people feel that way.
Sometimes it is about that partner. If there are issues in a relationship, or someone isn’t totally sure about their feelings, they might nix sex or put it on the back-burner. Maybe a person thinks their potential partner is less ready than they think they are. Maybe they want certain things in a relationship from a partner before they get sexual, like a certain kind of commitment. While you might assume that saying no means he’s not sure if he really likes or loves you, sometimes people say no because their feelings for someone are too strong, too big, too volatile, so sex at a given time just feels like it would be way too much: they might want to let their hearts and minds first calm down a bit more so they can feel more grounded and less anxious.
Sometimes saying no is about where someone feels in their own sexual development, sexuality, or sex life so far. In other words, maybe they just don’t feel like they are at a point in their own lives where they don’t want to be sexual with someone in certain ways yet. Sometimes someone might not feel willing or ready to take some of the physical risks sex involves, like the risk of pregnancy or STIs, or feel they have the things they want, need, or are most comfortable with to reduce those risks. Sometimes people don’t feel up to or ready for some of the emotional risks, like being that vulnerable with someone else just yet— in that relationship, situation, or their lives as a whole—like having someone else get up close and personal with their bodies, certain parts, their sexual responses or sexuality.
Sometimes even the risk that having sex will be totally awesome, which can change our lives in ways we might not always feel open to or ready for, feels like a risk someone isn’t ready for or open to at a given time. So often when people talk about risk, they’re only talking about the risks of bad stuff: but risks can be risks of positives too. However, just because we might get something positive still doesn’t mean it’s right for us in a given situation or time in life. For example, I’ve been a renter all my life and would love to own a house. Owning my own house is something I’d say seems like a big positive. But if I wasn’t ready to do that well, it might not turn out to be a good thing at all. Without the income to deal with major repairs, the time to do what I needed to to get settled in, what might have been the best thing ever could instead turn into something that drives me into debt or otherwise makes my life miserable instead of better.
Sex might offer us some amazing things, but if we already have a lot on our plate at a given time to deal with, or are struggling with something tough, we might prefer to save that opportunity for a time and space in life when we feel more able to truly enjoy it and have the kind of time and space in our hearts and lives for it.
Why else might someone decline on sex? Sometimes people have sexual histories that impact their sexual life or choices they aren’t ready to share or at peace with. Sometimes people have cultural or religious beliefs that make choosing to have sex in a certain situation wrong for them. Sometimes people don’t have the kind of emotional support from friends or family they feel they need for sex to be the right thing for them; sometimes they don’t have the education they want in advance. Sometimes people feel like things are moving too fast, or feel pressured, and they want only to choose to have sex at a pace that feels right for them and without feeling any pressure.
All of that? Those are just some, of so, so very many possibilities. Think about some of the things in that list, or additional issues or situations, that might make you feel like sex isn’t the right choice for you at a given time or in a given situation. Chances are, that the choice for you is about more than just if someone you like wants to have sex with you, right? The same is probably true for your boyfriend.
Some people think or believe that it’s only women who might say no to sex or not be ready, and that guys, when presented with a willing sexual partner, will always say yes to sex, or will always feel ready. But that’s a really wrong idea and it’s also one that can really hurt people and their sexual lives. People who study sexuality for their job, and do so carefully and thoughtfully, know that when it comes to gender, people are more alike than different, and this is one of those places where, on the whole, there are not big gender differences. When guys say no, it’s as normal as when girls do, and usually for similar reasons.
Now, I don’t know what your boyfriend’s specific reasons and feelings are around this. They might be one of the things in that list up there or twelve of them or they might be things I didn’t mention at all.
But you know who probably does know, and who certainly knows better than me or you? (You know this one.) Your boyfriend.
He’s a much better person to ask about how he’s feeling—the best person to ask— than me. And you can ask him so that you can know more and feel less lost here.
I would suggest that if you’re going to talk to him about this, you bear a few things in mind:
1) His sexual choices aren’t only about you, how much he does or doesn’t love you, or how attractive or appealing he finds you to be, just like I hope yours aren’t only about those things, since a healthy sexual life asks more of us, all of us, than just those things. In other words, there may be nothing wrong with you at all, and for all we know without finding out from him, this may even have nothing to do with you, period.
It’s also really important for all of us to give any and all of our current or potential partners real space to feel just as comfortable saying no to sex as they might feel saying yes. If we set things up or do things so our partners feel like if they say no, or stick to their no, we’re going to be totally wrecked, we aren’t really giving them that space. So, if you’re going to talk to him about this, a question like, “What’s wrong with me, anyway?” is a poor choice. Something that’s a lot better is an open question that’s about his feelings, not yours, like, “I want to understand you better: would you be willing to talk with me about why you’re not feeling good about the idea of sex together yet?”
In the same vein, if we take sexual rejections or even just “I want to, but not yet’s” very personally, that can actually be a cue for us about our own sexual readiness. In other words, if and when we feel like whether someone says yes or no to sex with us has a lot to do with our own feelings of self-confidence, self-worth, or self-esteem, or it makes us question the whole of good relationships, chances are good that it might not be our best choice to have sex yet either, because we might need to develop more of those things before we are ready.
Plus, for most of us, now and then when someone nixes sex with us it IS going to be about us, and they might even say so (hopefully with some tact). For example, maybe that cologne a boyfriend chose to wear reminds you of your grandpa, so you find yourself feeling not at all interested in sex and strangely more interested in hearing stories about the Great Depression. Maybe something you wore on a given day just rubs a sexual partner the wrong way: sexual desires can be unpredictably fickle and persnickety sometimes. Maybe you recently had an argument that’s left a boyfriend still feeling raw and vulnerable enough that he’s just not ready to be sexual again yet. And, of course, sometimes our attraction to people, or theirs to us, changes: sometimes people just stop being attracted to someone and wanting to have sex with them.
Scenarios like these are things that can and do tend to happen, so one part of being ready for sex is feeling pretty equipped to handle situations like that. If even a sensitive, caring no feels like a massive kick in the guts, that can be a good cue we’re not equipped for that part of a sex life yet and need to take more time—or change something up —so that we are. In other words, depending on how huge that “what’s wrong with ME?” is feeling for you, your boyfriend might not be the only one who isn’t really ready here yet.
2) There might be something he’s afraid to say. I don’t know anything about your relationship, including how any sexual parts or talking about sex has gone. But if he gets the feeling that he can’t be honest about what he wants and doesn’t want, and does or doesn’t feel ready for, or has gotten the message that he should feel bad about saying no or that you feel terrible if your sexual feelings aren’t reciprocated the way you want, then he might well be afraid to say more.
As we’ve mentioned with this issue before, I think it’s important to bear in mind that, on the whole, girls and women tend to get more cultural support to say no to sex than boys or men are (though less to saying yes). When girls or women say no to sex, it is rare that anyone will suggest they’re not “real women.” But when boys or men do, it’s not uncommon for potential or current sexual partners, friends, or family members, not to mention TV, popular music, movies, the works, to suggest that theyt aren’t “real men” because they didn’t jump at every sexual opportunity. And we can probably agree that that has to seriously suck and make a person feel pretty crappy. You can probably also understand the amount of pressure that can put on a person to have sex.
You say you don’t know what to do. Hopefully I’ve already given you some clues on that, but just in case it isn’t clear, here’s the deal: when we ask someone to have any kind of sex with us and they decline, what we first do is accept and honor their no and leave it. We don’t try and convince them, we don’t argue with them, and we also don’t use that moment to talk about any hurt feelings we might have because they said no. Let them have their no and let’s make space for them to feel the right to have it, and feel respected for it.
If you know, when that happens, sex is something you still really want and don’t want to close the door on, you can put a pin in that and acknowledge it in a pressure-free way by just saying okay to the no, and then telling that person if they change their mind, they should feel free to ask you about sex again at another time. In other words, you can just put the ball in that person’s court, and then if and when they change their minds, or even just want to talk about it, they can throw it back.
If you do decide to ask about his feelings with this, you first want to make it crystal clear that you absolutely respect his choices here and the point of a discussion isn’t to try and get him to change his mind or to make him feel bad. You might even say that you know you’re both not always going to want the same things, about sex or anything else, and that’s okay. Make clear that pressuring him is the last thing you want to do, and that you hear and accept his no. You’re not asking him to have sex with you again when he already said no, you’re looking to understand his feelings about it so you can better understand him, which is important to you and your relationship, as important when he says no to sex as it would be if he was saying yes. Trying to understand one another is a huge piece of growing a healthy intimate relationship.
Also, I’d ask if he’s open to talking about his feelings instead of forcing a conversation. If he says he doesn’t want to or feel ready to talk about it yet, then for now, you leave this be, or ask if it’s okay if you just talk about your own feelings, then. You can let him know that if and when he does feel okay talking about it, you’d like to, when that time comes all he’s got to do is ask you and start talking.
If he does want to talk, start listening. Ask how he’s feeling and let him do most of the talking. When you ask questions, do your best not to project your own stuff onto them. You don’t have to be silent about your feelings, though: you can ask if you can talk about how you feel, and if he says yes, fill him in. Just be mindful, again, of how you say things and make sure you’re not pressuring him or assigning feelings to him he doesn’t have. Like, you’re worried this means something is wrong with you. So, you can say that without projecting: “I felt insecure because it made me worry something was wrong with me.” It’s okay to feel insecure and voice that: what’s not okay is to blame him for you feeling that way because he didn’t want to have sex. If this has you feeling really insecure, it’s probably about a lot more than just that, and more about you than him.
You can keep the door on this conversation rotating. One talk is probably not going to cover all of this, so make clear that you want both of you to be able to talk all of this out as much as each of you wants and feels comfortable with. You can also tell him that includes either of you putting out limits or boundaries when you just feel talked out or like you’re reached a point where, for that time, things are as resolved as they are getting. Whatever comes out of these talks, if there are things you both know you can help the other with that will make you each more comfortable with the possibility of sex—whether or not you both choose to engage in it soon—make a mental list of them, and start working on some of those things.
Personally, I’d look at this situation as a great opportunity. You seem pretty lost about how he’s feeling about sex and you. That’s not something you want to be clueless about if you’re going to be sexual with someone else: it’s something you want to know more about. Knowing you feel lost before you’ve engaged in sex is a really important thing to know, and often far better to know before you’ve engaged in sex with someone than after.
Your boyfriend has probably done you both a serious solid, here, especially since I suspect you’ve got some of your own stuff to talk to him about first, too. I don’t think this is just about his readiness, but about both of you. I also think this happening the way it has gives you something else that’s valuable, which is a possible awareness about some ideas about gender and sex that probably weren’t so sound.
Your boyfriend nixing sex for now can be a good thing, rather than made of nothing but bummer, because this gives you both the time to get more clued in to where each of you are really at with all of this, making it much more likely, if and when you do become sexual, for this to be something you both feel great about and have a great experience with, instead of something one or both of you feels bad about or had a lousy experience with. Spending more time talking about all of this, and building trust and communication around something that’s as deeply personal and sensitive as sex can really strengthen your relationship: engaging in sex before you’ve built more of that and before everyone really feels ready and comfortable is an easy way y make a real mess of it.
Here are those links I said I’d give you for other questions and answers around this:
- He doesn’t want to have sex anymore: how can I change his mind?
- She just won’t stop pressuring me for sex and babies.
- He doesn’t feel any desire for sex, but I want a sexual relationship
- My boyfriend has boundaries and responses to sex I don’t know how to deal with.
Here are some other links I think you could benefit from looking at and use to inform the conversations you two have together about this:
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
- Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner
- Genderpalooza! A Sex & Gender Primer
- Sorting Maybe from Can’t-Be: Reality Checking Partnered Sex Wants & Ideals
- Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist