Both men and women do it. But it depends on our reasons why.In a world full of glossy magazine headlines promising to increase our “inner sex diva," and pharmaceutical companies pouring millions of dollars into finding a pill to increase women’s libido, we tend to get the impression that sexual desire is a crucial part of a sexual encounter.
And it is, at least to a point. After all, wanting to have sex can be half the fun of it. There’s the fantasy, the anticipation, the building excitement. It’s titillating to think about a particular sexual activity and then actually get to engage in some version of it later.
Further, our sexual relationships are incredibly related to our overall relationship satisfaction, so if we don’t want to have sex then our relationship can suffer. And when a lack of interest in sex is more than a sporadic occurrence, and instead happens over months, years (or for some, a lifetime) it can be quite troubling for both partners.
But does sexual desire need to be present each and every time we have sex?
In other words, is having sex without desire “okay” or maybe even beneficial? Or is it potentially damaging to our sexual experiences and satisfaction?
Original models of sexual response proposed by Masters and Johnson,2 and expanded upon by Helen Singer Kaplan,3 suggest that men and women experience desire then arousal, (sometimes) one or several orgasm(s), and then resolution (the “unwinding” or returning to baseline phase).
But it has been suggested that desire doesn’t always happen before sex. And that this is perfectly okay.
Rosemary Basson, a pioneer in the field of sexual desire research, describes how both women and men, but particularly women, can often feel open and receptive to having sex without having a strong urge to “get off"—and that this is both healthy and normal. Many women report that even if they don’t feel a burning sexual desire before they start having sex, their interest can sometimes build as they are having (safe, consensual) sex with their partner.4 And some women report having sex without desire, never feeling desire throughout a sexual encounter, and still enjoying the experience.
Why have sex when we might not feel sexual desire?
There are actually plenty of reasons why we might have sex separate from feeling sexual desire. In one study, Cindy Meston and David Buss determined that there were 237 unique reasons that men and women reported having sex.5 Some included: “I wanted to show my affection to the person,” “I wanted to express my love to the person,” and “I was afraid to say no.”
It doesn’t take a professional sex researcher or therapist to recognize that it’s probably okay, or even good, to choose to have sex for reasons like wanting to feel close to your partner, but harmful to have sex when it does not truly feel like a choice or we are trying to avoid negative consequences.
Let's validate that common sense with some empirical research.
Amy Muise and colleagues categorized reasons for having sex into two categories—approach goals and avoidance goals.6Approach goals refer to having sex with our partner because we want to experience something positive with them (i.e., “To feel close to my partner”). Avoidance goals refer to having sex with a partner to avoid a negative feeling (i.e., “To prevent my partner from becoming upset”). In their three-part study, the authors found that when partners reported engaging in sex for approach reasons, they were more sexually and relationally satisfied, while those couples that reported engaging in sex for more avoidance reasons were less so.
Makes sense, right?
What is interesting about the previous two studies is that both women and men reported engaging in sexual activity for reasons other than sexual desire. Meaning that sex without desire isn’t solely a female phenomenon. This finding—that men also have sex without desire—has been replicated in another study that examined this question more directly.
In a qualitative study of 63 young adults, Vannier and O’Sullivan interviewed men and women about instances of sexual compliance in the context of committed heterosexual relationships.7 Sexual compliance refers to the act of willingly engaging in sexual activity without feeling desire. (Important note: The construct is entirely separate from instances in which an individual is forced into sexual intercourse without consent, as in the case of rape and sexual assault.) Sexual compliance acknowledges that in a partnership it is rare for both individuals to always feel sexual desire at the same time. As a result, one may engage in sexual activity with a partner, completely willingly and in order to make one’s partner happy, without feeling sexual desire oneself.
Over a three-week period, almost half (46 percent) of the participants in this study reported at least one experience of sexual compliance, with 17.2 percent of all sexual activity rated as sexually compliant. Further, there was no gender difference in the frequency of reports of sexual compliance; men and women were equally likely to report having sex without desire.
The benefits of having sex without desire
The biggest benefit to having consensual sex without desire is that it opens up the possibility for more sexual encounters that can still be mutually pleasurable without the pressure for both partners to feel desire at the same time. For example, "Maybe I’m not really in the mood but I want to feel close to my partner," or “I’m not particularly horny but my partner helped so much around the house today that I will choose to have sex as a way of saying thank you.” If we feel motivated to have sex with our partner for these types of relationship-affirming reasons then it doesn’t matter as much that we might not feel sexual desire at that exact moment. We’re open to it, there is a good and positive reason to have sex, so let's get it on: Win, win.
I work with plenty of couples in which the partner who experiences lower desire says that they feel pressure to feel desire when their partner does—and sometimes it just isn’t there. This can be tough if the higher desire partner really wants it to be there (often for reassurance that their partner wants them, too, and that they aren’t pressuring their partner into sexual activity) as well as for the partner who doesn’t feel desire as often or as strongly. But sometimes the lower desiring partner is perfectly willing to try having sex and to see where things go. Focusing on these other reasons may open up more potential opportunities to have mutually enjoyable sex with less pressure.
Drawbacks to having sex without desire
There could, potentially, be drawbacks. Although there are a lot of great reasons to have sex with a partner outside of feeling sexual desire, having sex over and over again without desire can be harmful for both the person with low-to-no interest and their partner. Specifically, we don’t want one partner having sex for those negative reasons we talked about before—such as avoiding a negative response (either anger, frustration or sulking) from their partner.
Further, we hope that both individuals in a couple are experiencing some level of desire, at least sometimes, in some situations. If it’s completely absent, sex can (and often does) feel like a chore and can leave the higher desiring partner feeling unwanted.
Only you and your partner can know how to balance the benefits and drawbacks to having sex without desire, but it may be worth considering if we can embrace other motivational reasons to feel close with our partner even if we don’t necessarily feel a burning desire.