How to Do It

My Partner Will Say He’s “Not in the Mood” for Sex. What I Find Later Tells Me He’s Lying.

Man and woman lying back to back in bed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear How to Do It,

My partner and I are both in our late 20s and we’ve known our libidos were a little mismatched since we started dating. I (a woman) generally want sex and am horny more often, and this wouldn’t normally be a problem—if it weren’t for a recent discovery that’s made me feel desperate and undesired.

He’s told me to be explicit when I want to initiate sex, but then when I am, he gets frustrated and says, “OK, I get it, it’s just not the right time.” He’s also said that I should just “feel things out” (which feels like it runs counter to explicitly initiating?) and I end up misreading situations (him rubbing against me, giving me seductive looks, being tender and physical before kissing me deeply) and trying to initiate sex or mutual masturbation, only to be shut down. He says he’s either too full or it’s too late and so we end up scheduling sex for Saturday or Sunday afternoons—which wouldn’t be a problem, but I want to feel desired and I sometimes want things to feel romantic and spontaneous. The other issue is he will tell me I’ve misread a situation and he’s not horny, and then later I’ll discover the lube out—and he’ll say “oh yeah, I ended up masturbating.”

I don’t want to be jealous of him jerking off! But that’s the situation I find myself in. When I bring it up, he says “you know we have different approaches to sex and I think you’re beautiful.” It’s a conversation we’ve had multiple times, but nothing fundamentally changes (I would love to maybe fuck on a Wednesday night, just once?). I don’t want to police his arousal or masturbation but it kills me when he tells me he’s “not feeling it” and later that night he’s looking at pictures of hot girls on Twitter and I find the lube out the next morning. It’s unsustainable and breaking my heart. How should I broach this in a way that lets us both feel understood and that leaves room for change?

— Undesired

Rich: I wish we knew how often they were having sex. I think that there’s a scenario in which somebody could be having regular sex with somebody and yet they still want that variety that people love so much, and so they masturbate. It’s additive. Maybe the scenario here is that he doesn’t want to have sex with you every time, and so he ends up masturbating to porn and that has nothing really to do with you. Or the scenario is more along the lines of our writer’s interpretation: This guy’s masturbating to porn and it’s directly related to their not having sex.

Also, there’s something up with him claiming desire and yet not living it, and then showing it in other ways by himself. I feel like there’s missing information here.

Stoya: Reading this letter, I’m seeing a woman who very clearly minimizes her own desires twice in two paragraphs. “I generally want sex and am horny more often, and this wouldn’t normally be a problem, but…” “We end up scheduling sex for Saturday or Sunday afternoons, which wouldn’t be a problem, but I want to feel desired…”

Rich: Right.

Stoya: These things maybe are problems. They seem like they are problems for her. She doesn’t mention the possibility of an open arrangement, but if you’re in a monogamous relationship and your partner isn’t on the same sexual wavelength—that feeling of wanting that sex, that’s valid. If there are feelings of frustration or angst, those are valid feelings.

Now, it would be inappropriate to hound the partner for sex and there’s definitely some communication misfiring there, but you want spontaneity, so there has to be some kind of compromise. So, let’s say we’re looking at sex once a weekend: I think it’s reasonable to ask that one week, we can have scheduled sex, but then on another week, the writer gets to initiate and have the weekly sex on any time that’s not a Saturday or Sunday. I think that’s a fair ask.

Maybe there’s something else going on that prevents that, but without knowing that, I think it’s completely reasonable to be like, “Hey man, we can have this amount of sex, but we’ve got to have some spontaneity for me.”

Rich: Or try at least try, right? That’s the other part you just touched on. I get the sense that he’s not being completely upfront with what’s going on with him and I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s because he feels like if he were honest about his desires, it would hurt her. I don’t know if it’s because of selfish or more nefarious reasons. People keep secrets from each other for all sorts of reasons. But I think that that is actually kind of the core of this, that there’s this lack of communication. There’s this seeming discord between what he says and what he does.

And I would love to know more about the conversation in which “we have different approaches to sex and I think you’re beautiful”—what does he actually see as the difference in their approaches to sex? Is the difference “you like to be spontaneous, and I like to plan it”? It could be, but if he can’t really put that into words, then maybe what they’re talking around is some kind of a mismatch really.

Stoya: It might be the case. I’m also wondering if he considers masturbation to be sex. To me, masturbation and interactive sex are two different things and they exist on a continuum that also includes, in between them, mutual masturbation, or while sending text messages or pictures, for example. But if you’re just taking masturbation and partnered sex and putting them next to each other—I’m like, yeah, these are different things.

Rich: Totally.

Stoya: So I think that’s something that a conversation could be started about.

Rich: One hundred percent. And that’s not to say that there isn’t concern that his sexual energy that could be shared between them is just going to masturbation, because that’s possible too. It really is possible to just like masturbate yourself out of a sex life with somebody because you only have so much mojo, especially as you get older. Sometimes you jerk off and then it’s just like, yeah, I don’t want to have sex today because I jerked off. And then when that happens and you realize that’s happening, it’s like, “Oh wait, I have a partner and maybe I shouldn’t literally shoot my load when I might have the opportunity to do so with a partner.”

But again, that ambiguity is not doing anyone favors, except for maybe him because he seems to be existing within that ambiguity. And another reason for that could be that men are not very good typically at sharing their feelings—actually talking about this stuff, or initiating these conversations—which sucks.

Stoya: Or understanding their own feelings.

Rich: Yes. Having the language to even express all of these things. This socialized impediment, by the way, makes women’s burdens that much more deeply felt and burdensome. That said, they’re going to make no headway until they actually get those answers and understand what’s going on. And if he can’t do that, then he’s showing you a big part of who he is as a partner.

Stoya: Yeah. And in the event that he’s unable to communicate clearly because he doesn’t understand himself, I think it is appropriate, if she feels up to it, to make this a wake-up call discussion. Because even though men are socialized in the ways that they are and that’s not their choice, at a certain point, you’re an adult. You need to take responsibility for growing.

Rich: That’s right. We live in the world together; we can understand where you’re coming from, but now where are we going? We’re going there together. And if you can’t get on board, then again, you’re showing who you are as a partner.

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