When He's the One with the 'Headache'

On my third date with Alexander, after he stripped me down to my underwear, I reached for the metal button on his jeans. Hard and out of breath, he blurted, “I don’t want to have sex.” My hand froze at his waist. “I mean, I don’t want to have sex yet,” he clarified.

I felt relieved. I, too, didn’t want to move too fast. After a series of meaningless sexual experiences, I wanted more. Four, five, maybe six dates, I reasoned, then sex.

So when Alexander said we should wait, I thought perfect. A 26-year-old man who wanted more than just sex? I had hit the dating jackpot. Alexander and I continued to see each other and continued to not have sex. We bathed together and spent the night in each other’s beds. Still, no sex.

As the weeks wore on, however, what had at first seemed sweet began to feel tired. One night, after Alexander came and I didn’t, he asked if I was “feeling satisfied.” I said no.

“It’d be nice if we could have sex,” I said. Not wanting to sound like a pressuring teenage boy from a health-class video, I added, “But I guess I understand why we’re waiting.” I didn’t, though. Not really. Alexander had explained to me that after his last relationship—“a waste of a year”—he wanted to be “serious” about someone before he slept with her. What wasn’t clear was why sex meant serious.

In spite of what popular culture would have us believe, could there exist a large population of men that wants meaning with a side of sex, as opposed to the other way around? Is a no-sex policy a growing trend among younger men? Just as we women become increasingly comfortable with meaningless sex, just as we’re unleashing our sexual desires and exhibiting power both inside and outside of the bedroom, men, it seems, are saying no. But why? And more importantly, how are we—women raised to believe any straight man worth his masculinity should want sex anytime, always—supposed to deal with that?

As Alexander drifted off to sleep that sexless night, I began to sympathize with the men who masturbate in bed next to their sleeping wives (think Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty”). Worse yet, I suddenly understood the frustration that drives sexually unfulfilled men to cheat on the women they love. What had I become? A woman who relates to cads? Were my feelings even fair? As a feminist, didn’t I vilify men for the ways they pressure unwilling women into sexual acts?

When I described my problem to my 25-year-old brother, he insisted that Alexander wasn’t normal. “Guys want sex,” he told me. My friends, both male and female, offered other opinions: He’s holding out so that you want it more; he’s sleeping with someone else. But ultimately the analysis returned to: He’s weird.

Though I tended to agree, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was doing Alexander a disservice. Just because most men would give their left nut for regular sex with an attractive woman, or so I’ve been told, didn’t necessarily mean that there was something wrong with Alexander. Right?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Alexander wasn’t the first man of his kind to cross the threshold to my bedroom. I once dated a colleague who, having only slept with one woman, refused sex with me because he didn’t see a romantic future for us. A year out of college I had dated a cute 23-year-old virgin who was waiting for the “right woman.” He must have sexual issues, my best friend had speculated. Maybe he was abused as a child, I offered.

How amusing, how strange, and, yes, how potentially unfair that we automatically assume child abuse (child abuse!) when we encounter a man who doesn’t want sex.

Why No Means No for Men, Too

Jim, a 29-year-old musician who has passed on numerous sexual opportunities, explains that he didn’t set out to limit his number of sexual partners. As a late bloomer, he spent most of his adolescence and college years over-thinking sex. So when he finally did it, he says, “it of course was not mind-blowing. It was actually terribly awkward. So I said to myself, Look, sex isn’t the ultimate achievement of man. There are a lot of things better than sex. When it comes down to it, as much as I try to tell myself I just need to get laid, it’s really not the truth. I’m a romantic. So in a way, I place less value on sex because it’s not the holy grail of my existence.”

Sex therapists pose different theories. According to Dr. Stephanie Buehler of the Buehler Institute in California, the notion that men want sex 24/7 is just plain wrong. “It’s a myth,” she says. “I hear it from women constantly, and it’s just not true. I have men in my office all of the time whose wives aren’t interested in sex, and what they say they miss isn’t the act itself, but the intimacy it allows for. Men don’t have many outlets for expression. The one place they can express their love is through sex. If a man feels pressured, or doesn’t feel a connection, then he may hold back or retreat.”

Darren, a 40-year-old married man, says it’s often he who has to turn down the requests for sex from his eight-years-younger wife. “It’s not that I don’t want to be with her. I always do. But I like to preserve a little mystery, make it something special,” he says. “I like to miss it, miss her a little bit; not just go through the motions because I’ve got the access.”

Huh. And I thought men viewed marriage as a way to get sex all the time. So listen up all you women who are exhausting yourselves looking for more ways to “spice things up,” fearing a man who doesn’t want to touch you every second is a man who’s lost interest: The guys just need a little time out every now and then to keep things interesting.

Or maybe they just don’t need the pressure. According to Dr. Hani Miletski, psychotherapist and sex therapist, men feel an immense societal pressure to “perform.” In many relationships men are still expected to initiate sex, to lead, to make sure their partners are okay, ready, and aroused, and to maintain an erection for prolonged periods of time. This pressure, she says, can lead to much anxiety.

Jon, a 26-year-old graduate student who insists that sex with a woman he loves simply “feels better,” agrees. “With all the importance our culture puts on having sex, and all the perfectly lit, exquisitely choreographed sex scenes we’ve seen time and again, a guy’s likely to have unrealistic expectations of either the act itself or his performance,” he says. “If he doesn’t smack the pitch 560 feet over the bleachers in left, next time he might be less inclined to swing for the fences.”

While an increased pressure no doubt rests on men’s shoulders—especially post-Viagra—a standard, almost clichéd fear of intimacy may also be to blame, says sex therapist Dr. Lisa Schwartz. “This is generally speaking, of course, but because men tend to lack intimacy skills,” she says. “When a woman comes on to a man, he may not know what to do with that, so he puts the brakes on. And when she tells him, ‘Hey, let’s just have sex, we don’t have to get married,’ he doesn’t know how to trust that.”

Jim echoes this sentiment when he reveals that he doesn’t want to sleep with women whom he thinks feel a deeper, one-sided connection to him. “If I sense that the girl I am with is way ahead of me emotionally, then I tend to put up some walls,” he says. “I’ve been in relationships where I’ve faked it emotionally because it was a comfortable situation. I made a vow never to do that again. So if there’s a disconnect, something kicks in and tempers my desire.”

Bedding a Man Who Wants to Wait

Though the connection between Alexander and me didn’t amount to much—we never did have sex—I was left wondering if my impatience played a role in his dismissal of my affections. What would have propelled a man like him to give it up?

Jim explains that for him, honesty is essential. “If you want sex right now, then show that,” he says. “If you want love right now, you will have to wait a little while, and sex right now may not be the best thing to do.”

Jon reiterates Jim’s “wait a little while” mandate. “Please,” he says, “be patient. Patience is incredibly sexy.”

While waiting may not be particularly hot for many of us, who knows, for the right guy—the rightest of right guys—it might just be worth it.

– Julie Bogart


  1. [...] however, that you’d give his headache the same respect you’d expect for yours. In fact, he might even be trying to spice things up or preserve a little mystery by holding back; a night off here and there is a compliment, not a curse. Though if this goes on for too long, a [...]

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