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Not tonight, Dear, Iím . . .

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The following is an excerpt from sexual health expert Debby Herbenick's new book, "Because it Feels Good," published this month by Rodale. Herbenick is associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Indiana University Bloomington. The book's subtitle, "A woman's guide to sexual pleasure and satisfaction," says it all.

In spite of the stereotype that it is mainly women who don't feel like having sex, men sometimes don't feel like it either. We probably see, read about, or watch women rejecting sex more often because it is culturally acceptable. Men are generally taught to be the initiators of sex -- and if you're a guy who often initiates sex, then chances are that at least some of the time you'll be rejected. (As the old saying goes, whether it's with jobs or with dating, "If you're not getting rejections, you're not trying hard enough.") This myth that men are always "ready and willing" can create numerous complications for couples, from erection problems (which can occur when a man has sex because he feels as though he "should") to relationship problems (a woman may worry that if her boyfriend or husband turns down an opportunity for sex, he may have lost interest or he may be gay).

There are a lot of reasons why people sometimes aren't in the mood for sex, either privately or with a partner. Some common ones include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Health problems
  • Hormonal changes
  • Relationship problems
  • Grief
  • Concerns about risks (such as pregnancy, infection or feeling emotionally hurt)
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling alone or misunderstood
  • Low desire
  • Medication side effects

All these are valid reasons to not feel up to having sex or self-pleasuring, particularly given the fact that sex often requires both emotional and physical energy. However, just because these are valid reasons doesn't mean that people know how to express them effectively to a partner. We often make up reasons why we don't feel like having sex ("I just don't feel like it") rather than digging in, telling the truth, and clearly communicating with our partners. But your partner knows you too well to buy these lines, and the result is often heartbreaking. He or she may begin to question what you are hiding, what is behind the "No." When people's sexual advances are rejected, they may have any of the following thoughts:

  • Does my partner still love me?
  • Does my partner find me unattractive?
  • Is my partner cheating on me?
  • Have I done or said something wrong?
  • Is this the beginning of the end of our sex life?
  • Are we becoming one of those couples who never has sex?
  • Is my partner mad at me?
  • But there is another option -- you can say no to sex in a way that is both clear and careful of your partner's feelings.

It's easier to do so if you:

  • Are aware of the true reason that you don't want to have sex
  • Can communicate that reason to your partner
  • Try to reassure your partner of his or her worth and attractiveness to you
  • Suggest another way of being close, intimate or sexual

Here are some examples.

"Considering how hot you look right now, I would love to, but I am absolutely exhausted from chasing the kids around today. Can I take a rain check for another night?"

"I'm completely attracted to you, but I'd like to get to know you better before we take it any further. I'd love to go out with you again."

"You know how much I love -- and totally want -- you, but my vagina still hurts for some reason. I'm going back to the doctor next week to see what's up . . . in the mean time, can we maybe try something other than intercourse, like making out or oral sex?"

"You have no idea how appealing that sounds, but I'm feeling really stressed and distracted about work, and I'm not sure I'll be up to par tonight. What would you think about masturbating while I watch?"

"For all our ups and downs, you're still my favorite person in the universe, and I love having sex with you. But I have to tell you: I'm still a little angry about what happened earlier today, and I'm not feeling in the right frame of mind for sex. Can we talk about it so I can figure it out in my head and get over it? Our relationship -- and our sex life -- is too important to me to let this come between us."

There's no getting around it -- each of these rejections is still a rejection. That's life: Not everyone will always want to have sex when you do, and you will not always want to have sex when your partner does. Certainly we can learn to say no (or to hear no from our partner) without it signaling the end of love, lust, or our relationship.

The power of each of the above examples lies in the fact that the person saying no to sex also says something that validates their partner or their relationship, expresses a clear reason for saying no, and indicates that an effort is being made to enhance the relationship. This combination makes the "no" a rejection of sex at the very moment, rather than a rejection of the person, the relationship, or future opportunities to have sex. After all, relationship satisfaction is one of the most important elements to sexual satisfaction, so it's important to keep your connections alive.

Consider alternatives to sex that can help you feel close to your partner or indicate that you're still interested in being sexual or intimate in other ways. Study after study shows that masturbation, for example, is commonly enjoyed by both women and men who are in happy, committed, satisfying relationships -- it is far from being only a "partner substitute." Erotic touching, sensual massage, taking a shared bath, or rubbing each other's feet while sitting close together on the sofa are all possibilities, too.

To read more Active for Life blogs by Debby Herbenick visit She also blogs at, More information about her book, Because it Feels Good, which will be available on Aug. 18, can be found at