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Who Should Initiate Sex & Why It Matters

Getting over the fear of making the first move is half the battle.


My life revolves around sex. Every day, I speak and write about intimacy online, but I can also say that I loathe initiating sex! It can be awkward, my partner and I aren’t always on the same page, and when I try to sound sexy, we both start cracking up! Honestly, I’d rather eat a jean jacket than bat my eyelashes and ask my partner, “Are you in the mood?” And yet, time and time again, I find myself sliding into something lacy and queuing up my "sexy time" playlist. Why?

Because nothing is better than feeling desired by your partner, and I love seeing the look on my man’s face when I step out in next-to-nothing. Don’t get me wrong, at least once a month, I have to hype myself up in the mirror, like Issa Rae, before heading to the bedroom.

If you want a thriving sex life, initiating sex is part of the work that has to happen to get to the action. But in my work as a sex educator, I often see that one partner tends to initiate more often than the other. And if you’re on this road, take the next exit, because you’re headed straight toward trouble! This creates a huge imbalance, putting the burden on one partner to be the person who makes sex happen and never gets to experience being deeply desired by their partner.

You may have also fallen into the cycle of feeling guilty or pressured to initiate sex (we’ve all been there at one point or another.) You certainly want your partner to feel desired by you, but the uncertainty of how to initiate sex stops you dead in your tracks.

When should I ask? What do I even say or do? Are they even interested in sex right now?

You must figure out what it is that sparks the hesitation in the first place.

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Fear of Rejection in Initiating Sex & How to Stop It

The truth is, we don’t like to hear “no.” Psychologist and intimacy coach Dr. Jacqueline Sherman says, “Many of my clients, particularly women, have a fear of vulnerability. They fear that when they ask their partner for sex, they may reject them.” Rejection is not fun, so you may find yourself sitting on the sidelines rather than taking the bull by the horns.

In heterosexual relationships, the problems go a layer or two deeper. “Some women say that because of how they’ve been raised, they feel like they shouldn’t have to initiate and they want their man to do it for them. They believe women are to be submissive and initiating sex would be them taking on a more dominant role,” Sherman explains.

But having one partner be responsible for initiating can be a disaster. “We know that when one partner is holding down the responsibility of initiating, they may become tired of it and eventually stop altogether. This is a perfect recipe for a dry spell.” When that partner gets tired of carrying that burden and taking on that responsibility alone, they may stop making sex happen.

The fear of rejection and desire to appear submissive is not limited to heterosexual relationships. Queer women experience some of the same fears and hesitations. Regardless of your partner’s gender, the hard pill to swallow is that we may need to get comfortable with rejection. There are going to be times that your partner is not interested in sex when you are. So how do we handle being told “not tonight” by our lover?

  • Re-frame rejection for what it really is: your partner feeling comfortable enough to be honest with you about their desires, which is never a bad thing.
  • Propose a different intimate activity. Sex may be off the table, but perhaps cuddling or a back rub are options.
  • Find a different time to have sex. Their “no” may not be a “no” for good. They may be interested in doing the deed a bit later.

Lack of Body Confidence & Its Impact on the Desire to Initiate Sex

Personally, not feeling like I know how to be “sexy” enough is my biggest block to initiating sex. I can blame the media and mainstream porn for that. All my life, I’ve been pummeled with messages of what “sexy” is, what it isn’t, how it looks, and what it sounds like. Truth be told, traditional ideas of sex appeal don’t fit me. “Sexy is whatever the hell you make it!” Sherman hollers to me over Zoom. “We have a narrow idea of what it means to be confident and sexy, it's time to create our own standards.”

Discovering what is authentically “sexy” to you and shedding society's expectations takes time and effort. If you are strategic and patient with yourself, you can see a shift in your perception of yourself. Clear your social media of all influencers, celebrities, or even friends who make you feel inferior or spark negative thoughts about your own body. It’s OK to mute, block and unfollow them.

Some small changes you can make to build your sexual confidence are:

  • Spend some time doing “mirror work” and saying affirmations to yourself out loud.
  • Invest in lingerie or at least undergarments that fit your body well and make you feel your best.
  • Music can greatly influence our mood. Create a playlist that brings out your inner sex goddess and play it whenever you need a boost!

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A Better Way to Initiate Sex with Your Partner

Sherman says we can always course correct, and no relationship has to suffer permanent damage. “We have to communicate. Make [talking about sex] an ongoing conversation.”

She shares that when talking about sex, consider three things: tone, turf, and timing. Be sure that your tone is loving and curious, never defensive or accusing. In terms of turf, location is also important, and selecting a neutral environment like the car or kitchen is preferred to the bedroom. As far as timing, she adds that you shouldn’t have these talks before or after sex, as this can be a vulnerable time for you and your partner. Aim to begin the chat at a time when stress is low.

A key question to ask your bae is, “How do you like sex to be initiated?” Find out if they prefer verbal cues, physical touch, or something more creative.

If you and your partner decide on verbal cues, consider being direct:

  • "Do you have time for sex right now?"
  • "How do you feel about heading into the bedroom with me?"
  • "Are you trying to get it in? Because I am."

For physical cues, try out:

  • Sitting on your partner’s lap and looking into their eyes
  • Offering them a sexy massage
  • Giving them a passionate kiss

And if you are a bit shyer, you can always go digital by:

  • Shooting them a flirty text
  • Sending out a calendar invite for some “quality time”
  • Sharing a voice memo detailing all the fun things you want to get into

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

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It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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