On this podcast and blog we chat about sex discrepancies, differences in desire, sexual incompatibility. It’s so common that it’s more likely to happen than not. So here’s our advice on how to deal with it.
What are sex discrepancies?
Sex discrepancies or sexual incompatibility refers to having different levels of desire in a relationship: one person wanting sex more or less than the other/s. It can be about wanting different types of sex too – which is connected, but we’re focusing more on levels of desire for sex in this podcast.
Why do we think they’re a problem?
The usual suspects: wider culture, capitalism, all of that noise. Specifically the sex advice and sex therapy industries seem to be invested in telling us that sex discrepancies are a problem that we need to solve because – in order to be a healthy human being in a healthy relationship – you need to have regular sex of a particularly kind (this is not true on any level).
The myth that sexual compatibility inevitably comes with good relationships is a dangerous one because it can keep people in relationships where the sex is good, but other aspects of the relationship are damaging, and it can mean being losing relationships which are not sexually compatible but where other things are really good (especially if we accept the stay together / break up binary).
Asexual and aromantic communities helpfully tease apart sexual and romantic attraction. We can have both, neither, or one without the other – as individuals, and in relationships – and all of that is okay. Recent scientific theories of sex have caught up with this idea and tend to separate erotic and nurturing attractions. Therapist and writer Esther Perel says that it’s generally very hard to get both those things – hot passion and warm companionship – in the same relationship.
What’s wrong with mainstream sex advice on this?
Normative advice reinforces the idea that discrepancies are a problem, which then reinforces the need for normative advice, which reinforces the idea that discrepancies are a problem. It’s a vicious circle.
Mainstream sex advice generally makes the following kinds of suggestions
- Vary positions – always end in a different position to the one you started in
- Have a regular once-a-week time when you always have sex even if you don’t want to – this will make you want it more
- Spice up your sex life by adding new sexual things to your menu
- Surprise each other with new sexual scenarios
- Never say ‘no’, but rather offer something else (if you really can’t bring yourself to do the thing)
There is a huge issue of consent here given these suggestions are about having sex you don’t want, or the other person doesn’t want, or both. There’s a danger of reinforcing treating yourself, and others, non-consensually. Also such suggestions don’t even work to make us desire sex more – the more we do anything we don’t want to do it (from checking our emails to sex) the less we want to do it.
Are sex discrepancies common?
Absolutely. It is far more likely that you would have them than you wouldn’t. The NATSAL survey found that:
- 1 in 5 people who are in a relationship said that their partner had experienced sexual difficulties in the past year. (NATSAL)
- 1 in 4 people who are in a relationship do not currently share the same level of interest in sex as their partner. (NATSAL) (over time – likely everyone)
- 50% of people report having a difficulty with sex (NATSAL) (and doesn’t impact happiness with relationships)
The Enduring Love study found that in long term relationships couples had everything from no sex to lots, and it ebbed and flowed over time. Sexologists have found that sexual desire, identities and practices all appear to be fluid (change over time).
Why are there sex discrepancies in relationships?
Many many reasons including: chronic pain, acute pain, illness, changing ability, wanting different things, getting bored of things were doing, bereavement, trauma, mental health issues, having kids, kids leaving home, trying to get pregnant, relationship conflict, discovering new things about your body/sexuality, gender changes, ageing, changes in sexuality, fancying partner less/more/differently, fancying someone else as well/instead, interest in porn/erotica/etc., experiencing something with someone else (e.g. other partner, sex worker, fuckbuddy, etc.), change in living situation, work or other everyday stress, change in sleep patterns, how you feel about your body, having sex and something going wrong – so worried about doing that again, experience of something non-consensual.
Again, given all of this, you would expect sex discrepancies – total compatability would be really unlikely.
What can we do?
On the podcast we make a few suggestions, all of which we’ve covered in more detail elsewhere on the podcast, and in our book and zines:
- Get curious about the times you want sex and the times you don’t – both are just as valid and interesting – neither is more of a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ than the other
- Practice believing that it is absolutely fine for you and others not to have sex, or never to have sex. It’s a vital foundation for consensual and enjoyable sex
- Expand your understanding of what counts as sex
- Consider your reasons for having sex – and what other ways you might get those desires or needs met to take the pressure off sex
- Explore your relationship agreement to ensure that everyone can get their sexual desires met without making anybody have unwanted sex
- Go gently with yourself because these cultural messages are deeply ingrained and leave us with a lot of fear and shame around not being sexual
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2019