“Withholding Sex” and Other Lies

You all might have seen the recent story going around about the man who put together an excel spreadsheet of all the times that his wife said no to sex with him. Niki has a great takedown of a lot of the issues with this, focusing specifically on the fact that no one can ever owe you sex. I’d like to take that idea one step further and look at the concept that seems to be encapsulated in this story, which is that this man’s wife was withholding sex in some fashion. After quickly google searching “withholding sex” and being highly disturbed at the hugenumber of advice columns about reasons women (always women) withhold sex, it appears obvious to me that there is a common trope in our society that this is not only possible to do but also something that happens on a regular basis for some common reasons.

The underlying idea is that women have no other way to get their husbands to do what they want, so they have to punish them by not having sex (because of course it’s their only source of power). This stupid trope goes all the way back to Lysistrata (which is a damn amusing play even for its issues). Apparently men will get really angry and apologetic and do anything to get laid, especially because being married/in a longterm relationship is apparently supposed to be a “have sex whenever the hell you want” card.

Here’s the dirty little secret about this though: there is no such thing as withholding sex because there is no situation in which you owe another human being sex. Ever. Your body is 100% your own and you get to consent or not consent to other people doing things to or with your body for whatever the hell reason you would like. This includes because you’re pissed off at the person, because they did something you didn’t like, because you just don’t fucking feel like it, because you’re tired, because you don’t feel attractive, because you’d rather read a book…any of the above. And not wanting to have sex with someone because you have negative feelings towards them at a given moment is not in fact punishment. It’s actually a very natural human feeling not to want to be physically intimate with someone when you’re annoyed/angry/hurt/sad with them. Oddly enough letting someone be close to your body when you don’t feel emotionally close to them doesn’t always feel great (if that’s your thing then go for it, but for those who don’t like it then there is no fucking reason to apologize).

But the idea that you can pull some sort of power play in a relationship by not giving the other person something which you don’t owe to them in the first place makes no sense. It would be like telling your partner that you’re going to punish them by not baking them chocolate chip cookies every day: sure, maybe they would like those cookies but in no way are you obligated to bake them cookies anyway, so they should probably be just fine getting along without it. The idea that you should feel as if the only way you can express that you’re angry or upset or unhappy in your relationship is by taking ownership over your body in a way that is so basic it should never have been a question is somewhat disgusting. If your partner has you so convinced that you owe them sex, no wonder you feel a little angry or vindictive towards them.

The myth of withholding sex falls into the same category of horrible relationship advice that such gems as “have sex with him whenever he wants or he’ll cheat”, “Men need sex more often than women” and “there’s no such thing as marital rape” do. Sexuality is not the same for any two people, and gender does not determine sex drive or preferences, but underlying all of these myths is the assumption that sex is about ownership rather than about a mutually pleasurable experience and that the man in a relationship owns the right to sex with “his” woman. The concept that sex is a bargaining chip, a way to argue, or something that another person can demand are all great ways to ignore consent and traumatize the person you’re in a relationship with. So please, stop talking about how someone in a relationship should have more sex or needs to do x, y or z with their sex life because a. it’s none of your business and b. if their partner can’t respect them when they say no, the problems in that relationship are not their fault (or at least not exclusively).

I’m done with the idea that sex is the way to express all your feelings in a relationship. Use your words.



Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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  1. I can’t say this woman’s marriage is actually like mine was, but looking at the spreadsheet is like reading my own relationship with my ex husband. He would bombard me with requests, I’d eventually submit, and then the next day I would most definitely be too sore to “have sex” again because violent unwanted penetration freaking hurts. In reality, HE was the one using sex as a punishment. He punished me through intercourse, controlled me with threats of sexual violence, and threw all the times he accepted me saying no in my face as evidence of my frigidity. He turned sex into a weapon. It sounds like this douchenozzle has done something similar.

  2. The cookie analogy falls apart a little when you consider that you can get cookies anywhere you like at any time and nobody cares and in fact you can eat cookies from two different brands at the same time and that’s just fine. But when you are in a monogamous relationship, part of the contract of that relationship is that you shall not have sex outside of that relationship. If one person simultaneously refuses to have sex with someone and refuses to let that person have sex anywhere else, are they not doing harm? Nobody should be forced to have sex, but there can still be an agreement that there should be some sex. When both parties aren’t holding up the whole agreement, there is a problem.

    1. But this is not a problem to be solved by one person surrendering bodily autonomy to their partner. As Olivia said above, use your words. I’m ace, my partner is not, we manage to make it work by sitting down and talking about our needs and making concessions. If there’s a problem, people ought to talk it over.

    2. Sex is something that two people do together. If your relationship can survive coerced sex, then that’s really your business, but I don’t think sex that one partner enjoys and another distastefully tolerates is any better for the relationship than going without. They both look painful and toxic to me. And I don’t see how brow-beating and guilting a partner into sex is anything near healthy.
      These are really personal conversations that need to happen between the people involved, but nobody *owes* anybody sex. Period.

      1. Also, agreements are fine, but things change, people change, and your partner is not a prostitute.

      2. I can’t imagine wanting to “have sex” with someone who didn’t want it, too. (I put “having sex” in quotes because I distinguish between “having sex” and “making love.”) For me to even feel like it, I have to feel a sense of trust and intimacy and connection that is incompatible with coercion.

        My reaction upon first hearing this story was: well, no wonder she’s using every excuse in the book to avoid sex with him. Who’d want to get at all intimate with someone who thinks you owe him your trust and intimacy?

        My ex-wife used to insist that I owed her sex because that’s one of the obligations of marriage. I would try, but my body wouldn’t go along. Looking back, I see that her attitude was typical of our whole relationship. At some point, I couldn’t con myself any more into believing that there was a kind and caring person inside. I couldn’t feel emotionally safe (and sometimes even physically safe) around her enough — or cared about — to even be able to be physically intimate. Even though we’re no longer married, I still feel skittish at the idea of love-making. I can well imagine that women who’ve been treated that way by a man would feel a lot of reluctance about sex with him (and maybe any man) forever after.

        I can see someone choosing to make love even if they aren’t all that interested for themselves, out of enjoyment of seeing their partner’s pleasure. But freely choosing is vastly different from acting out of a sense of obligation, or being pressured or coerced to do it.

      3. “Sex is something that two people do together” – which is exactly why the cookie analogy is horrible. It ties right back into the myth Olivia wants to attack, which is that sex is something women might enjoy incidentally, but is really something they do as a favor for their male partners – like baking cookies for your SO to eat, because maybe you enjoy cookie baking, too, but the entire point of the exercise is that your SO gets nice hot homemade cookies.

        Secondarily, as Matt notes, the analogy is horrible because most people think of sex as more emotionally important and necessarily exclusive than cookie baking. If I told you I hadn’t had cookies in months because my SO refused to bake them for me, and I’m not allowed to go buy a box or stop at Mrs. Fields, I’m only allowed to eat cookies he bakes, you’d likely think that was a very strange and possibly unhealthy relationship. But monogamy is not at all uncommon, and few people think ‘having sex outside of marriage’ is on the same level as ‘eating a cookie from a bakery’.

        1. You seem to be arguing from a place that assumes the author of this article and everyone responding are only speaking from the perspective of women being coerced, and from a place where only women can use sex as a “bargaining tool”.

          Do you know why I was so hurt when my fwb denied me sex? Because he was using it to wield power over me. “Because you didn’t do this/did this, I will not be having sex with you.” He didn’t even realize it at the time, which was part of the problem, and it took some effort for us to get back to a good place.

          Your bias is showing, to be perfectly frank, and you seem to be making assumptions that don’t actually exist.

          1. marilove – In the article, Olivia repeatedly talks about the trope that men want sex and women withhold as a power play, men will get it elsewhere if they don’t get it at home, advice columns routinely talk about ‘always women’ withholding sex, and “underlying all of these myths is the assumption that sex is about ownership rather than about a mutually pleasurable experience and that the man in a relationship owns the right to sex with “his” woman.”

            Those ugly sexist myths Olivia describes are what I’m addressing (and why I think the cookie analogy supports, rather than demolishes them). I’m not sure why you got the impression I was saying only women withhold sex or men can’t be coerced.

    3. I would look at it not in the light of agreements, contracts, or obligations, but in the light of care and love for your partner. Sex is not a thing you owe your partner, but in a long-term relationship where sex is part of how you express love and intimacy, I do think partners need to be mindful of and compassionate toward each others’ needs and desires. This does NOT mean the partner who’s not feeling it should agree to sex just because the other one wants it. It DOES mean that if I’m going through a long phase where I’m not feeling inclined to have sex with my partner, I should take that seriously. I should work to understand and resolve whatever issue is creating the lack of desire, as should my partner, to the best of our abilities. (If it’s due to something extraneous like depression, chronic illness, recent childbirth, etc, we pretty much know what the issue is… I’m thinking more of situations where the lack of desire is created by underlying relationship tensions.) If the issue seems unresolvable and the lack of sex is making my partner unhappy, maybe we need to talk about re-assessing our relationship as a whole.

      It’s the same as with any form of affection. If a partner suddenly stopped expressing any kind of verbal affection, became cold and acted bored when I was around, it would be devastating. I don’t owe my partner verbal affection or warmth and smiles, any more than I owe them sex, but if I’m unable or unwilling to give them that over a long period of time, it’s tremendously emotionally damaging to them, and I do think I owe it to them to either work the problem (again, with their help, assuming it’s a problem we both contribute to) or re-negotiate the relationship.

      If, instead, I remain coldly indifferent to their needs, or worse, actively run hot-and-cold on them as a way to control their behavior, that is unloving at best, and abusive at worst.

    4. Well at that point you stop being sexual partners and that person stops having veto power over you having sex with other people. But that person doesn’t owe you sex. I don’t know why you’d want it, either. It’s terrible sex.

      1. “and that person stops having veto power over you having sex with other people”

        Do they? At what point does that shade into “If you don’t give it to me I’ll get it somewhere else”?

        1. When the differences are irreconcilable, despite good faith attempts such as counseling, improved communication, compromise, etc, it’s over. No fault divorce. We’ve had it in Australia for decades. Cue butthurt from lawyers out to make a buck.

          The key words are “irreconcilable differences”.

          1. Despite the flowery language, I don’t see any real difference between that and “do what I want (/need) or I’ll leave”.

            Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with leaving a relationship when your needs aren’t met. I would currently end things with my SO if they insisted on a sexual relationship I wasn’t comfortable with, or tell them to leave if what I was comfortable with wasn’t sufficient. But add 15 years, 3 kids, a career put on hold and wedding vows to that? Throw on long distance moves, loss of friends and family (for whatever reason) and a side of poverty or medical problems?

            It can become very easy for “I require my sexual needs to be met” to become a threatening exercise of power.

          2. @d506: Not a lawyer, are you? :)

            I’m trying to keep this brief but accurate, and the words were carefully chosen.

            Any counselor worth their salt would point out that attempted coercion into sex was a jerk move likely to end in disaster. The presence of an objective and skilled third party makes the difference.

          3. @d506: …and a compromise could be reached. For instance, I don’t know why they don’t settle on one good session per week. That way she only has to do it one more time a month than she is already, and he stops pestering her every single bloody day. But they have to work it out themselves.

            That brings me to the most important point, that they need to talk over their concerns regularly, in a relaxed fashion, BEFORE it hits the fan. You know, go out to dinner once a week, and have a chat, even if it’s only a diner.

            If they can’t handle a tiny little private spat like this one without spreading it all over the internet, how are they going to handle important stuff? Money. Kids. Illness. Disability. Death. As you mentioned yourself.

            Actually I don’t think we disagree all that much.

        2. Nobody should have veto power over who anyone has sex with. They can break up, they can feel betrayed but one’s body is one’s business. Nobody else’s.

  3. I’m glad that most of the United States has moved to make rape within marriage illegal.

    Mark: this is why many relationships break up. Mismatched sex drive. It’s a valid reason to break up. But nobody is owed sex ever.

  4. Men should probably be more concerned that women aren’t as disappointed as they are when they get denied sex. I think part of it is the sense of entitlement or lack thereof, but I also think a lot of it is how we define sex. PIV is a lot harder on women than it is on men, and it’s sadly the only kind of sex that many couples have.

    Also, there are a lot of guys that are bad at sex and they don’t have Cosmo as an excuse.

    We knew that the speed of light was constant before we even knew that a man sexually pleasing a woman was even possible. We’d accomplished it in the lab and were using it to treat hysteria but we didn’t discover as a society that those were orgasms until the 1920s. Maybe we just need to wait a few decades.

    1. Is there any real evidence that women aren’t as disappointed when they are denied sex? I would expect women to complain about it far less, since they’re far more likely to be blamed for their partner’s lack of desire, but I’m not really convinced that it happens less often to women or that they’re less disappointed. The flip side being that women seem more likely to complain about bad sex, which fits quite well since men are far more likely to be blamed for that than women.

      1. I have been denied sex before, while in relationships (two were “friends with benefits” and one was an actual relationship). Each situation was different. The only time it really hurt was with the second “friends with benefits” because he is the type of guy who is ALWAYS horny and ALWAYS up for sex, so I knew it had something to do with me, and not him (we eventually worked through it and are now friends again).

        The time I was denied sex with my boyfriend (at the time; this was a long time ago) also hurt, but for different reasons: He was an alcoholic. It had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with his alcoholism. So that hurt, but for different reasons than the fwb situation.

        So yeah. It sucks.

        I myself complain about bad sex, but I have a big mouth, so :P

        1. It can certainly work both ways. I have on occasion denied sex BECAUSE the woman had brandished sex as reward/punishment. “If you go fishing with Bill on Friday evening, you aren’t getting any sex”, or “if you can’t get off work early enough to see the play, there’ll be no sex this weekend”, e.g. As soon as that trope is presented, the implication is that I, the man, have no innate attractiveness, and that she, as the women, is the Dispenser Of Favors, whose Throne Must Be Petitioned Properly. It’s insulting to both sides, and it creates a corrosive dynamic. So my response has occasionally been “fine then, no sex, I’ve still got to do X, Y, or Z, and if you don’t find me attractive enough to want sex for its own pleasure, rather than as a Pavlovian tool, then you’ll just have to go without sex, which will be your loss, Chiquita!”

          So absolutely, nobody owes anybody anything, and if one partner doesn’t want to have sex, that is their right, every single day or night. But if they wield is as a cudgel, then lack of sex is their own reward. I refuse to play into the Men-Are-Ardent-Women-Are-Choosy cultural narrative. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. Or none for either.

          Then again, I’m not as hot as I was 20 years ago, so perhaps this ploy has a best-used-by date that has long since passed.

          1. You seem to be arguing from a place that assumes the author of this article and everyone responding are only speaking from the perspective of women being coerced, and from a place where only women can use sex as a “bargaining tool”.

            Do you know why I was so hurt when my fwb denied me sex? Because he was using it to wield power over me. “Because you didn’t do this/did this, I will not be having sex with you.” He didn’t even realize it at the time, which was part of the problem, and it took some effort for us to get back to a good place.

            Your bias is showing, to be perfectly frank, and you seem to be making assumptions that don’t actually exist.

          2. Woops. I actually replied to the wrong person. But my comment does kind of fit here. I’ll copy/paste where it was supposed to go as well.

    2. Correction: Western man (emphasis on ‘man’) didn’t know women could have orgasms until the 1920s.

      Sex myths persist, even beyond pontificating from the abstinence-only movement. You’ll still have people who don’t even know the shape of the clitoris.

      1. And by “Western man” we mean “the scientific and medical consensus”. I doubt very much that men as a whole were ignorant of the fact that women could enjoy orgasms. Hell, until the Enlightenment, the belief in Western culture was that women were the ones with their brains in their pants; that was the reason they were disproportionately witches, you see, Satan got to them through the little head.

        Pornography ranging from early photographs to Tijuana Bibles made it pretty clear pre-1920 that women liked sex.

        1. Are you sure about that?

          I once dated a man, about 10 years ago (when I was 23 or 24) who was at least 8 years older than me, and pretty good in bed; we had a really good connection and the sex was great.

          But he told me, later, after we stopped dating (it wasn’t a serious relationship by any means) that he had never, not since he’d starting having sex (as a teen) been with a woman who needed to stimulate her own clitoris during sex (in this case, “doggy style”) to have an orgasm. He honestly thought all/most women could have an orgasm with PIV sex *only* and did not require stimulation to the clitoris. He ARGUED WITH ME ABOUT THIS, and made it seem like I was some weird outlier and that most women weren’t lie this.

          He never did get to the point where he believed me that most women can’t, in fact, have an orgasm from straight PIV.

          PORN IS NOT REAL LIFE! It never has been a real representation of sex — and that’s probably a big reason why the man I mentioned above had NO IDEA most women needed direct clitoral stimulation to orgasm. You really cannot use porn as an example as to why men understand women and their sexuality. That’s preposterous — and I’m a woman who really enjoys porn.

          Besides which, before the internet, most people DID NOT have access to porn. I really don’t understand why you’re using the existence of porn as some sort of proof that men know what women like or that they are sexual beings. That’s not proof. And in fact, actual studies and research fly against that assertion. As does my experience, as a woman with a high sex drive. I’ve come across plenty of men who are shocked — SHOCKED! — that I am as sexual as I am, and as open as I am about it.

          You’re dangerously close to mansplaining to women about a situation which we are quite familiar with.

          “Hell, until the Enlightenment, the belief in Western culture was that women were the ones with their brains in their pants; that was the reason they were disproportionately witches, you see, Satan got to them through the little head.”

          And this is just straight-up fucking ridiculous. Really? The belief in Western culture was really this? What the fuck is this nonesense?

          Sure, some women were thought to be witches, but this was still only a small subset of the population, and it had far more to do than just with sex. This is just … completely ridiculous.

          1. “You’re dangerously close to mansplaining to women about a situation which we are quite familiar with”

            I’m a woman. And more than a bit amused that you keep assuming you are the only one who has ever experienced the things you are talking about, like a man withholding sex as an emotional gambit, or sleeping with a guy who was completely clueless about women’s anatomy.

            I’m also not really interested in playing a role in ‘marilove is bored and looking for a punching bag’ this morning. Throwing a fit that historical fact is ‘ridiculous’ because you didn’t know about it, or that all men must have been ignorant of women’s sexuality because you slept with a clueless dude – seriously, marilove, that’s not even vigorous debate, that’s just picking a fight.

          2. Women can also mansplain. But I take your point.

            Oh a hysterical fit. I see.

            I was quite reasonable but sure, why don’t you attack me instead of actually responding to my points.

        2. In fact, the man I mention argued with me that “every woman I’ve ever been with was able to have an orgasm without stimulating her clitoris” which is just straight up fucking false, I am willing to place my entire bank account on it being false. That’s not how biology works, for most women, and yet he argued with me about this and would not, no matter what I showed him (research, experience from actual women), believe this.

          Also, as someone who enjoys porn, and who also has connections to the porn industry (including a good friend who is a prolific porn actress): You are full of shit when it comes to your comments about porn. Seriously.

  5. I honestly don’t get the notion that men are owed sex. (Then again, sex out of obligation sounds terrible to me, but that might be because I’m not a creep.) And if someone put my sex life all over the internet, suffice it to say, ‘incapable of obtaining my consent for sexual activity’ would become a permanent condition.

  6. The whole ‘spread sheet’ notion was flesh-crawllngly awful from the get go.

    BUT the story raises the issue: ‘can there really be a culture of consent where 50% of the participants are unable, or unwilling to EVER ask for anything?’

      1. I think — and he can correct me if I’m wrong — that he is saying that a lot of men are unwilling/unable to ask for sex. That instead, they have to “take” it. Think of all those romantic comedies where men chase women, rather than it being an equal thing. Women also have this idea, that they can’t ask for sex, or they will be seen as slutty or even immoral, and that women must play coy at all times, and let the man be the agressor. Obviously not everyone thinks like this but it’s still a very strong concept in society.

  7. Call me what you will, but guys (and girls) have the solution to this problem in their own hands. Literally. If your partner refuses sex, take care of things in private. If they continue, talk. If it ain’t gonna happen, and that’s a deal breaker, then break up. Pretty simple to me. Now if your partner refuses sex AND has a problem with self love, then there is a real problem and you have every right to go behind their back and take care of things in private. Your rules, your body. Their rules, their body. Period.

  8. Attitudes like Olivia’s – which sadly are all too common in modern women – are why a man should very, very, very carefully question a woman to discover if she thinks like this before entering into a relationship, much less a marriage. It is painfully clear you have no idea what a relationship actually it. It can’t be all about what one partner – the woman – wants, it has to be mutual. Women want to act in a relationship as if they were still single, and that makes a genuine relationship impossible. You want to keep your body to yourself, that’s your right, but then you should not enter into a relationship, because by definition an actual relationship requires each partner to give something of themselves to the other partner, and to sometime do what the other partner wants to do rather than what might have preferred. Framing it as “the man thinks he is owed sex” is incredibly dishonest and disingenuous. He isn’t “owed” sex, but if you actually love him, you should want to have sex with him. If you are seldom if ever interested, that isn’t just about sex, it means you aren’t interested in him, period.

    This “my body is my own” attitude isn’t just about choosing not to have sex with one’s partner, it isn’t just about being totally self-centered and selfish, it’s also an assertion that one is entitled to cheat, as many women have demonstrated. Oh, they won’t outright call it the right to cheat, but if a woman asserts the right to consent to sex with whomever she chooses even while in a relationship, that is what it amounts to. I’ve seen many cases of a woman refusing sex to her long-term relationship partner for years, only to give herself to another man with minimal effort on his part. If the LTR partner then quite rightly complains, out comes the self-righteous excuse “No one is entitled to sex.” No wonder so many men are just giving up on dating, when they’ve seen other men pour their hearts and souls into a relationship, do everything for a woman, and then be treated like that. Women in their 30s are complaining that nobody wants to marry them – gee, wonder why?

    I expect to get a lot of hate for this post, but somebody needs to call a spade a spade.

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