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How to Say No to Sex: 10 Ways to Say No and Not Feel Guilty

Last updated on November 20, 2022 by Rhamah Norris

What do you think is the hardest thing to talk about in marriage counseling? Money? In-laws? How to raise your kids? In my experience, all of these subjects are difficult to discuss, especially in front of a stranger.

But sex? That subject is so uncomfortable that couples tend to skip over it altogether. Even when I ask specifically about physical intimacy, both sides give a surface-level answer. If I press, they clam up or redirect or start a fight about something else entirely. 

Would it surprise you to know this happens with heterosexual and same-sex couples? Would you be shocked to know that many men don’t want to talk about sex in a therapy session?

From the very first date to the 60th wedding anniversary, sex and sexuality have an influence on romantic relationships. Being able to say what you want helps your relationship be healthy and happy. But just as importantly, you have to be able to say what you don’t want.

Why It’s Important to Be Honest About Sex

Sex can’t replace intimacy

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines intimacy as a state of such emotional closeness that allows us to get close to one another without causing discomfort. This closeness depends on having a deep understanding of one another.

In a committed relationship, you might show your partner you understand him with sex. But emotional connection requires more than that. It requires us to show interest in each other. It requires demonstrations of respect and consideration.

If you’ve been hurting, intimacy means that you can turn toward your partner and know that they will be able to support you.

If you’ve not been honest about your feelings surrounding sex, it can actually hurt the intimacy of your relationship. If you feel pressured to have sex, would you speak to your partner about stress at work? About feeling disconnected from your body? About your deepest insecurities? Probably not.

Saying no to sex might not feel comfortable. You might feel guilty or anxious. But improving your connection to your partner is important for the long-term health of the relationship.

Sexual pleasure

The research and discussion about female sexual pleasure is woefully lacking. From the impact of birth control (Higgins & Hirsch, 2008) to the very anatomy of the clitoris, it’s something that has often been overlooked.

(Did you know that the nerves in the clitoris are often 2mm in diameter in babies? By contrast, the average of the nerves in our adult hands is as small as 0.18mm in diameter. No wonder clitoral stimulation is so closely associated with orgasm!)

Women experience more sexual desire when their pleasure is prioritized. Verna Klien et al. have a great overview of the research1 in their paper, “Sexual Pleasure Matters (Especially for Women).” In spite of this, there are a lot of myths about sex, and women who are not enjoying can be shamed and dismissed. 

Being able to set boundaries around sex can help you address what you’re not enjoying, which can enhance both your and your partner’s pleasure. If you experience low desire or discomfort, not having sex can help you explore what turns you on and communicate that with your partner.

Couple-in-bed

Sexual identity

Sexual identity is more complex than just heterosexual or homosexual. There is a wide range of gender, sexual, and romantic experiences that a person might relate to. Honesty with yourself and your partner about your identity can improve intimacy.

The stigma around sexual identity can keep many people from being honest and connected with their partners. Exploring who we are can feel shameful. Whether you’re curious about your bisexuality2 or find yourself on the asexual spectrum, your identity impacts how you experience sex. 

Physical health

Engaging in sex impacts and is impacted by our health. Being honest about your experiences of desire, pleasure, and pain can help you identify potential health concerns. Practicing honesty with your partner can help you to identify issues to talk with a medical professional about.

If you experience pelvic floor tightness or pain with penetrative sex, for instance, it’s important to take a break to avoid increasing the pain. You might try other sexual acts until you can work with a physical therapist3 to address the issue. Exercises and treatments exist to help improve your experience.

If you find yourself with a low mood and low energy, which might result in low desire, that could also have health implications. There are a lot of mental and physical health factors4 that might be slowing you down.

Social Pressure and Emotional Health

There’s a lot of pressure on both women and men about how they are supposed to exist as sexual beings.

For women, there are so many unreasonable expectations about sex and sexual pleasure. Because women are expected to perform in certain ways, it can be hard to be honest about what you like, don’t like, and aren’t in the mood for.

For men, there’s pressure to be constantly sexual. So much so, that many men end up initiating and engaging in sex they don’t want to have. Challenges to their sexual readiness can be seen as challenges to their masculinity.

With all of that pressure, is it any wonder that so many couples are having dissatisfying sex? Doesn’t it make sense that it would be hard to say no or suggest something different?

Living up to expectations that don’t match your sexual desires takes a toll on your mental and emotional health. As I stated before, it hurts our sense of intimacy with our partner, but it can also hurt our sense of self.

Do you feel like the only way to keep your relationship is to have sex? Do you have trouble believing that your partner would be okay not having sex, even if he says he is?

Is it like pulling teeth getting him to spend time with you?
The key to solving is understanding men on a much deeper emotional level. The number #1 factor that causes men to behave this way is actually relatively easy to change with a few subtle things you can say to him.

Take this quick quiz to see if he actually likes you!

Sex Is Not Required for a Happy Relationship

For many people, sex is a natural part of a monogamous relationship. For others, sex is something they look forward to in the future, not something they do now. Still others establish their relationship with no intentions of sex. 

The intimacy shared between two people can take many forms5

Getting physical isn’t the cornerstone of a relationship. Instead, think of it as a fun extra. Honesty, respect, and mutual affection are very important. Without these, you could have the most active sex life of anyone you know, but you’re unlikely to have a satisfying partnership.

Even without sex, building a lasting connection is possible. Sharing interests, going on dates, and spending time getting to know each other can be just as effective. 

If you’re worried about your ability to set clear boundaries and say no to sex, the following tips might help you get started.

How to Say No to Sex on a First Date

First dates can be very stressful. You want to present the best version of yourself. You want the guy to like you! But you also know that you don’t want to have sex on the first date.

Whether you’re waiting for marriage, on your period, or just not feeling it, you can always say no to sex. You’re looking for someone who fits with you, not someone to change yourself or your values for. The kind of guy you want to date will respect your decisions around your body. 

So relax, shake out the nervous energy, and set your boundaries with confidence.

1. Establish clear expectations ahead of time

If you know you are not interested in sex on the first date, let him know ahead of time. You might not feel ready. You might need time to get to know a new partner before clothes come off. Whatever the reason, don’t feel bad if he is disappointed. If he’s interested in you more than sex, he’ll stick around. 

By taking the lead in talking about sex, you’re showing him that you know what you want and what you don’t. Assertive communication allows you to state your peace with respect and kindness and invites him to do the same. 

Being assertive will help you keep the line of communication open as you continue dating. If and when you feel ready to take that step, assertive communication skills will help you make sure you’re on the same page.

Couple-talking

2. Arrive separately and know how you’re getting home

With the price of gas, you might be tempted to have him pick you up, or make plans for him to drive you home. There’s nothing wrong with that if he’s being respectful. But just in case he’s less than boyfriend material, it’s good to make sure you’re in charge of your transportation.

Even if he said he understands that you don’t want to have sex, some men think you’ll change your mind. Some men might suggest that you owe them. He might casually touch you, or outright pressure you to have sex. 

That pressure can be hard to avoid or downright scary if you can’t go anywhere without his cooperation.

If you drive yourself, have a friend drop you off, or even take a cab home, you are setting a clear boundary. 

I want to be clear: You are never at fault if a man fails to respect your boundaries. Even if you get in his car, you are not agreeing to sexual activity. You do not owe anyone sex.

3. Avoid “politeness modifiers”

A lot of women don’t know how to say no to sex because they don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. On the other hand, you don’t have to use rude words or personal attacks to get your point across, either.

Politeness modifiers are how we soften our speech to show friendliness and consideration. While it softens the blow of uncomfortable conversations, it often leaves room to be misinterpreted. This often leaves women wondering if they weren’t clear about their boundaries.

For example, if you say “I don’t want to have sex, right now,” He might think “right now” means “before we go to dinner.” He may try to encourage you to change your mind, or assume consent later on. You might feel guilty if he tells you he didn’t completely understand.

Instead, you can say,  “I need you to understand that I don’t want to have sex on a first date. This is very important to me.” That’s a much stronger statement. It’s gentle while being firm. And if he doesn’t respect it? You can know that’s on him, not you.

4. If it’s not an enthusiastic ‘yes’, it’s most likely a no

Maybe you’re generally open to having sex on the first date. Waiting for marriage isn’t the only reason to not want to have sex. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood, even if the date went great.

Sexual consent is more than just yes or no. It’s the ability to change your mind about sex, anytime, if you’re not really into it. A potential boyfriend would want you to be excited to have sex, so he’ll be okay with a rain check. (If he’s not okay with it, well… I wouldn’t blame you if you lost interest.)

If you planned to have sex, but now you’re not completely enthused about the idea, let him know how you feel. Speaking about what is turning you off is better in the long run. It lets both of you approach the next date a bit differently.

How to Say No to Sex In a Relationship

A committed relationship doesn’t mean you’re up for sex anytime, anywhere. You and your partner won’t always want to have sex at the same time. Sometimes you just won’t have any interest. That doesn’t mean you don’t love him, it’s just life.

(If either of you feels rejected to the point of resentment, I would recommend talking with a couple’s therapist to help you understand each other.)

5. Don’t hurt him intentionally

Saying no to sex can be just as uncomfortable as being told no. For many couples, declining sex because of differences in sex drive results in feelings of rejection and anxiety.

In order to reduce the negative emotional impact, try to practice reassuring rejection6. Make it clear that you’re not in the mood, but not because you love him any less. You might feel uncomfortable. But chances are that he’s also anxious about why you’re saying no to sex.

While the importance of sex varies from man to man, no one likes being turned down. Initiating sex is a vulnerable act. It’s possible that your partner will think of all of the valid reasons you have to say no to sex. It’s also likely that he experiences your rejection of sex as a rejection of himself.

Try to use open body language and a gentle tone during the conversation. Saying no to sex might make you feel insecure, but don’t go on the attack. Try using I-statements to explain how you are feeling and why. Invite him to do the same, and listen to what he says about his feelings.

Couple-talking-in-bed

6. Discuss why you aren’t in the mood

A low desire for sex can impact women of any age. It could be that you have a naturally low libido. It might be the result of medications or mental health factors. You might have insecurities about your body that make it hard to feel sexually desirable.

If you’ve always had a “lower” sex drive, you’re not alone. Many people - men and women - don’t have a desire for sex as often as their partners. Some don’t desire sex at all. 

Talk to your partner about how often you usually experience desire. By taking the time to set expectations about sex, you can avoid hurting his feelings. He might even feel ready for you to say no and be less likely to feel personally rejected.

If you notice a significant decline7 in your sex drive due to medications or stress, it’s important to speak with your partner about how that impacts you both. If both partners are on the same page, they might notice the change, but not feel unfulfilled. That’s why it’s important to discuss!

As you are navigating the changes in your relationship, don’t feel guilty about your experience. He may express frustration or hurt. You may feel pressured to find a quick fix, or ignore your feelings and have sex. But forcing yourself can lead to resentment in your relationship.

You may notice that your desire for sex is negatively impacted by how you view your body. 

Being ready for sex has a lot to do with feeling like your partner desires you. How we view ourselves can make us feel confident and excited, or shameful and withdrawn.

Building confidence in yourself depends on you, not your partner. He can tell you he’s in love with your body all day, but you have to believe it’s true. If you have difficulty improving your self-image, consider working with someone to build your self-esteem

7. Be specific about what you’re up for and what’s off limits

It’s hard to be intimate if you feel like you have to be ready for penetrative sex every time. Sometimes there’s too much stress to relax enough. Maybe you’re just too exhausted to be on the receiving end of your husband's energetic love-making. 

Do you feel like you’d be open to sexual activity that doesn’t lead to full-on sex? Part of the discussion around consent that often gets overlooked is being specific about what you want and don’t want. Think about if you’re open to physical intimacy that doesn’t lead to penetration or even orgasm.

Would you be up to making out? Kissing has pretty incredible health benefits8 and can make you feel closer to your partner without taking your clothes off. If you’re down for skin-to-skin contact, you might shower together, or give each other massages. If you’re interested in an orgasm, consider mutual masturbation with your man.

FAQs

How can relationships be happy without sex?

Relationships are about a lot more than sex. Intimacy, being able to trust another person with the most vulnerable part of yourself, can be achieved without getting physical. Sharing interests, going on dates, and learning more about each other can set the stage for long-term happiness, even without sex.

What is the effect of not having sex?

Not having sex with your partner can lead to feelings of disconnection and rejection, but you can prevent that. Reassuring him that you love him, and being open to other forms of intimacy can help the two of you feel more connected and satisfied.

How important is sex to a man?

Everyone, men, women, and non-binary people, has their own unique feelings when it comes to sex. For some men, sex is very important to their connection to their partner. For them, a partner not wanting to have sex can feel like a personal rejection.

Conclusion

You should always be able to speak with your partner about sex for your mental health and the health of your relationship. Whether you’re meeting him for the first time, or you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, it’s important to know how to politely say no to sex. Let us know how you have these conversations with your partner.

Do you feel like all you think about is him, but he only thinks about himself?
This doesn't mean he doesn't like you. You have to understand how he is wired. Once you do, you'll find there is a subtle thing you can say that to him that will drastically change how he shows his emotions towards you.

Take this quick quiz that looks at whether he actually likes you or not!

Rhamah Norris
As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I know a little bit about relationships! Writing has always been a passion of mine, and I can’t think of a better way to combine my experience than to write about love, dating, and communication. I want to give everyone, women, nonbinary, genderfluid, and otherwise, tips, tricks, and tools to help improve their relationships.

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