In heterosexual relationships, men have traditionally been seen as the initiators of sex and women as the “gatekeepers.” For decades, academic studies consistently found that men and women were sticking to this sexual script. That’s no longer the case, though.
Recent studies find that women are initiating sex a lot more than they used to, although most research still finds at least a small gender gap. For example, I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about their sex lives for my book Tell Me What You Want and found that while 22 percent of heterosexual women in relationships said they rarely or never initiate sex, just 13 percent of heterosexual men said the same.
These numbers suggest that the vast majority of straight men and women today are taking the sexual lead at least sometimes; however, it’s clear that a sizeable minority exists that isn’t initiating sex very much, and women are more likely to fall in this camp than men.
Initiating sex infrequently—or not at all—isn’t necessarily a problem. After all, some people—regardless of gender—are content to take on a submissive sexual role. Research has found that a lack of sexual initiation is only harmful when it’s inconsistent with one’s sexual preferences. In other words, it’s only when people have a desire to be sexually assertive but don’t feel able or empowered to do so that they experience negative consequences.
Most of the heterosexual women I surveyed (42 percent) said they were happy with how often they initiated sex. The remaining women, however, were pretty evenly split: 28 percent wanted to initiate more often, while 29 percent wanted to initiate less often. The numbers for lesbians were very similar.
When looking at heterosexual men, 44 percent were content with their sexual assertiveness; however, 21 percent wanted to initiate more, and 35 percent wanted to initiate less. The breakdown for gay men was almost identical. The fact that more guys wanted to give up rather than take control in the bedroom may surprise you, but it makes perfect sense: Research has found that men in relationships want to feel wanted—and what makes them feel desired more than anything else is when their partner initiates sex.
It seems clear from all of this that there are a lot of us—in fact, a majority—who either want to initiate sex more often or want their partner to start taking the lead. So what can we do about this? How can we get the right balance of sexual initiation in our relationships if we don’t already have it?
Before answering that question, it’s important to recognize that there are a large number of things that interfere with people’s interest in and ability to initiate sex. Biological factors (health conditions, lack of sleep, painful sex), psychological factors (stress, mood state), and social factors (relationship conflict, children) are all things that tend to put the brakes on both sex and sexual initiation.
More from VICE:
The starting point, then, is really removing as many roadblocks as you can. What are the things that are preventing you and/or your partner from initiating sex more often? If you can identify the cause, you can start making concrete changes.
For example, a lot of people have this mindset that sex is something that only happens right before bed—but after a long day, odds are that one or both of you won’t be in the mood. Or maybe sex does sound good, but you’re too tired to initiate. If this sounds familiar, you might think about switching things up and initiating sex in the morning instead. Or maybe you’ll both agree to turn off your email in the evenings so that you can go to bed not feeling quite as stressed or distracted, which can open the door to sexual opportunities.
Eliminating roadblocks increases the odds that both of you will feel sexual more often, which means that if one partner initiates, it’s likely that the other will be into the idea. However, while this is likely to help, we also need to address the fact that some of us just aren’t sure how to initiate or we’re afraid that our efforts will be met with rejection. So what are some common ways to initiate sex, and are there any approaches that are more well received than others?
There are two basic ways to initiate sex: directly or indirectly. Direct initiation is when you unambiguously convey sexual interest to your partner. For example, this might include asking your partner if they want to have sex, verbally expressing your desire to get it on, removing your clothing, or physically touching your partner.
By contrast, indirect initiation is when you convey interest in a way that’s less obvious, such as kissing your partner, complimenting their appearance, or asking them if they want to cuddle. Research finds that both men and women tend to use indirect strategies more often than direct strategies. That might not necessarily be the most effective approach, however, given that direct cues tend to be recognized more often and are more likely to lead to sex.
In a 2012 study of heterosexual married couples who kept sex journals for two weeks, the cues most likely to be recognized as attempts to initiate sex were the ones that were most overt, like walking out of the bathroom naked, undressing one’s partner, or directly asking for sex. These cues were also the most successful: Undressing one’s self or one’s partner led to sex 100 percent of the time, while directly asking resulted in sex 76 percent of the time.
However, one direct strategy that didn’t work quite as well was physically touching one’s partner (things like crawling on top of your partner, rubbing up against their body, etc.). This wasn’t always recognized as a sexual cue, it led to sex less often, and half of the time it occurred, the partner found it irritating or annoying instead of pleasurable.
This suggests that the use of touch as a sexual initiation strategy might be best coupled with verbal communication. Or maybe different types of touch should be considered: For example, rather than spontaneously rubbing or crawling on your partner, giving them a neck or shoulder massage might be a better start. Incidentally, back rubs are one of 17 things that sexually satisfied couples are more likely to do with one another.
As you can see, there are clearly a lot of different ways to go about initiating sex, and it should go without saying that different things are likely to work better for different people. So experiment, explore, and—above all else—talk about what both of you want.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD, is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.