Not in the mood tonight but still feel like you need to get it on? You're not the only one. In fact, 81 percent of women admitted to having sex with their partner when they weren't in the mood — or "mercy sex" — according to a recent survey of conducted by the American Sexual Health Association. With so many women confessing to having that kind of seemingly joyless sex, there has got to be a reason why this has become the norm for women to have sex for reasons beyond pleasure.
One incentive can be as simple as wanting to make your partner feel good. Taylor*, 33, says that for the first year after giving birth to her son, she just wasn't interested in sex. "I had virtually zero sex drive, in that I rarely felt actually 'in the mood,'" she explains. But the fact that sex made her husband happy was reason enough for her to engage in it: "I would often agree to it [despite my lack of interest]," knowing that he really enjoyed sex, she says.(sex advice)
And that isn't a bad thing! "If you enjoy making your partner happy and therefore agree to hit the sack even if you're not really in the mood, that's great," says Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really, Really Want. Studies have shown that couples who have sex once per week are happier than those who have sex less than that, and many people find sex to be an important part of a relationship — which is why they try to make having it a priority, whether they're in the mood for it or not.''
1. MANY PEOPLE FIND SEX TO BE AN IMPORTANT PART OF A RELATIONSHIP:
For some women with a lack of interest in sex from the get-go, the incentive may be the promise of eventual desire. Kitty Stryker, 32, says that because she struggles with depression and anxiety, sex is often the last thing on her mind, but "when I have sex, even if I'm not initially interested, I develop interest as it happens."
This isn't an anomaly. According to Friedman, there are two ways people get interested in sex: Either they feel arousal initially and then have sex, or they start having sex and then start to feel aroused (hooray for science and bodies). "Both are a normal sexual response," she explains.
But when happens when that desire doesn't develop? It could be caused by a medication you're talking, alcohol or drug use, or a medical condition, explains Leah Millheiser, MD, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University Medical Center in the ob-gyn department and director of the female sexual medicine program. If you know it's none of the latter, you should consider talking to a sex therapist — a low libido could indicate that there are underlying issues, like anxiety or stress, or it could be related to a myriad of things, from stress to a sexual dysfunction, like hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), which is defined as low libido that causes distress and is the most common form of sexual dysfunction, affecting approximately 4 million women in the U.S. Upward of 40 percent of women experience sexual dysfunction, which is defined as "constant, repeated problems with sexual response, orgasm, pain, or desire," at some point in their lives, according to FindMySpark.com. (It's worth noting, though, that a lack of desire is only considered dysfunction if the person experiencing it finds it to be distressing.) Those stats should give you some assurance that if you're in this situation, you're not alone.
While mercy sex can be good for a relationship, it's not always healthy for the person who isn't in the mood. Sarah*, 35, says that she often has sex with her husband out of guilt. She says, "He doesn't pressure me, but I pressure myself," and she feels like she can't win: "I either feel guilty for not having sex, or I feel guilty and like a bad feminist for having sex when I don't feel like it."
It's not uncommon for people who find themselves with a lower libido than their partner to feel conflicted. Many people believe that sex is very important for a relationship and therefore may make the decision to have it when they don't feel like it because they fear their relationship will suffer if they don't. Ninety-three percent of women surveyed by the American Sexual Health Association felt that low sexual desire can put a strain on a relationship. "If a couple is not engaging in sexual activity often, intimacy can be lost," says Millheiser. "That can lead to the breakdown of a relationship."
The element of consent — and lack of coercion — is necessary for mercy sex to be healthy. "I only feel comfortable [having sex when I'm not in the mood] if I don't feel coerced by a partner," says Stryker. "I want and need the choice to be mine, and it has to be OK to say no or stop at any time."
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The sex Taylor and her husband had during her postpartum period of no libido "didn't feel coercive to me because I was never being pressured to do it," Taylor explains. "Intimacy is a good thing; [the sex] kept us connected."
2. I WANT AND NEED THE CHOICE TO BE MINE, AND IT HAS TO BE OK TO SAY NO OR STOP AT ANY TIME:
Having sex out of obligation or belief that it's something one has to do can lead to traumatizing experiences.
"I'm a trauma survivor, and for me, that makes a lot of feelings about sex really confusing sometimes," says Kate Bailey, 36. Bailey says that there were times when her husband would unintentionally do something, whether it was a word or an action, that would trigger her trauma. Instead of telling him, she would shut down and push on, which is an incredibly common trauma response. She explains, "I wanted him to have that emotional connection and physical connection to me, even if I wasn't experiencing it." Ultimately, Bailey says, it was a harmful cycle for her: "You worry about what's going to happen" during the sex, which brings you out of it and "it gets harder and harder to even want sex."
Good news: Communication helped. Bailey found that talking to her husband about how she was feeling allowed them to move past the trauma cycle she kept finding herself in. "He cried. He had no idea. But it opened the door for me to be able to ask for what I needed," she says. This communication has made sex more pleasurable for her, and, she says, "it's more fun to pleasure him when I know that I get to set parameters for what makes me feel secure."
So what should you do if you find yourself in a situation where you're participating in mercy sex with relative frequency? Seeking counseling as a couple can be important for people with mismatched libidos, whether it's always been an element of their relationship or it's only recently become an issue. But most importantly, it's important to open up a dialogue. "If there's no communication about it, if one partner becomes avoidant, the other partner may become resentful. That can lead to an even further loss of intimacy," explains Millheiser.
The choice to be intimate or not is ultimately an individual one, but there are solutions if you're struggling. But no matter what, remember: Sex should be a positive experience.