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Who started it? Who cares? 

Sometimes desire leads, sometimes it follows

One of the most frequent complaints we therapists hear is about one partner not initiating sex as much as the other. It often sounds something like, "Our sex life is pretty good, except it's always me who starts it. I'd really like it if she/he would show some interest once in a while." Often, the less-frequently-initiating person feels bad and both partners agree this person has "the problem."

If decades of research have clarified anything, it's this: Sexuality is naturally diverse. Most things about our sexualities have both genetic and social beginnings and they aren't, generally speaking, amenable to intentional change. Just as some people are attracted to a wide variety of partners while others have specific tastes, some people are probably more naturally initiators while others are more receptive. Still others are comfortable with both roles.

Exploring this with couples often reveals that the more initiating partner feels undesired because he or she takes his or her partner's less active approach to sex personally. This is sometimes hard to resolve because talking about sex can be difficult.

Commonly, the receptive folks like sex, it just isn't at the top of their minds a lot of the time. When their partners approach, if they experience a cognitive desire to feel a physical desire, they respond with a clear "yes." They might want to feel intimate, to please their partners, to feel sexual pleasure or any number of other mental experiences. Once they decide to go for it and the sexual behavior starts, they feel desire and physical pleasure, enjoying sex a great deal. It's a thought-feeling-pleasure cycle.

For the initiating types, the desire might be the first thing they notice. Their sexual experience starts with a physical sensation, then leads to a thought. They approach their partners, receive consent and enjoy the sexual experience that ensues. Neither of these patterns is "better" than the other, they're just different. That couple in therapy hoping to find a way to fix the "problem" might just as well wish their more receptive partner were taller, in my opinion.

Try as they might, the less-initiating partners often feel inauthentic trying to initiate, like they're playing a role. The assumption is that if they just keep trying, it will eventually feel more natural to be the sexual starter. When the natural-ness doesn't come, they both feel worse. The initiator feels undesired, and the less-initiating person feels inadequate. The truth of the matter is, they're probably both fine.

Most studies related to this more receptive sexuality have used women as participants, but in my professional experience, it is applicable to many people. Research supports the idea that neither of these positions is pathological. Once partners accept that both of these approaches to sexuality are healthy, they are freer to explore and enjoy their experiences. Typically, the couples realize the less-commonly-initiating partner is actually signaling her or his interest in being approached in reliable, albeit subtle, ways.

Once people stop feeling defensive about what they like and don't like sexually, it opens up a treasure trove of other options. For example, one avenue of resolution would be to embrace the sexual role-playing aspect explicitly. The person who less frequently initiates can openly decide to pretend to be an initiator now and again, freed from the expectation that she or he will forevermore be required to stay in that role. The more-commonly-initiating partner understands and agrees that the couple is play-acting, and enjoys the experience for the adventure it is.

The less-commonly-initiating partner, absolved from the label of having a sexual problem, starts to understand how she or he actually communicates a willingness to be approached — maybe by being more flirtatious, purposely shaking a tail feather to get the sexual attention of his or her paramour.

Sexuality is a colorful and varied part of being human. We come by it through a complex interaction of experience and biology. Attractions and desires can be specific or broad, dynamic or static. Curiosity about this is natural. Probably though, we are how we are, for whatever reason, and the sooner we stop stressing over it, the happier — and sexier — we'll all be.

Got a question, sexually speaking?

Maybe, you know, for a friend? Email it to You're probably not the only one who's wondering.

Melinda Myers is a Humboldt State University psychology lecturer, owner of Good Relations and a clinical psychologist practicing in Arcata. Information presented here is not intended to provide specific treatment advice. Consult to find a licensed clinician who can help with individual concerns.

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Melinda Myers

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