Who's Lighting the Fire?

A look into the importance of initiating sex.

3 min read

Be honest. In your romantic relationship, who usually initiates sex? You? Your partner. Or do you both take turns?

Your answer may be linked to how sexually satisfied you are, according to a study by Susan Sprecher, PhD, a professor of sociology at Illinois State University, Normal. Sexual satisfaction was greater, she found, in relationships in which partners initiated equally or in which women sometimes initiated sex.

Sprecher tracked 38 college-educated couples (28 of them were married) in their twenties over a four-year period, asking each partner at the beginning and then every year thereafter, "Who usually initiates sexual activity in your relationship?" and "How sexually satisfying is the relationship to you?" Throughout the study, partners' responses to the first question agreed to a high level, suggesting that both were being truthful.

Among the findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

In more than 60% of the couples, men initiated more often than women; in 30% of couples, initiation was equally divided between partners; and in those remaining, the women initiated more frequently. Like other similar studies, Sprecher says she found that men usually suggest having sex more often than do their wives or girlfriends.

Whatever patterns of initiation were reported at one year into the study usually remained the same after three or four years.

The information about initiation was then compared to how couples rated their sexual satisfaction. Partners who reported equal initiation and female initiation patterns also tended to report greater sexual satisfaction for both partners. This finding, according to Sprecher, is also consistent with other studies suggesting that relationships with the most balance are the most satisfying.

Why then, do so many couples fall into the pattern of the man being the only one to suggest having sex? Sprecher and other sex researchers speculate that society's norms suggest that men should pursue and women should be pursued. The result may be that women tend to be less comfortable initiating sex. Or it may be that women tend to use subtle, indirect cues -- which may not be consciously noticed -- to initiate sexual activity, while men use more direct verbal requests and other measures.

Says Sandra A. Davis, PhD, a sex therapist in Pittsburgh, Pa.: "Many women I see in my practice are strong, progressive women in all other areas of their lives. But when it comes to an intimate sexual level, they aren't comfortable expressing themselves, and they feel a man should pursue them." To help break this pattern, Davis works with her clients to help them understand where these feelings are coming from and to become more assertive.

Women who initiate sex frequently are often very sexually satisfied to begin with, Sprecher believes, and this enables them to be more at ease about expressing their sexual desires. A woman who initiates sex also often stimulates her partner's sex drive and his desire for her, which helps drive this entire pattern.

Several studies have found that many men like it when their female partner initiates sex. Matt Sess, 39, of New York City, says that he has always been the primary initiator in his relationship with Laura, his wife of eight years. "But when she initiates sex, it's definitely a turn-on," he says. "It doesn't happen a lot, but when it does, it's a pleasant surprise."

Though the results would suggest that female initiation is always a healthy sign in a relationship, that's not always so, cautions Sprecher. She cites another study that suggests that in long-term relationships where women initiated sex more often than their male partners, both the men and women experienced less satisfaction.

If your sex life lacks equity, speak with your partner about your concerns, Sprecher suggests. To improve the balance, she suggests this approach: Buy a supply of marbles in two different colors, one for each partner. Put them near an empty glass bowl. Whenever you or your partner initiates sex, place a marble into the bowl. At the end of the year, strive to have roughly equal numbers of both colors in the bowl.