A Lack of Affection, and Topless Women

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe,

I’m a 31-year-old woman and have been with my boyfriend for nearly a year. We get along well, we have fun, he’s kind and thoughtful – but our sex life is major problem. He’s generally not a very physical or tactile guy, and he rarely initiates any form of physical affection, and when I do he abruptly ends it. This extends to sex too – he generally has a low sex drive, and only initiates sex if he’s been drinking – and during it he doesn’t really kiss me, and there’s rarely more than a minute of two of cuddling or physical contact after, before he pulls away or falls asleep. I’ve tried talking to him about this, and have asked him to initiate physical affection and he says it’s not a big deal and he’ll try harder – but then nothing changes.

I’ve said I’d like more sex, I’ve tried initiating sex more – but we’re still at square one. It’s making me feel really shitty, because of course I’d like some more sex – but also because being rejected or feeling like he’s really not into it when I’m trying to be affectionate is making me feel really shitty. I see other couples just holding hands or kissing in public (something he never does) and I just want that, and know I’ll never have it with him.

At this point I’m at the end of my patience, and am really emotionally withdrawing. I don’t want to end the relationship as I really care about him, but if this doesn’t change, I’ll have to. However, talking to my friends about this (men and women), there has been a consensus that I need to either end it or stay – and that telling him we have to have more sex and he has to be more affectionate is an ultimatum, and that’s never a good thing, especially when it comes to sex. But I guess I’m hoping if I make it clear to him that this is a make-or-break scenario, he might change. Is issuing a sex ultimatum horrible and manipulative?

Dear Letter Writer,

Here’s the thing about sex: it’s very rarely just about sex.

And in your instance, it’s so very clear that this is about so much more than sex. This is about you and your partner’s need for affection, your communication styles, your emotional compatibility, and your ability to compromise. You are feeling rejected and unappreciated and – from what it sounds like – unloved, and of course that’s not working for you.

After explaining to him that simple things like being touched, or being held after sex, or initiating forms of physical contact would make you feel better, he’s still refusing to take those tiny steps – and really, they are tiny – to make you feel better.

He’s not trying to give you the very small and very normal gestures that people give in relationships, and what’s worse is he’s not even demonstrating any self-awareness about this. By calling a repeated problem in your relationship “no big deal”, he’s both diminishing and dismissing your very real feelings about this situation, and refusing to examine why he may be withholding physical affection from you.

There are reasons that people may not be comfortable with expressing their feelings in a physical way.

Maybe he was raised in a household that wasn’t emotionally demonstrative or tactile. Maybe he himself has experienced being rejected in the way that he’s rejecting you and as a defence mechanism, doesn’t initiate physical contact so he can never be rejected. Maybe he has issues around masculinity and what it means for a man to be affectionate.

But by not exploring or examining this, he’s not going to be able to change it, so you’re going to stuck at square one forever.

Or maybe he has issues with sex. Having to be drunk to initiate sex is never a good sign.

Granted, when you’re single and coming on to someone you like for the first time, a bit of Dutch courage can sometimes help shy people get the ball rolling – but it’s hardly an ideal even then, and in a relationship it’s a decidedly dysfunctional pattern.

He shouldn’t need to be drunk to want to have sex with his girlfriend, and that he seems to need that is indicative of other issues. I’d ask you to look at the other ways he uses alcohol – does he ever rely on it to ease social anxiety, or to help him cope in emotionally difficult times?

This may be a crutch of his, and exploring his relationship with alcohol may give some insight into a pattern of behaviour that affects his life outside of your bedroom.

But that’s only if you decide to stay, which I’m not sure you should.

As for your ultimatum question, it’s much like your original question about sex. Ultimatums are often pitched as controlling, manipulative behaviour, and admittedly can be used in that manner – but not always.

Because ultimatums, just like sex, are rarely just about the ultimatum. They’re about your relationship, and your needs, and what you are willing to sacrifice in order to get what you want.

Manipulative and controlling people use ultimatums as threats, as ways of scaring people into action with the threat of punishment, just because they want to get what they want. Demanding a sexual act and threatening to sulk, or leave, or break up unless your partner fulfils it without question or discussion – that’s a nasty ultimatum.

However, that’s not what you’re doing here. You’re issuing the important form of ultimatum – one that isn’t a threat, but a statement of cause and effect, action and inevitable consequence.

You haven’t come to this decision lightly, or selfishly – you’ve carefully examined your needs and your relationship and have come to the difficult conclusion that something has to shift, or you have to leave.

You’ve tried to alter and fix the situation in all the right ways – you’ve tried asking clearly, and talking about the reasons behind the problem, you’ve tried to put up with it, and then you’ve tried to take on the burden of fixing the problem in a one-sided way by placing the responsibility of demonstrating physical interest and affection all on yourself.

You’ve tried everything else, and it’s not working. You’re already ready to leave. You’ve emotionally packed your bags, and are waiting on him to beg you to stay – but the problem is he’s not even aware enough to see the suitcases.

So issuing an ultimatum isn’t an idle threat in this instance – the threat of you leaving the relationship already exists, You’re just letting him know.

You’re walking downstairs, possessions and heart in hand, saying, “You can show me you want me to stay, but if not, I can’t be on my own in this relationship anymore.” You’re acknowledging to both of you that feeling loved and appreciated and wanted is important to you, and that you deserve it – and that if he can’t provide it, you have to leave.

And you do have to leave, by the way. If you tell him for the last time what you need and he refuses to give it, you have to leave. Because you deserve to be happy, and you’re not.

Ultimatums have bad reputation, but at the heart of the good ones, that’s what they usually boil down to – saying that you’re not happy, and that you deserve to be.

That’s not manipulative, or cruel, or unreasonable. That’s bravery, and self-care, and what people do all so rarely.

So give that ultimatum, and remember: no matter what answer he gives, whether he decides to give you what you need or lets you leave – either way you will have taken a step towards your happiness, and your fulfilment.

Take a deep breath. Take the step. Good luck.

***

Dear Roe,

Why is it okay for guys to walk around topless in summer, but it’s not okay for women?

Dear Letter Writer,

Patriarchy.

The end.

No? I have to expand upon this? But just saying “patriarchy” is so easy, and so true.

Men are allowed to walk around topless because their semi-nudity is not seen as obscene, whereas women’s is.

Women’s nipples are apparently innately different from men’s – and not in the rational “women can breastfeed, and therefore literally give life to many of these men who then walk around topless and judge women who do the same” way.

No, women’s nipples are sexual, whereas men’s are not.

The irony, of course, is that even when women breastfeed in public, they often face a barrage of judgement and harassment, because as a society we have presented breasts as inherently sexual and therefore abusive if we have to be made aware of their presence in any way – even if they are being used for the non-sexual, maternal use they literally exist for.

This is because we’ve sexualized women’s bodies to the point that if they are revealed in a way that is not purely for the objectification of men, we object. Our objectification of women’s bodies has literally taken priority over biological function and evolution.

Why? Because – and sorry to be repetitive here – we live in a patriarchy, where women’s bodies are seen as sexual objects that are problematized by men who use these male-created ideas that there is something inherently dirty and wrong about women’s bodies to justify controlling and concealing them.

And this constant control and censorship of women’s bodies reinforces girls’ culturally absorbed ideas that yes, their bodies are a problem and that their presence in the world is less natural and less free than that of men, and so they should spend their lives apologising for their presence.

It is this problematized and shame-based mentality towards women’s bodies that causes schools to issue dress codes that demand that girls cover themselves up, and punish them if they do not, because they’re “distracting the boys” or making their male teachers feel “uncomfortable”.

In so doing, not only are we teaching young women that their bodies are problems, but we’re teaching them that men objectifying them is not a problem.

We’re teaching them that men choosing to objectify women, or to use their clothes and bodies as an excuse to disrespect and sexualise them, is somehow innate – that men are beasts that have no control over their behaviour, and if they misbehave around girls or women, the women must have done something to cause it.

You can see where this is going.

We’re teaching them that when women are objectified, sexualised, harassed, abused, assaulted, raped, that they must deserved it, they must have done something, they must have been “asking for it”.

In our society, “asking for it” means existing in a female body.

In the best-case scenario, it means we can’t walk around topless. In the worst case scenario, when we become the victim of abuse, assault, rape, murder – it is our actions and our dress and our very existence that is questioned.

Were we covered-up enough? Did we do everything we could to not provoke men?

Did we accept the twisted societal ideas of gender that state that women are so secondary that our very bodies need to be covered up, whereas men are so beyond question that their reaction to our bodies can never be the focus, or – dare I say it – the problem?

Of course we’ll pretend that one issue doesn’t feed into the other; that by creating societal ideas and laws that declare women’s bodies obscene, we’re not promoting rape culture.

Of course not.

Why?

You guessed it.

Patriarchy.


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Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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