Does Withholding Sex Make Your Partner Want You More?

There are many ways to withhold sex, ranging from sudden headaches that onset moments before sexual initiation, to emotional bribery, to controlled BDSM. We spoke with a millennial, a psychologist, and a mistress of male slaves to understand this...

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Feb 4 2016, 6:15pm

Photo by Cameron Whitman via Stocksy

The passive-aggressive practice of withholding sex is a classic technique employed in intimate relationships. The practice exists in myriad forms, ranging from sudden headaches that magically onset moments before sexual initiation occurs to emotional bribery in which men and women refuse to have sex in order to ensure their partner's commitment or submission. However this phenomenon manifests, withholding sex is a common trope, both in pop culture and the personal lives of countless Americans.

The most recent public example of this is the rumor that Kendall Jenner is withholding sex from her lover, One Direction diva Harry Styles, in an attempt to bend him to her will; according to some gosisp sites, Jenner wants Styles to commit himself to her and abandon his other sex mates. This is a psychological meets physiological mindgame complete with rules, rewards, and punishments. An anonymous source told Life & Style that Kendall "instituted a sex ban until [Styles] can prove he's 100% committed to her. This is a trial period. If he makes one misstep, he'll be dumped for good."

In one of Aristophanes' plays, the women refuse to have sex with the men until they stop fighting.

James Giles is a professor of psychology at Roskilde University in Denmark. He specializes in sex and relationships, cross-sex friendships, and existential identity. Though he can't cite any studies on the withholding of sex, Giles affirms that it is common in Western culture. "There is evidence that this was something that has an ancient ancestry," he told Broadly. "In one of Aristophanes' plays, the women refuse to have sex with the men until they stop fighting. Also, in the Kama Sutra (about 400 CE), this behavior is suggested as a way of keeping the partner's interest." Giles says that the common thread between these two ancient examples is the intent: "to coerce a partner into performing (or not performing) a certain behavior."

When asked if women possess a sexual power over men that men do not wield over women, Giles says no. "I would argue that women have just as keen an interest in sex and just as much sexual desire as men do," he says, adding that the difference lies in how women have been socialized in many cultures "into not acting on their sexual desires to the degree that men do." Giles affirms what women already know too well to be true: Even in the "supposedly liberated" era of 2016, women are still stigmatized for actively seeking sex or having numerous sex partners. "This is not at all true for men. In fact, men are encouraged to [be sexual]. This puts our culture in the position where men actively seek out sex, and women tend to avoid doing so." According to Giles, it is this social imbalance, and not an innate difference between the sexes, that imbues women with "the power to decide if and when sex will take place."

People are frequently shortsighted in achieving their goals and often lack communication skills.

Alanis is in her mid twenties and doesn't adhere to the stereotype of the sexually withholding woman. When she first met her present boyfriend that dynamic was inverted, though it did not work quite as well for her male partner as it often does for women who withhold. "My current boyfriend tried to withhold sex at the beginning of our relationship," Alanis explains. "We were making out aggressively outside a bar in like 15-degree weather when I suggested we go back to one of our apartments; he said no, we should wait, it would be nice to prolong this nice period of tension, whatever, whatever." She was annoyed, stomped dramatically, and left frustrated. 'Not 24 hours later I received a text message asking me to 'hang out' the next day."

Photo by Mauro Grigollo via Stocksy

Giles says that the practice of withholding sex implies something more general about interpersonal relationships and gender dynamics. "It implies that people are frequently shortsighted in achieving their goals and often lack communication skills," he explains. "In terms of gender dynamics it implies that men and women often happily live up to stereotypical gender roles." But, he adds, there is another reason that people withhold sex: not to coerce their partner's behavior, but to play hard-to-get. "When done for this purpose, it is a way for a woman to increase the value of her offer of sex to a man," he says. Or vice-versa, as in the case of Alanis' boyfriend. "Things that are easily achieved are often not seen to be valuable," Giles notes, adding that "this can often be done in a playful way as a lead-up to sex and can be something that both partners enjoy."

They can crave it all that they want, but it's knowing that having sex with me is totally out of their limit that creates their fantasy.

Madame Rebecca has a different reason for withholding sex: She controls men for a living. "I work as an online dominatrix where I possess several slaves," she says. "We communicate over Skype. Each submissive has different weaknesses that we mutually enjoy exploring." Most of her submissives are middle-class and white. Other than that, "they are all different, mostly affluent and bored." The withholding of sex is fundamental to Madame Rebecca's master-slave relationships. "They would never be able to have sex with me. That is totally out of the question." She says that her slaves yearn for servitude and deeply enjoy being withheld sex from their female dominator. "They can crave it all that they want, but it's knowing that having sex with me is totally out of their limit that creates their fantasy."

The practice of withholding sex has been more than erotic in Madame Rebecca's experience. "I personally believe in sex being something for women that should about as much pleasure as possible for them," she says, explaining that controlling male slaves has had a positive impact on her life. " It's made me sexually confident because it's reinforced that sex is my decision and not just about male pleasure."

"Sexual desire is one of our most powerful desires," Giles says. "Making the fulfillment of this desire dependent on the performance of other behaviors is therefore often an effective way of motivating the desiring person to to do what one wants." However, he explains, withholding is a form a coercion which, despite being effective in the short term, generally doesn't have lasting effects. "People do not like being coerced and although it might work in getting a specific behavior at a specific instance performed, its regular use will tend to destroy the relationship over time." Giles predicts an inevitable scenario: "A man who is regularly coerced into doing things in order to have sex might well start disliking his partner for doing this, start employing coercion himself, and also start looking for another sexual partner who does not use sex to coerce him." He says that open communication is a vastly more healthy practice to communicate one's needs and achieve mutual satisfaction in a relationship.

Men have to feel like they are in control all the time—patriarchy isn't a natural state of living.

Madame Rebecca argues that her extreme version of withholding exists on a spectrum with the way in which more basic, mainstream couples deny each other sex in order to get what they want. "What I deal with is just a heightened version of the daily power/control dynamics that we have to manage everyday," Madame Rebecca explains. "[My slaves] fantasize of dominant woman. It's a role reversal of everything patriarchal society offers them."

Giles disagrees, reaffirming that people ultimately do not want to be coerced; as he sees it, Madame Rebecca's subs want to be denied sex. "In the fetishistic version the man desires the withholding and gets erotic pleasure from it. This is a fundamentally different situation."

"Men have to feel like they are in control all the time—patriarchy isn't a natural state of living," Madame Rebecca says, firm in her belief that her work is relative to culture at large. "Through women's sexuality we posses a huge amount of power. It's what men want constantly. Retrieving that power can give a huge sensual experience to a man."