It was a Thursday night and Lucy — a pseudonymous 29-year-old from London — was slumped, barely conscious, on her couch. Her T-shirt was stained, her hair was matted and her sweatpants were unwashed. For the last hour, she’d been doomscrolling through Twitter, pausing only to glance at the glowing shapes of the television on the other side of her room.
Eventually, her eyes darted to her partner of six years, who was slouched opposite doing exactly the same thing. “Maybe,” she thought, suddenly, “we should do something nice together? Maybe we should have sex?”
She pondered the idea for a moment, before getting distracted by a notification on her phone. Within seconds, the thought had vanished. “It’d been a long day,” she remembers, “and I didn’t want to have to put myself out there.” Even though it had been several weeks since they’d last had sex, Lucy didn’t feel bold — or attractive — enough to initiate anything: “I looked like a troll, so I didn’t want to be the one to break the impasse. He would’ve just said no anyway, which would be embarrassing for me.”
For many in long-term relationships, this scene will feel familiar. It’s not exactly unusual — after a few years of cohabitation and mundane domestic routine, our sex lives tend to shift. The mystery, spontaneity and novelty that power the early throes of passion can fade the more you get to know someone, and things can easily start to get predictable. It’s a process that’s accelerated if you’re around your partner all the time, too (like if you’re, say, sheltering in-place together during a deadly pandemic.)
So, how do you initiate sex when you’ve worn out all your seduction techniques? Should you try and claw back some mystery, or is it best to just embrace the familiarity?
For Luke, 36, from Ontario, satisfying long-term sex is all about the latter. “I’ve been with my wife for 11 years now,” he tells me. “Sex has never been an issue with us, because when we want it, we just ask each other straight up. If one of us isn’t feeling it, we just do it another time.”
Sarah, 33, from London, uses a similar approach with her boyfriend of four years: “I always initiate. I just say, ‘Shall we have sex now?’ and he always says yes.”
This direct approach gets a lot of love on Reddit, too, with many drooling over the prospect of a blunt partner. On r/DeadBedrooms, a sub dedicated to reviving the spark in sexless relationships, redditors — particularly women — are all for a bold sexual declaration. “Most of us are tired,” writes one. “I so desperately want a man to push me against a wall and tell me to take my clothes off and tell me how he’ll fuck me.” Another woman, equally frustrated, stresses the importance of “letting your partner know how much you want them. Not just that you want sex, but that you want sex with THEM.”
And if words aren’t direct enough, some are happy to take it further. One redditor swears by using a pillow, which has “yes” on one side and “no” on the other, to clearly demonstrate to her boyfriend whether or not she’s interested in having sex at any given time. “I’ve done everything from leaving it in surprise places to throwing it at him.” It’s worth stressing that this approach definitely won’t work for everyone; while some may cherish a sex invitation scrawled across a pillowcase in comic sans, others will see it and run screaming into the night. But seduction is a complex art, and one man’s cheese is another’s Viagra. (With that in mind, you can buy a variant of your own sex pillow here, or branch out with a fridge magnet version if you want to really hammer the point home.)
Another redditor recommends getting creative with Google Calendar, and admits using it to schedule in sex with her partner. “He got an email saying ‘Invitation: Dick Appointment @ 10 p.m.,’” she recounted proudly, to over 5,000 upvotes. (Once again, though, this isn’t for everyone. Many may feel affronted, repulsed or terror-stricken by a rogue “dick appointment” appearing in their shared work calendar.) And if you’re feeling really bold, you could try TikTok’s “towel drop challenge,” which sees people sneak up on their significant other and, well, drop their towel. Reactions vary.
Although extreme, this kind of transparency is undoubtedly effective for a lot of people, and tends to be popular advice among many sex and relationship experts. After all, as writer and sexologist Gigi Engle tells me, “Communication is lubrication.” If you want to initiate sex, or have it more often, being upfront about it will often save you a lot of hassle.
That said, putting yourself out there isn’t easy. Sexual rejection — even if it’s just a gentle brushoff from a long-term partner — can sting, which is why so many of us would rather avoid the topic completely. But if you’re feeling unsatisfied, or like you’ve forgotten how to seduce and initiate, then playing it cool probably won’t help you. In fact, it’s likely to just make things worse.
“It’s worth remembering that if initiating sex has become a bit awkward for you, it probably has for your partner, too,” says Miranda Christophers, a sex and relationship therapist. “The more we don’t talk about it, the more awkward and lacking in confidence you may get, so the sooner you broach the subject, the better.”
If it has gotten awkward, she adds, it’s likely due to a lack of “novelty, mystery and variety” in the relationship. In that case, look at ways that you can reinject some of those factors back into your sex life. Try a different room or location, for example, or bring some new sex toys or underwear into the bedroom. “It helps spark desire and keeps things interesting,” Christophers explains.
That doesn’t mean you suddenly have to start scheduling all future “dick appointments” into your Google Calendar, either. There are many more subtle ways of expressing your interest, which can be just as effective, if not quite so blatant. “My boyfriend doesn’t actually like me to be too full-on, and generally prefers to initiate,” says Lucy. “But if I do want to have sex, I’ll maybe try rubbing my butt on his crotch while we’re in bed — that generally works. Or I’ll just start touching him and stroking him and paying close attention to his reactions, to see if he’s happy for me to continue. If he’s not responsive, I’ll just give up.”
Another couple on Reddit hail the benefits of a “tapping” system, to signal whether or not the other is interested in having in sex. Rather than saying anything, they’ll initiate by double tapping with their fingers, either on the other person’s head or arm. “In response,” they say, it’s a “single tap for no or double tap for yes.”
There are countless methods out there, and the dynamics will no doubt shift based on your personality and general communication style, as well as with each specific relationship. But for Engle, the most important rule for everyone is to remember that spontaneity isn’t always going to be possible — or necessary — if you’re in a long-term relationship. “Take the pressure off of intercourse,” she emphasizes. “The most important thing in any sex life is the quality of sex you’re having. Think about it: You could be having unsatisfying sex three times a day with no orgasms and no pleasure, or mind-blowing, toe-curling sex once a month that leaves you lying in bed basking in the orgasmic glow of a lifetime. Which would you rather have?”
In other words, if you’re worried you’re not having the “right” amount of sex, try not to obsess too much over it. The more pressure you feel, the more likely you are to feel awkward about initiating it.
“If you and your partner can focus on ‘quality’ sex, initiating it becomes easier,” Engle adds. “Sex isn’t an inherent ‘drive,’ it’s a reward system, meaning the more positive experiences and good sex someone has, the more likely they are to engage in it again. Focus on what brings your partner pleasure, and they’ll be more likely to be open to your advances.”
In the meantime, though, I guess you can try throwing a sex pillow at their head.