"I have a headache" or "I'm too tired" are excuses that popular culture tells us women use to get out of sex. Men, the movies and magazines will have us believe, always want it. In fact, masculinity is inextricably linked to sexual prowess. It is the women who are shown to be shy and reticent or denying sex because they have lost interest.
However, there are many marriages where the male partner is not as eager as his wife due to various reasons. These women find it difficult to not only address the issue with their spouse but also speak about it openly because women are not expected to have more sexual desire than their husbands. It's also a touchy and sensitive subject for the men because of the cultural pressure that they are under.
33-year-old Medha*, an entrepreneur, has been married for eight years. Hers was an arranged marriage and she and her husband knew each other for three months before they got married. "We didn't have any major difference in opinion then. We connected to each other. He's four years older than I am. We never got physical before we got married because we were in different geographical locations and it wasn't possible," she says.
Medha and her husband enjoyed a good sex life until the time Medha became pregnant, two years into the marriage.
"I miscarried when I was about four months pregnant. We didn't have sex during this time but I think my miscarriage somehow made my husband turn away from sex," she recounts.
Medha, who was going through a difficult time herself, did not connect the dots immediately. However, she notes now that he became withdrawn around this time.
"I didn't get any emotional support from him during this period. The frequency of us having sex came down. From doing it every week, it became once a month. And that too, it would happen only if I put in great effort," she shares.
Though Medha tried to talk to her husband about the issue directly, he was reluctant to confront it.
"He'd shrug it off, tell me he was too tired, had a headache or was unwell. He'd retire to bed very late. I did ask him if he was not interested in sex anymore and he just said 'yes'. But he wasn't willing to do anything about it. It's not an issue he's comfortable discussing and it's something that can flare up quite easily, so I let it be," says Medha.
Rejection and insecurity
Disinterest in sex can affect the body image of the partner who feels rejected and unwanted. However, in Medha's case, she believes she started looking better after the miscarriage.
"I started looking my best because I began to take care of my health. I lost weight after the miscarriage, started wearing better clothes. This confused me more because I'd get appreciation from others and I'd wonder if my husband couldn't see me any more," she says.
Since they were not having any sex, Medha couldn't become pregnant. This made her feel all the more insecure because she doubted his commitment to the marriage.
"I began to ask if he didn't want a child because he didn't want to be in the marriage any more. I was worried about his abstinence. Our social life came down a lot. He'd often tell me that he was very busy at work but I wondered if he was saying this to avoid me," confesses Medha.
Since she couldn't become pregnant, Medha also had to face pressure from the family who did not know what was going on in their bedroom.
"My parents would guilt-trip me, asking when I was going to give them a grandchild because they were growing old. My friends already had their second child and in my bedroom, nothing was happening," she says.
Medha finally became pregnant again at 32. Surprisingly, her husband, who had been reluctant until then, decided that they should have a child.
"His sister conceived for the second time around then. I think this acted as a trigger for him. I wanted to consult a doctor before I became pregnant. He wasn't interested in coming along but he was enthusiastic about knowing my ovulation dates and trying during that period. The last time I told him about these dates, he slept in a different bedroom to avoid me," Medha recalls.
However, after their child was born, her husband became uninterested in sex once again. The child is now 18 months old and they're yet to resume their sex life.
"When I ask him, he gives me noncommittal responses," she says.
Has Medha considered that her husband might have a different sexuality?
"I did consider it," Medha says. "But I haven't asked him the question. It's too sensitive an issue."
Though Medha tried to convince her husband to approach a marriage counsellor and even booked an appointment in the early days, he was not willing to go for a session. However, she feels strongly that the lack of sex alone cannot be a factor to end a marriage.
"My desire levels have come down postpartum," she says. "And I do masturbate when I want to. We're fine otherwise. I don't think this can be a decision point for divorce. I'm actually still confused about what to think. I feel insecure."
Reasons for disinterest in sex
Dr Joseph George, a senior couples’ counsellor in Bengaluru with TalkItOver Counselling Services, says the problem of men not being interested in sex isn't a new one. "The issue has existed for a long time, it's just that women are more expressive about it now," he says.
He notes that there is a rise in the number of women opening up about their husband's lack of interest and their sexual dissatisfaction in the past few years.
"There are several reasons that a man may be uninterested in sex. Sometimes it's a physical or hormonal problem which can be solved with medicine. Other times it is an emotional or mental block. And in some cases, it could be because the men were sexually abused as children, making it difficult for them to view sex normally," he explains.
The list of reasons given by Dr George is by no means exhaustive but all of these can be treated. The problem, Dr George says, is that men are not very comfortable talking about their sexual problems.
"In many cases, if the woman expresses that she is not sexually satisfied, men view it as an attack on their manhood (masculinity). There is a pressure to perform. Other times, even if they know there is a problem, men are in denial and do not want to address it," he says.
Lack of intimacy can have serious implications on the emotional well-being of the couple, Dr George says. Not only does it leave into an emotional distance between the two, but can also push women to express themselves much lesser and even into depression, he observes.
Disinterest in sex can also be a temporary issue triggered by various factors.
For 31-year-old Preeti*, her husband's lack of interest in sex happened when he went abroad on work. The physical distance between the two of them meant that he was reluctant to have sex even when they met occasionally.
"I spoke to him openly and he attributed it to work stress," she says. "He was under a lot of pressure due to family issues from his parents' end."
This was a difficult period for her because before this happened, they led an active sex life. Preeti's husband was abroad for three years but once he came back for good, she says, things went back to normal.
"People don't discuss these things with others because they might suspect that their spouse is having an extramarital affair but that's not necessarily the case always," Preeti says.
Sex is a sensitive subject and the couple needs to share a good rapport if they're to address problems in their sex life. However, contrary to what many might think, sex doesn't always figure in the top priority list of a marriage.
"With the internet and the hectic work culture today, sex becomes easier to forgo," says Dr George, indicating that even women may turn to pleasing themselves by watching porn or erotica online.
But can a sex-less marriage survive?
"It's difficult, and the couple will certainly not be happy. But it survives in cases where the man and the woman have other engagements to occupy themselves," he says.
*Names changed on request