couple experiencing conflict

What is a sex strike? Tips for rebuilding a healthy sex life

The concerning movement in some parts of the United States to restrict abortion rights for women has activated people to protest these attempts at stripping women’s reproductive rights and access to healthcare. When some celebrities called for women to go on a ‘sex strike’ in order to protest such changes in 2019, significant debate was generated. Questions were raised about whether such a movement would lead to any structural change, about existing sex stereotypes, as well as sexual dynamics within relationships. We were invited to speak to Nat tencic (Twitter @nattencic) and Dr Bianca Fileborn (Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Melbourne) on Triple J’s The Hook Up about our experience in helping couples break out of unhealthy sexual dynamics. You can listen to the podcast and see our full tips on rebuilding a healthy sex life after a ‘sex strike’ below.

What is a sex strike? Tips for rebuilding a healthy sex life

What does the term ‘sex strike’ mean in relationships?

The term sex strike refers to someone in a relationship purposely choosing to withhold sex from their partner. This may be due to various reasons including:

  • Wanting to hurt or punish their partner.
  • Feeling out of control in the relationship and wanting to regain a sense of control.
  • Trying to coerce their partner into doing something that they want.
  • Refusing to confront sexual difficulties in the relationship and choosing to avoid it all together instead.

The withholding partner may feel unhappy, frustrated or have unmet needs in the relationship. However, rather than confronting it they knowingly or unknowingly choose to engage in passive-aggressive behaviour to get their point across.

A ‘sex strike’ does not refer to situations where someone in a relationship withholds sex for more involuntary reasons such as experiencing sexual difficulties due to psychological or medical conditions, or suffering from low self-esteem or poor body image. In these cases the function of withholding sex can be about trying to feel safe and secure, or because of limited capacity to focus on pleasure when other difficulties are present.

A ‘sex strike’ can appear very overt and you may hear statements such as “I won’t have sex with you until you…..” or “I won’t have sex with you because you did……“. It can also appear covert in the form of persistent reasons to avoid sex when it is initiated by the other partner.

It is important to take time to explore the reasons behind the behaviour before assuming that a ‘sex strike’ is going on.

Is a ‘sex strike’ more commonly used by women?

While there is often the stereotype that ‘sex strikes’ are typically performed by women in heterosexual relationships, this type of behaviour can be shown by women, men and non-binary individuals and in heterosexual as well as non-heterosexual relationships.

What are the negative impacts of a ‘sex strike’?

‘Sex strikes’ tend to lead to damaging consequences in a relationship. We often find that the longer they go on or the more overt the behaviour is, the more damage is done to the relationship.

Sexual intimacy is one of the ways to show someone that you care for them, love them, are committed to the relationship and are willing to be vulnerable with them. When sex appears to be purposely withdrawn or have conditions attached, it can be very hurtful for the other person (the pursuing partner) and leave them feeling uncared for, rejected, abandoned and betrayed.

The negative impacts may include:

  • Increased tension and conflict in the relationship.
  • Causing the pursuing partner to experience reduced self-esteem, increased depression and anxiety symptoms or poor body image.
  • The pursuing partner may end up distancing themselves or engage in retaliatory behaviour.

When the withholding partner wants to resume a sexual relationship, the roles can become reversed and they can experience rejection.

couple in distress

What are some alternate strategies to having a ‘sex strike’?

Tips for the withholding partner (partner performing the ‘sex strike’):

  • Spend some time reflecting on why you are engaging in this behaviour.
    • What feelings are you trying to manage? Could you be feeling anger, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, jealousy?
    • What do you need to hear from your partner to help you manage these feelings?
    • What behaviour changes do you need from your partner to help you manage these feelings?
    • What are your values in a relationship?
    • Try to have the courage to be vulnerable and share any underlying feelings and needs with your partner in a more assertive or direct way.
  • If you feel unable to express your emotions or unmet needs or be direct in your communication with your partner, it may be helpful to engage in individual therapy to help you with this process.
  • If you have gone through these steps and believe there are deeper relationship issues that also act as a barrier e.g. your partner is unable to respond appropriately to your attempts to communicate or there are deep issues such as broken trust or betrayal, engaging in couples therapy can be helpful.

Tips for the pursuing partner (partner affected by the ‘sex strike’)

  • Ask your partner if they are holding on to any negative feelings, and whether they feel safe to address these with you, or if they have unmet needs in the relationship that you could work on addressing together.
  • Reflect on how having sex withdrawn from you makes you feel and try to express this in a non- critical way using “I feel….” statements e.g. “I feel lonely/ sad/ confused/ scared/ insecure when I try to connect with you and you pull away.”
  • Try to avoid criticism e.g. “you are always controlling”, “you are so selfish”, “you are always punishing me”.
  • Reflect on your relationship values and share this with your partner e.g “I would like for us to feel close again… I would like for us to feel playful around sex again… I would like for us to communicate easily again”.

couple experiencing relationship breakdown

So the ‘sex strike’ has been called off. How do you then get out of the ‘sex drought’?

It is an incredibly positive step for both partners to feel open to repairing the relationship after a ‘sex strike’ and to be open to managing things differently. It may take some time to effectively heal from the hurt caused and to rebuild trust, but when both partners are ready, some useful things to gradually work on include:

  • Increasing quality time together e.g. go on dates, try new things together.
  • Look at your levels of electronic device use and set some appropriate boundaries around this when spending time together.
  • Start building up intimacy without the pressure for intercourse or orgasm e.g. hand holding, kissing, massages, showering or bathing together or sending flirty messages.
  • Change the environment where you engage in sex for the short term. This is because negative emotions can sometimes arise when you have sex in the same environment where past problems occurred. You could try rearranging or redecorating the bedroom, have sex in another room in your home or consider a hotel room.

What if the reasons for lack of sex aren’t related to a ‘sex strike’?

As mentioned previously, some partners may withdraw from sexual intimacy due to difficulties such as low self-esteem, poor body image, or challenges due to psychological or medical conditions.

This partner will likely benefit from patience, support and being encouraged to speak to a trusted professional such as their GP to explore the treatment options available, including psychological therapy. The ‘pursuing partner’ may also benefit from individual psychological support if their own mental health has suffered as a result of the relationship difficulties.


Sexual health is important to our emotional and physical wellbeing. ‘Sex strikes’ can cause significant ruptures in relationships and leave partners feeling distressed. Finding alternatives to ‘sex strikes’ will improve the health of the relationship and the quality of life for both partners.

If you would like some support with building a healthy sex life, through individual or couples therapy, contact us at

We provide Clinical Psychology services in Adelaide for adult individuals and couples, and provide Telehealth services Australia-wide.

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