‘Pity sex’ is a word combination that sits like an awkward greeting when one person goes for the hug and the other the handshake. Exactly like when one person wants sex, and the other one doesn’t. It’s just a bit uncomfortable and we’d prefer for it all to be over. The problem is that sometimes, we might feel that the easiest way to placate the situation is to just carry on like ‘normal’, do the deed and then wipe it from our memory with a little delete button that magically waits for moments like this (hint: that doesn’t exist).
To make it clear, I’m talking about the type of sex that may seem technically consensual but is simply not done for reasons that are open and/or enjoyable. It’s done because something inside you feels sorry for the other person. It’s to even out an invisible tally system so that a form of cosmic karma debt can be paid. Yet ultimately the only person who realises is you.
But I can tell you right now that pity sex is shitty sex, and awful for everyone involved. Consent in sex is not just about tolerating the act but also being actively engaged and enthused with what’s happening. (Please read more from Clementine Ford to explore that whole kettle of fish!
In some ways, it implies that you are dishing out the act of sex with the soup ladle of Mother Theresa. If anyone on the receiving end knew that the experience was some sort of divine act of redemption I honestly doubt they’d be so keen on it. Sex isn’t about unspoken power imbalances (ok roleplay, sure), and to come at it from such a wonky angle seems a little conceited, even if it’s masked as doing a good deed.
There are two definitions of ‘pity’ in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. One is “sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy”, and the other is “something to be regretted”. Arguably both are entirely applicable to this phenomenon. In this case, ‘pity’ can be an umbrella term for a whole array of motivations for why we might sleep with someone.
Reasons why people have ‘Pity Sex’
- You let someone sleep in your tent because they’re lost at a festival.
- You’re ill, and alone in Mexico. A kind stranger in a hostel gives you some reprieve, buys the medication you need, and checks up on you intermittently. They make a gentle move on you.
- Your boyfriend got fired 3 weeks ago and when you come home from work he’s still in his PJs, eating corn chips in bed and watching reruns of Black Mirror.
- Your next door neighbor has two months to live and reveals that he’s been dreaming of you since he was fourteen years old. He’s also a virgin. (Unlikely but still possible.)
- Your colleague’s wife just cheated on him. He asks you for beers after work and shares with you that he’s always wanted to experience another woman.
You can see there’s a fine line between ‘pity sex’ and ‘thank you sex’. Similarly, they’re both facilitating some kind of invisible and unspoken transaction, of which the recipient is completely unaware.
For me, it happened many years ago when a sweet man named David asked me out on a date. He’d prepared everything ahead, buying tickets to a show, and even remembering my dietary requirements (enough to make a gal swoon). He wore a suit and paid for such a stupidly expensive dinner, but by the end of it I realized that he just wasn’t someone that I particularly enjoyed spending time, was actually attracted to or had any connection with.
After drunkenly hopping into a taxi, he leaned in for a kiss and I guess I let that happen. Then once we reached my place I found myself meekly inviting him in. I think I was compelled by the effort he had put into the evening, and maybe the wine as well. For all intents and purposes, David had tried to create a stereotypically perfect date.
I can still see the silhouette of David undressing in my room as the moon is big enough to shine straight through my window. The physical side of our interaction is clunky and forgettable. I’m not blaming him for being bad at sex, as I’m definitely no siren of the night sheets. Yet as it was happening I knew deep down that it was because he had tried to create a good date, I felt sorry for him, knowing it was basically all for nothing. I wasn’t going to see him again. I just had sex with him because I felt bad that he had put in so much effort.
But please, if there’s one thing I can reiterate over and over again in this article, is that YOU NEVER OWE ANYONE SEX.
How to avoid pity sex?
Remember, to your core, that you never owe anyone sex
Be it man, woman or cyborg, you are never obliged to sleep with anyone. Keep this ingrained as the cornerstone of all sexual experiences because the easiest way to avoid ‘pity sex’ is it change your belief system on sex itself. Unless you’re a sex worker, sex isn’t currency and it’s certainly not a Hallmark card.
Even if you met through Tinder, Grindr or hotsexrightnow, you have no obligation to sleep with them. EVEN IF you’ve been sexting the equivalent of hot ranch sauce all week, let me repeat, you have no obligation to sleep with them. EVEN IF you’ve been dating for 6 years and own 3 cats together, you have no obligation to sleep with them.
Consciously work out what you want
If you’re both feeling happy and horny then, by all means, have a one night stand. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the moment with the excitement of someone new. If you’re at the end of the night and sensing that someone is expecting more than you are, take a moment to think. Is sex really what you want right now? As long as you’re mindful about your actions then you won’t be surprised by them days or years later when you question, what the f was I thinking?
Communicate, to get the right outcome
If you’ve worked out that you’re not really into it, use whatever communicative tools you have to express that. If you’re the kind of person who is confident enough to be blunt, then, by all means, say what you have to say. Honest communication is always the best, even if it’s the hardest.
My inkling though is that it may be the less blunt people, (the kind-hearted people pleasers) that have the most difficulty in ‘letting someone down’. Again, let me reinforce that you always have the right to decline sex, for any reason at all. Also that the notion of ‘letting someone down’ because you’re not giving them sex is a remnant of our misogynistic past.
If the idea of explaining why you don’t want to have sex right now is too scary, then lie. There’s the tried and accepted excuses of saying “I’m tired”, “I feel sick” or “I have work early the next morning”. Or you can be more floral with your explanations, like; “I just found a small unidentified metal object lodged in my back”, “Australia just changed prime ministers again and it’s my dad”, or “I’m actually writing an article on ways to get out of sex at the end of dates and this was my experiment, sorry”.
The bottom line is, ‘pity sex’ is an altogether avoidable situation, as long as you check in with yourself about what you want and what your motivations are. Have you suddenly identified that this has happened to you? Or on the flip side, do you think you’ve ever been on the receiving end of pity sex?? Comment below and you might find that you’re not alone in your experiences…