What It Really Means If a Man Won't Go Down on You

And what does oral mean in a relationship, anyway?

DJ Khaled
Photo: Photo Illustration: Dearest Creative. Photos: Getty Images

One wonderful spring day in 2018, the Internet came together to mock DJ Khaled. A 2014 interview with the hip-hop producer had resurfaced in which he admitted that he refuses to give women oral sex — including his wife, whom he's been with for 11 years. "Nah. Never," he said. "I don't do that ... It's different rules for men. You gotta understand, we the king ... I just can't do what you want me to do. I just can't."

The interview was widely shared, his name started trending, and users on Twitter and Instagram, inspired by his arrogance, banded together to extol the virtues of cunnilingus. It was a banner day for open discussion of female sexual pleasure. But women know that Khaled is hardly the first man to outright reject the concept of eating out. "I mean, I can name on one hand the guys who have gone down on me," says Courtney*, 31.

Routine studies demonstrate that men are statistically less likely to give oral sex to the opposite sex than women are. One such survey of Canadian college students in 2016 found that 63 percent of men reported receiving it in their lifetimes, but only 44 percent of women did. That's pretty consistent with a CDC report from 2012 of young people, which noted that by the age of 24, 47 percent of males but only 41 percent of females had received oral sex.

What emboldens the naysayers not to reciprocate? And more importantly, what are women supposed to do with these guys?

What's Going On In His Head

"I see this a lot in my work with individuals and with couples," says Shannon Chavez, PsyD, a certified sex therapist practicing in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I think a lot of it has to do with education. Men are getting their education about sex, and figuring out their roles in sex, or the dynamics of sex, through pornography or from other male perspectives." Pornography so often depicts men's pleasure as the main event, with the pursuit of a male orgasm the central or only narrative; if a woman happens to get off along the way, that's a bonus but not required.

The male-centric nature of most porn is, of course, part and parcel of a deeper-rooted misogyny that creeps into everything from the way heteronormative couples date to the way men talk about it during "locker-room talk." While oral sex performed on women is fetishized among some men, among others, it's considered emasculating, says Chavez. "With talk amongst guys, men doing it are sometimes seen as submissive. Like, if you give your woman oral sex, then you're submitting to her pleasure and you're not as much of a man."

But this attitude is often much more subtly ingrained; women are socialized to prioritize their partner's pleasure — even override their own comfort to get there — whereas men are socialized to prioritize their own pleasure. In 2010, Esquire magazine asked 10,000 American women how they feel about giving oral sex, and 46% responded, "I like it because he likes." Only 5% said they wouldn't do it, and when asked how they felt about receiving oral sex, 79% of women said they liked it.

Broadly, women are happy to sacrifice a few minutes, even if they consider the act to be unpleasant, for their partner's satisfaction. But the feeling's not so mutual. Anna*, 24, recalls of one memorable partner, "He would always say that he didn't want to do it because he thought vaginas tasted 'fishy.' He did try a couple of times, but he ultimately decided it 'wasn't his thing.'"

So basically, thanks to patriarchal socialization some men just feel fine being petulant assholes about it? "Yes! Absolutely, I would say that," says Chavez.

Becca*, 22, dated a guy who fell into that camp. "My partner didn't bring it up until after I went down on him for the first time. He told me how much he enjoyed it, but he made me brush my teeth before he kissed me," she remembers. "When I asked if he would go down on me, he said something along the lines of, 'That's not really my thing. I don't like how everything gets in my beard. Plus, I'm much better with my dick.'" Of course, that's a clueless remark, especially given that we know only 25% of women climax from vaginal intercourse alone. But the guy demonstrated his grounding in porn: Why would I pleasure you with my mouth when we could get straight to the main event? And shouldn't that be enough for you?

Then there are the men who take their female partner's inability to come from intercourse alone, or the length of time it takes for their partner to come from oral sex, as a negative review of their performance, having been taught that a woman's orgasm should come easily or incidentally. It's a scenario Chavez sees often, she says. "Men put this pressure on themselves to give a woman an orgasm from oral sex, and when it doesn't happen or she's not that into it, they end up becoming really avoidant around it. They'd rather just not do it altogether."

"I remember my ex giving a sarcastic 'uhhh' followed by a very clear 'nahhh,'" Courtney remembers. "I think some guys, like that ex and one other man I dated, were somehow insulted that I couldn't have an orgasm from sex alone and saw the whole going-down-on-a-girl thing as somehow demeaning."

But there's a host of other insecurities that can make a man oral-shy. A few months into her relationship with her current boyfriend, Paige*, 28, noticed that he seldom went down on her and wasn't enthusiastic when he did go through with it. "He said 'It's not my favorite thing to do in bed, but I also think I get intimidated because I don't know what I'm doing,'" she recalls. "Eventually he told me he was accustomed to casual flings and hadn't really had sex with the same woman more than a handful of times for several years. I got the feeling that talking about sex openly with a partner wasn't something he had done, like, ever."

Another woman, Abigail*, 32, got the sense that a man she was dating had insecurities around oral sex because of his upbringing in a conservative religious environment. "He hadn't moved past the visceral sense of shame that came along with being taught that sex was intended to be strictly procreative and strictly between a man and his wife," she says. "He was very clear that, on an intellectual level, he didn't think of oral sex as dirty or shameful, and that it definitely didn't have anything to do with my body or cleanliness or anything like that. He said he had just never done it before and was having a hard time breaking the seal because of that sense of shame that was still lurking. I remember him heading down that way once, resurfacing, and saying, 'I just can't.'"

It's easy (if enraging) to encounter a certain type of man and determine he is not worthy of one's time and reformation efforts. But what about when you meet a guy who is cunnilingus-averse but otherwise seems to have relationship potential? How do you get past his hesitation? Do you stick around? And what does oral mean in a relationship, anyway?

How Women Deal

It's hard to know which type of man you're dealing with — selfish or damaged, lazy or traumatized? — but, for most women we spoke with, that became evident as soon as they took the most important step according to Chavez and confronted their partners. Some stated their request straight up, whereas others started a dialogue about the hesitation.

Paige, whose partner was insecure about his abilities, put her teaching hat on. When she demonstrated that she was open to guiding him without judgment, he was open to learning. "I started being more literal and instructive in bed, asking him to put fingers in certain places and all that," she says. "I noticed that arming him with information about my desires and preferences made him more confident." Chavez points to Paige's method as the most effective way to help a reluctant or insecure partner learn how to get you off orally.

Not everyone has that sort of sexual bravado, though. "Oh, it would take a pretty significant level of comfort in a relationship for me to ask for it," says Courtney, "and then the only way I'd feel comfortable would be in some kind of sexy-turned-beggar way, like 'You know what I've been fantasizing about…?'"

"We know [most] women can't orgasm from intercourse alone, so a big part of their response and satisfaction from sex is from direct clitoral stimulation," Chavez says. But many women, possibly because they're afraid of rejection or hurting their partner's feelings, would sooner not call a man out for lack of reciprocity. "I think women have to give themselves permission to say that. One thing I work on with couples is being able to give feedback around sexual activities so it's not critical but talking about things that work for you and for your body."

But when having that conversation doesn't change a partner's mind, it can bring on major insecurities, both about self-image and about the relationship. "It bothered me a lot. All the guys I've been with who don't perform oral sex have been the 'woke' type who like to openly talk about how much they respect women," Anna remarks. "As someone who actually loves giving blow jobs and is a very giving partner, it felt like an imbalance of power. It made me feel unappreciated and like their pleasure mattered more than mine." It's tough to carry that realization into every sexual episode with a person.

Becca, meanwhile, tried to just let it go. "I was so head over heels for this guy that I didn't put up much of a fight on the issue," she says. But it stung. "In the back of my head, knowing my boyfriend won't go down on me and that he didn't want to be that personal with me made me feel gross in bed, like something was wrong with my vagina. It didn't contribute to the break up directly, but it definitely made me feel insecure, which probably contributed to our eventual breakup."

Abigail, who dated the religious guy, also tried to stick it out. "After we had slept together a couple times and he hadn't gone down on me, I asked what was up and he elaborated more," she says. "He was very apologetic," and then he opened up about his feelings of shame and where they came from. "As you might imagine, though, our approaches to our sexualities were very different, and that made finding chemistry sort of difficult. We only dated for, like, six months before we sort of mutually gave up, but I'm still friendly with him and I don't think of him negatively for not going down on me."

Only one of the women we interviewed was still seeing her anti-eating out partner — Paige, whose boyfriend was initially open to instruction but still isn't a fan. "Of course, I worried that he might turn out to be a selfish guy, but the fact that he's so giving and concerned about my pleasure and well-being in every other way, sexually and non-sexually, sort of made it a non-issue," Paige says. "I don't care that he doesn't love putting his tongue on my labia; I care that he wants to help me orgasm as much as I do for him, which he does with digital stimulation and dirty talk and vibrators."

Ultimately, it's up to each woman to decide whether a guy's headstrong stance is just too big an issue to forgive. But how he responds to the request will tell you everything you need to know, says Chavez. "For me, a deal-breaker would be a partner not wanting to have the conversation, if they won't share why it's something they don't enjoy. With sex, we can have preferences, but [with] communication there's usually a way to negotiate and meet in the middle with your needs."

In other words, if a partner isn't eager to go down, he better be willing to talk it out. Either way, women are paying close attention to what you do with your mouth.

*all women's names have been changed.

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