Sexual rejection

As a college freshman twelve years ago a friend asked me why a guy she liked wasn’t interested in her. Even then I knew the answer:

He just isn’t. There is no reason, and it’s pointless to wonder why.

Alain de Botton addresses this topic beautifully in his book, How to Think More About Sex under the heading “Sexual Rejection.” It’s worth reading, rereading, and pondering for a long time to come:


“When we are told by someone we are attracted to, in that agonizingly sweet tone in which such news is generally delivered, that he or she would actually rather just be good friends with us, what we often hear is confirmation that we really are, as we have secretly suspected all along, a monstrous, ungainly, untouchable aberration–in short, a modern-day Elephant Man or Woman. Rejection hurts so much because we take it as a damning judgement passed not merely on our physical appeal but on our entire selves, and by extension (at this stage we’re crying into our pillow, as something by Bach or Leonard Cohen plays on the stereo) on our very right to exist.


An earlier section of this book argued with some vehemence that our apparently superficial sexual attraction to others can actually signal a much deeper understanding and appreciation of their inner self. Now we would do well to nuance that point, in the interests of retaining our sanity after a letdown.

We don’t have to take sexual rejection as a sure indication that another person has looked into our soul and registered disgust at every aspect of our being. The reality is usually much simpler and less shattering than that: for whatever reason, this particular individual just can’t get turned on by our body. We can take comfort in the knowledge that such a verdict is automatic, preconscious and immutable. The one doing the rejecting isn’t being intentionally nasty; he or she has no choice. We can’t decide whom we are going to be turned on by any more than we can will a certain flavour of ice cream or style of painting to be our favourite.

At moments of crisis, we have only to recall how we ourselves felt about people whom it might have been convenient for us to desire (because they were kind and available and liked us) but who nevertheless left us cold. We did not hate these unfortunates. We may have dearly wished we wanted to sleep with them, we may truly have thought them delightful, but our sexual compass had other ideas and could not be persuaded to alter its setting.


At the heart of the pain created by sexual rejection is our habit of interpreting it as a moral judgement, when it might more accurately be categorized as a mere accident. We can start to break free from this torture by recognizing that the evenings that don’t work out are really just a minor species of bad luck.

The history of weather helps to show us the way in this matter. In almost all primitive societies, people began interpreting bad storms (which ruined crops and flooded settlements and dwellings) as punishments from above, signs that the gods were angry and human beings culpable. Gradually, the science of meteorology has helped to free our race from such inaccurate and pernicious superstitions. We are not to blame for the relentless rain, we now know; it’s just the end result of a random interplay of atmospheric conditions over the ocean or behind the mountain range. Freakish bad luck, not something of our own doing, has caused our fields to be drenched and our bridges to be swept away like matchsticks by swollen brown waters. We’d be adding paranoia to misery to take the rain personally.

As we have learnt to regard the weather, so too should we understand those who tell us so sweetly that they feel like making an early night of it. We don’t choose whom we want to sleep with; science and psychoanalysis have by now made it clear that there are hidden forces that make the choice for us long before our conscious mind can have any say in the matter.

However unbelievable it may seem when we are at the epicentre of suffering, sometimes a no is just a no.”

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