25/09/2014 08:25 BST | Updated 23/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Erection Neglect: Too Hard To Say No?

My friend Sarah had recently been through a break up, when a friend kissed her at a bonfire. As she was from out of town, they had already planned for her to crash on his floor, but post-kiss it quickly became apparent that this arrangement had changed from "Let's go home and eat toast" to "Shall we go back to mine...?" (cue jazz). She wanted to kiss him, but was too vulnerable after her break-up to want to do anything else. Once back in his room, however, she noticed that her friend had an erection, and she felt rude to have caused it when she didn't want to deal with it. She tried, politely, to say that she didn't want to do anything sexual, but in the end gave him a blow job, told him there was no need for him to tend to her, and went to sleep.

When Sarah told me this story, she was confused. Her friend was more than a nice guy; he was a feminist, and would have been horrified had he known that Sarah felt uncomfortable during their encounter. "If I had flatly said No at any point, he would have stopped right away, but I didn't want to be rude," she said.

Many women I've spoken to say they've given hand jobs or blow jobs "to be polite". They did not feel that a man owed them the favour back if he had inadvertently made them wet.

All of the men I questioned thought the idea of it being rude for a woman to neglect an erection was ridiculous. The disparity is remarkable: women are politely having sex with men who think the idea of polite sex is so unlikely as to be laughable.

Culturally, the fact that women are still sometimes called "teases" and that the occasional man still tries to argue that blue balls are a medical condition that only sex can cure ("Do you want to be responsible for my nuts rupturing?" has never gotten me in the mood, personally) obviously contributes to this feeling of guilt that women have around sex. This is of course a factor, but in Sarah's case I think the reason for her discomfort was subtler.

It has long been noted by linguists that men and women speak different languages (Robin Lakoff's influential 1973 study, Language and Woman's Place, is one example of this acknowledged linguistic difference). Women use the language of pleasing, whereas men are more likely to use the language of impressing. Sarah's story shows how lack of awareness, on both sides, of linguistic gender differences can cause damage. Even the most modern and independent woman will sometimes use the language of pleasing, because it is the language that has been handed down to her by her culture. Hence, a woman is more likely to try and do just that: please. But there are times when this instinct leads to women doing things they aren't comfortable with; and men, who aren't raised with the language of pleasing, understandably assume that the woman trying to please them sexually is doing so because she wants to, not because of a linguistic hang-over.

Sarah's discomfort was the result of a fundamental miscommunication, not of a malignant desire of her friend's to come at any cost. He was speaking the masculine language of impressing, to persuade her to have sex with him. In female language, persuasion is subtler and more subliminal, and so male persuasion can come off as forceful when it intends to offer an option, not a demand. Even a phrase as unthreatening as "Do you want to have sex?" can be complicated by the workings of female language, where demands are often phrased as questions ("Do you want to check when the restaurant closes?"), leaving women in whom female language is particularly ingrained feeling confused as to what their options really are, while male language leads to the perception of a simple yes or no answer.

Sarah, meanwhile, was speaking the female language of pleasing, and trying to say no without sounding rude. In female language this is usually done by being vague and indirect. The phrase "I'd rather not do too much" in this situation seemed, to the women I asked, a clear sign of sexual disinterest, but to the men I asked, was ambiguous. Sarah's friend did not pick up on hints she thought were rudely obvious, because in his language they would have meant a different level of casualness, and Sarah thought her friend was being forceful, because in her language his words would have been.

Neither Sarah, nor her friend, had negative intentions that night. She would not have given the blow job had she not thought he wanted it, and he would not have wanted it had he known she didn't want to give it. Neither of them was to blame, and yet Sarah wound up feeling used.

Obviously there are men who exploit women on purpose, but some of the time, linguistic miscommunication leads to sexual grey areas. It falls upon both men and women to be aware of these differences: for men to know that "I'd rather not" could mean something more forceful, and for women to know that it's not rude to clarify that you genuinely just wanted to watch a film.