A new study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour (imagine the prize crossword) has concluded that American adults, on average, were having sex less often in the early 2010s than they were in the late 1990s. The research, conducted by San Diego State and Widener Universities, analysed data from almost 27,000 men and women (the vast majority of them heterosexual) and attributed the drop in sexual intercourse to a variety of external factors, both positive – like the increased empowerment of young adults over their sex lives – and worrying – an overall increase in working hours and in digital distractions like social media and at-home entertainment-streaming. It would seem that “Netflix and chill” is often far from a euphemism for sexual contact, but displacement activity to avoid it. It stands to reason that the less we have to do, the more we make our own fun (and babies – more are conceived in the cold, dark, tedious months than in autumn, spring or summer), and so, conversely, when we have too much to do, sex becomes less of a priority. Quite simply, we may be too busy tweeting and watching Narcos to have sex with our partners.
The studies were of particular interest to me, since I have several friends who complain about not having enough sex, and the academic research rather legitimised my often scoffed-at belief that their partners should regularly make time for it – whether or not both parties completely fancy it at the moment opportunity presents itself. It’s not a question of stoically “lying back and thinking of England”. But, in a busy, demanding life, sex is like going to the gym or putting out the bins – we may not always feel motivated to do it, but we should look at the wider, long-term benefits and crack on.
This is a deeply unpopular view, I do realise. By today’s standards, sex should be wonderful, romantic, sexy, adventurous, athletic, mutually climactic. Both parties should be wholly focused, thoroughly warmed up and equally turned on. I worry our expectations of Hollywood-style “good sex” have become so heightened that we’ve forgotten the importance of a swift, good old-fashioned maintenance shag. The sexual equivalent of making a slice of toast, rather than cooking a full English, this sort of straightforward quotidian seeing-to has few frills, bells and whistles, but can be just as satisfying and necessary for sustenance. It’s this sort of convenient, timely sex, not the fairytale, soft-lit, sensual marathon (which, let’s face it, happens only on high days and holidays), that acts as oil to the cogs of the relationship machine. We neglect it at our peril.
One may not instinctively be in the mood but, within the confines of a loving, mutually respectful relationship, one rarely regrets having sex, only avoiding getting started
For most of us, sex is important not just because we need it, but because it represents a unique, conspiratorial connection between two people that has nothing to do with our friends, kids or colleagues. As importantly, it makes us more forgiving of myriad infuriating things that would, without shared physical intimacy, make us want to hack up our partner’s jumpers with a breadknife. The crude reality is that it’s hard to be furious about an empty rinse-aid dispenser or a damp towel on the floor when you’ve recently been given head. For the sake of continued or renewed harmony, it’s invariably worth turning off the telly or putting down the iPad to get naked for a bit (my friend S says sex with her husband of 15 years is like going to the cinema: “Every time I do it, I thoroughly enjoy it and wonder why we don’t go more often”). One may not instinctively be in the mood but, within the confines of a loving, mutually respectful relationship, one rarely regrets having sex, only avoiding getting started. When it’s all over, one is usually delighted and relieved to have gone for it, even if it hasn’t begun as enthusiastically for one or both of you.
Naturally, some relationships simply don’t need sex to survive or even thrive. Amiable companionship, kissing, hugging and shared interests are enough to sustain many marriages, no doubt. Often, one partner’s difficult labour and breastfeeding, or either party’s physical or mental health, forces sex out of the relationship, either temporarily or long-term, and people make the best of a bad situation, as they essentially vowed to do in marriage. But when there are no mitigating factors – merely laziness, disinterest or the distraction of everyday life – the success of a sexless relationship depends on the serendipitous likelihood of both partners feeling exactly the same way. How often are two people so completely in synch as to want very little or no sex? Much more likely is that one half of the relationship is tolerating the other and would very much like it in their lives (I most often hear of men not putting out, but your mileage and social group may, of course, vary) or, worse, feeling wounded, rejected and dissatisfied.
Some ebb and flow in sexual appetite is normal, but I know from experience that too much ebb can be terminal. A month becomes three and, before you know it, over a year may have passed. It’s not fair to withdraw sex from someone’s life without consultation and consent. It’s a bit like coming home from the office and announcing that you’ve decided you’ll never again go on holiday, or eat in a restaurant, or travel anywhere by car. And, yet, it happens frequently. Instead of simply compromising to bridge the perfectly manageable gap between two libidos, people just stop having sex altogether.
I don’t believe many of us want that. But kids, work, extra-curricular activities can get easily aid in our avoidance. Flopping on the sofa to watch a box set can seem a more relaxing way to spend rare downtime. It’s easier to lie in bed waiting for an available wireless network than to reconnect with your partner. But it’s also unrealistic to always expect the mood to strike both of you at the same moment, and at a time when sex is even practical. What is realistic is to mentally flip through your household’s calendar and think, “This maybe the last chance we have this week,” before squeezing in a swift one before the kids get home from LaserZone. There’s something bonding and actually pretty funny about saying, “We can’t be arsed to have sex, but we really need to” and mucking in for the good of the relationship, even if it’s with an eye on the clock and an ear to the front door. If you hold out for Occasion Sex, you may find it becomes fatally occasional. Don’t underestimate the relationship-sustaining power of the routine rooting.