In long-term relationships, is it always women who worry about the sex?

Is keeping things good in the bedroom just another form of emotional labour for women, asks Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

“The Sway” is the latest in subscription boxes for the busy millennial woman, who no longer gets a fiver in the post from her nan and therefore needs something to fill the interesting-mail void in her life. A PR sent it to me, and my partner and I opened it together in our underwear. The box is very beautiful: it’s a soft baby pink and filled with arty doodles of women fingering themselves. There’s pretty tissue paper and informational postcards with diagrams of how you will both “gasm” together. (The box is weirdly insistent that your partner is a man, which feels like a misstep, but that’s capitalism for you.) The box contained everything you’d expect to find in a box of this nature: a cheap bullet vibrator, some lube, some weird cream that tastes like almonds and a sachet of stuff for your nipples that I couldn’t open. Still, the box had a sense of occasion to it, and we tried everything enthusiastically. We had some lovely sex, as if somehow trying to impress a third party, the third party being the box.

It wasn’t until the next morning, when I was treading on the illustrated tissue paper on the bedroom floor, that a thought occurred to me: women might sign up for this, and many of them will enjoy it. But there will probably never be a version for straight men.

Men worry about sex. Of course they do. Most of the men I’ve known have gone through some kind of anxiety about whether their genitals are good enough or their bodies beautiful enough. But the vast majority of these men tend to be single and worried about what some amorphous, anonymous, all-the-way-over-there woman might think of him. My coupled-up straight male friends? I never hear a peep about their sex lives with their long-term partners and, while I always thought that was out of respect for these women, it turns out that most of them… just aren’t really concerned about it?

“I don’t ever think about my sex life,” says Bradley* who has been with his girlfriend for a year and a half. “I don’t think about how much I’m having. I don’t think that maybe I should be having more. It’s just not a thing.”

I ask him when he and his girlfriend last had sex. “Uhmmm... last weekend?”

And the time before that. “Uh…” he does some mental maths. “Probably the week before? I don’t know.”

I find myself growingly cynical of the Ann Summers-esque culture that claims to liberate women with greater access to better orgasms, but, in reality, seems to be harnessing the anxiety that we are not performing sex well enough

I cannot imagine being like this. I can think of the last three times I’ve had sex, how it was and when it was. I mentally clock how long it has been between engagements, and worry if a few weeks pass with no action. I ask coupled-up girlfriends what is normal. They are worrying all the time, too. We use words that Cosmo taught us as teenagers, words we use when talking about our sex lives that we never use elsewhere: phrases like “spice up” and things going “stale in the bedroom”. I have sat across the table from women in six-month-long relationships who are worried about their sex lives going “stale”.

In the single world, the onus is still on men to initiate sex – to create the environment, to play the game, to buy the drinks, to hope for the best. In the coupled-up world, the responsibility seems to shift entirely on to women to keep sex interesting and fun. And, while a lot of that is to do with the fact that it’s generally more difficult to make a woman orgasm, I suspect that a huge amount of it is to do with the vast consumer culture that is connected to sex. I find myself growingly cynical of the Ann Summers-esque culture that claims to liberate women with greater access to better orgasms, but, in reality, seems to be harnessing the very real anxiety that we are not performing sex well enough. We’re encouraged to dress up, to invent games, to tease, to play… and, yet, the more men I speak to, the more unbothered they seem.

“Prior to meeting my partner I’d engaged in some of the more risqué and eyebrow-raising sexual activities, but sex and sex while in a loving relationship are very different things,” says Will*. “I had no drive to cuff my missus to the bed and smack her backside. I was always open to new things, but ultimately the most gratifying thing was the closeness, the intimacy, the feeling of communicating in a way I didn’t want to communicate with anyone else in the world, the feeling of loving and being loved. Taking time to do that was of far greater importance than finding her dressed up in lingerie and heels (lovely as that is), doing some sort of party trick in an endless race to be as filthy as possible.”

I find myself agreeing with Will. Now, look: obviously people have kinks and fantasies they want to indulge with their partners, but the “endless race” thing does feel like a very real element of how we have sex now, or at least, how women are expected to think about sex. The latest thing is “mindful sex”, which asks us to forget about gimmicks and costumes, and instead to finely calibrate the art of living in the moment. But I still can’t help but envy every man I talk to; most of whom seem to live in a vast and untroubled world when it comes to sex, none of whom say they discuss their sex lives with their friends. As for most of the women, we all have one eye on what we’re doing, and another on what we “should” be doing, and that isn’t a problem a subscription box can solve.


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