Is it hormones, husbands who’ve got tubby – or just boredom? To help find out, 100 couples kept a brutally honest sex diary for a year.The results surprised even this usually unshockable expert…
After 12 years of writing about sex, I felt pretty confident that nothing could surprise me. I thought I knew it all. I’ve been agony aunt for Company Magazine for many years. I’m one of Scarlet Magazine’s ‘Pleasure Aunts’ (not as questionable as it sounds) and have written countless features and five books on the ins and outs of making love.
I even had a radio phone-in show, where the producer and I regularly had hissed, frantic exchanges over what the next caller might be about to reveal and whether it could potentially shut down the station.
I’ve had sackfuls of letters detailing every kind of female sexual worry, demand, hope and confusion.
At parties, I’m often asked what the most common problem is, and I always say it’s: how can we spice things up in the bedroom? Women write wondering why they’ve gone off sex, and what they can do to get their missing mojos back.
I’ve written the answer to this a thousand times – get a babysitter, book a hotel room, buy some new underwear – basically, remind yourself that you’re sexy. And as sex writers seldom get any reports on whether their advice worked, it’s easy to assume that the world is full of relieved couples rekindling their dormant passion over bottles of pricey room service wine.
Or at least it was, until I read The Sex Diaries.
Australian sex therapist Bettina Arndt persuaded 98 couples to reveal all in personal diaries kept over the course of a year. And far from the cosy, all-girls-together whingeing I anticipated-Ooh, men! They always want it, don’t they?’), the book charts the deepest, private emotions of both genders – and reveals a hidden world that’s truthful, painful and sometimes inspiring.
‘The twentysomething women are much more sexually confident than past generations’
The diaries aren’t really about sex at all, but about the emotions that surround sex with someone you love – fear, intimacy, gratitude, guilt, resentment, loneliness, hope. In fact, the last thing these real couples are worried about is ‘spicing it up’, new positions, or the size of his equipment.
They’re more concerned about why their wife doesn’t seem to love them any more, or why their husband still hopes for sex when he won’t even take out the rubbish to show he cares.
As a ‘sexpert,’ I didn’t expect such brutal honesty. Letters to problem pages tend to be brief, often focusing on practical – even technical – sexual issues. And it’s a rule of thumb that any sex survey must be taken with an entire Dead Sea- sized teaspoon of salt, as people exaggerate, downplay, and just plain lie in order to appear ‘normal’.
These diaries prove, repeatedly, that there is no ‘normal’. There’s only ‘I’m having the sex life I want’ or ‘I’m not’. But the act of writing privately, rather than ticking boxes, obviously encourages reflection and honesty.
Exploring the limits of sexual potential has little to do with clever techniques,’ says Bettina Arndt, ‘but a lot to do with how two people feel about themselves and each other outside the bedroom.’
And reading many of the extracts forced me to question plenty of my assumptions. That the twentysomething women are much more sexually confident than past generations, for instance.
We may assume that all the post-Sex And The City openness, the brazen behaviour and the one-night stands mean they’re happily in control – but one diarist is already tired of her partner’s sexual expectations at the age of just 20, while others struggle to have their needs met, with no idea how to ask.
I may get letters which suggest that the average 25-year-old girl’s biggest worry is how to fine-tune her new man’s performance for maximum orgasms, but on a deeper level, younger women are clearly longing for intimacy and understanding – just as men are.
Writing for women – and talking to them during radio phone-ins and at events – it’s often tempting to dismiss their pestering partners as sexually voracious testosterone-driven factories. My past, attempted- ego-boosting advice to women has tended towards the ‘He’s lucky to have you, he should be grateful for anything he can get’ variety.
But The Sex Diaries reveals a much more tender, intimate truth about men in relationships. Men who aren’t, in fact, surfing internet porn every night, or resentfully putting up with the middleaged wife while they fantasise about the hot 21-year-old next door.
It comes as a poignant surprise, in fact, to discover that the majority are still deeply in love with their wives; they just want the chance to be physically closer to her, and to feel loved and accepted in return, despite their balding heads or round tummies.
‘Every day I received page after page of eloquent, often immensely sad diary material,’ reveals Arndt, ‘as men grasped the opportunity to talk about what emerged as being a mighty emotional issue for them.’
One typical fiftysomething male correspondent writes: ‘I still find my wife sexually attractive and would love to make love to her. I understand that we are getting older, but I miss the affection and the closeness. I could just sit down and cry – [but] a male my age does not cry, nor does he speak about the problem.’
It’s not only men. Several women also express a sadness that their levels of sexual desire are so ill-matched with their partners.’
Bombarded with sexualised adverts, suggestive TV and feisty articles (some, admittedly, written by me) suggesting that the key to great sex is simply a noholdsbarred approach and a satin thong, it’s no wonder so many suffer in silence. Who wants to be the lone voice in a world of smug sexual satisfaction?
Few would dare to admit they feel vulnerable, or unloved in their own bed, and that they don’t understand why their spouse no longer desires them. But, plainly, they do.
Sometimes, just a few simple words can entirely change your attitude – and I felt mine, feisty feminist that I am, shift at the sad question from one male diarist: ‘What happened to this lover I married? Where did she go?’
It’s been too easy for me to counsel women to have sex only when, where and how they want it, regardless of their partner’s feelings. The sudden awareness that, often, this isn’t just about thoughtless men expecting sex on tap has made me far more aware that, as women, we use sex to punish, to withhold and to send coded ‘You’re not getting it right’ messages instead of communicating our true feelings.
The husband lamenting his lost ‘lover’ had decided that rather than pester his wife for sex and be met with egocrushing refusal yet again, he’d wait until she felt like initiating it. He’s been waiting eight years so far – but he loves her too much to leave.
Maybe growing up in the Seventies, with a mum who read Spare Rib, subconsciously convinced me that men were the new second sex – that they’d had their own way in bed for thousands of years and that now women should set the pace.
And, yes, most sexual abuse is still perpetrated by men. But most of my correspondents – and the couples in The Sex Diaries – are just ordinary, loving partners for whom sex is an expression of intimacy and love.
It became clear reading the diaries that my sometimes knee-jerk response (‘Well, it’s his fault for pestering’) was lacking in compassion for at least one half of the couple in question, and that truly valuable advice should take both their needs into account.
But while some women go on an undeclared sex strike through resentment over unwashed dishes, neglected duties, anger or disappointment, plenty more don’t understand what has caused their once-passionate desire for their spouses to wither and die.
After years of fairly comprehensive research, I have generally concluded – and declared – that it’s simply the waning of the ‘in love’ hormones which bond couples in the first 18 months, and that sexual passion can generally be rebooted by a free night without kids, dirty washing or work deadlines.
This may be partially true, but it may also be way too simplistic. Because what Arndt surmises, after reading her couples’ diaries, is not that most women are ardent lovers whose passion is gradually crushed by domesticity and boredom, it’s that many women don’t have a particularly high libido to begin with.
‘It’s surprising – but most men are still deeply in love with their wives’
It’s given a huge boost by the hormonal cocktail of falling in love – and lust. But when the endorphins ebb away, she simply reverts back to normal, leaving her passionate partner bemused, stranded and wondering where the sex went.
The women, meanwhile, are often longing for tenderness – and don’t know how to ask for it. They worry that a tired cuddle will be misconstrued as a sexual invitation, so withdraw altogether.
My own response might once have been: ‘You’ll just have to tell him exactly what it means, and he’ll have to respect your boundaries.’ But perhaps the biggest revelation of all is that sexual desire – for women, at least – is seldom sparked, magically, by gazing upon their partner’s slightly sagging physique, investing in new bed linen or launching an Ann Summers trolley dash.
According to The Sex Diaries’ happy couples, it’s a simple matter of Just Doing It. A combination of husbands scaling down the pestering and giving more practical help with children and housework, and women simply choosing to have sex, rather than waiting for lightning to strike, was the unexpectedly simple key.
Initially, of course, like some reluctant diarists, I was shocked at the idea that women should engage in a modern version of ‘lie back and think of England’. I have always railed against women feeling sexually obligated, or ignoring their own needs in favour of his. But the crucial point is that, unlike men, women often don’t feel sexual desire until they’re physically touched.
The Sex Diaries features honest admissions from many women that unless they simply decide to do it, they’d probably never have sex again. But when they do go for it, the sex is often as good as it used to be.
‘I’m definitely a “just do it” person,’ admits one diarist, Glenda. ‘I never have any problems once we start. It always feels good.’
Previously, I might have dismissed these women as born-again Stepford Wives – women who needed their consciousness raising before their libidos. But as I’ve got older, my past certainties about what makes successful sex have been challenged by anecdotes from friends, by my own changing feelings and now by The Sex Diaries.
It’s not as simple as ‘spicing it up’, or telling him to back off till he’s completed his chores check-list. And it’s not as easy to dismiss men’s desires in favour of our own.
Couples with good sex lives, it transpires, meet each other half way. Sometimes one isn’t in the mood, but does it anyway and ends up enjoying it. Sometimes a cuddle is enough. But what really struck me was the revelation that in long-term relationships, sexual frustration isn’t usually about sex at all: it’s about loneliness and rejection.
And maintaining desire isn’t all about hormones and hotel rooms: it’s much more a matter of choosing to show your partner you love them – even if you don’t always feel like it.
Maybe to an ordinary couple that sounds simple enough. But to a sexpert who’s become used to a rarefied world of tricks and toys, positions and pulsations, it can be difficult to imagine what’s really going on in people’s bedrooms.
Piecing together a general idea from letters requesting help with esoteric erotic problems, or bemoaning ‘boring-in-bed’ boyfriends, it would be easy to think the whole country’s at it every night.
The Sex Diaries is proof that it isn’t. And a timely reminder to me – and my fellow sexperts – that sometimes, feelings are much more important than facts.