A raft of articles, books and research projects dedicated to the subject of why we’re not having as much sex as we should and how we can be encouraged to have more are flooding mainstream health and lifestyle reporting. Women in particular are the target of this focus on sexual quantity. What could be wrong with us and how can we be fixed? Why the sudden media interest in getting enough? What particular zeitgeist is behind our interest in policing our levels of sexual activity? Has sex become just another chore?
In the land where sex happens for reasons other than the propagation of the species, it’s just us and the Bonobos. Possibly dolphins too, but we’ve yet to establish the role of sex in the lives of our shiny and idealised watery friends.
Evolutionary psychologists have some ideas about sexual frequency for humans in long-term partnerships, but for most of us, figuring out how much and what kind of sex we want is difficult, thorny and changeable. The conditions that encourage frequent and pleasurable sex are often mysterious.
Yet all of a sudden we seem to have gone from the facile assumption that sexual interest declines naturally over time, to a kind of evangelical call to sexual arms: Do it. Do it better. Do it more often. We promise you’ll like it.
Much of the current media attention directed towards encouraging sexual frequency is focused on finding ways to get more sex for men, who are apparently more interested in it.
Bettina Arndt among others would like us to find ways to attend to the assumed greater sexual needs of men in order to sustain lasting heterosexual partnerships. In her world, sex is utilitarian in nature. It creates peace and connection for men, and women would enjoy it too if they could just find it within themselves to give up their desire to feel desirous first.
Less scholarly diatribes are telling us to do it and do it more because we’ll feel better, as if the solution to boredom or disinterest is repetition and commitment to a program.
In both these scenarios sex has become like exercise, one more thing we should be doing in order to be healthy, whether we want to or not. Whether we have time for it or not. The subliminal threat being that we will be left behind if we can’t take it like a woman. You should be coming a long way baby.
There are some serious assumptions underlying this push for more sex. That any sex is better than no sex. That long term monogamous relationships are desirable. That partnerships should be maintained by compromise rather than mutual desire. That sex is a transaction. That low sexual desire is pathological.
Far more interesting than this how-to-fix-it focus, is the more quiet attention being given to researching the reasons why women often lose their sexual desire in long-term relationships. Bella Ellwood-Clayton, a sexual anthropologist, cites research that found 70 per cent of women feel too fat to want to have sex.
She takes this further and makes a link between porn and a lack of sexual confidence among women. The ubiquity of porn in advertising is sapping women of their sense of desirability.
Porn can be quick, easy, plastic and free, and many women are finding themselves in a position where they’re not measuring up to the pace and uniformity of processed sexual encounters. Pre-packaged sex is everywhere and its consumption has become mandatory, but we seem to have lost our appetite.
Even among my most aware female friends the message that sex is compulsory seems to have left its noxious trail. Two of my friends are approaching menopause and are terrified that they’re losing their libidos and consequently their partners.
They both feel more pressure to have sex than they ever did in their teens. The reasons peddled for their lack of interest are hormonal or emotional. The current instructions are to get out the lube and fake it till you make it. Maybe try some herbal or pharmaceutical remedies. Hang out for the holy grail of the female version of Viagra. But don’t just accept that this is what you’re feeling now.
Don’t ask yourself too many questions about why you don’t feel like it and what you really want instead. Sex is your job and you’re not allowed to quit.
I think we need to feel our hackles rise whenever a supposedly pleasurable activity becomes compulsory. The current focus on the decline of women’s sexual activity is so outrageously transactional — do more of this and you’ll get more of that — that it appears that we may not be talking about real sex at all, even though we seem to be encouraging more frequent touching of one another’s genitals.
The sustenance of genuine sexual desire takes time and attention; usually with our clothes on. We know for instance that sharing housework, conversation and child care leads to more frequent and fulfilling sex in heterosexual partnerships.
But many of us don’t even have time for the basics. If we can’t find the time to pick up the vacuum how can we have the time for anything but the most desultory of sexual experiences? We’re being told that sex is a priority in a time when everything is a priority.
The current push for sexual frequency seems to be blind to more than women’s apparent disinterest. It also ignores that we have too much to do already. Maybe we’re not able to face that we’re doing too much to make sex a priority.
It’s hard to buck the current rhetoric that we can have it all. Real sexual encounters may no longer be economically viable. Under the pressure of the impossible, I think we’ve done what we do with everything we should be able to do but can’t: we’ve outsourced it. Porn is the new sex, but women are still being told by mainstream media that homemade is best.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.