Have we fallen into an era of sexual boredom? Particularly as we age and associate, do we drag our weary, uninspired carcasses more and more to bed, and…nothing? No. That’s it.
Robbie Williams opened up about his sex life with Ayda Field, his wife of 13 years. “Everyone knows there’s no sex after marriage,” he said, thinking the testosterone shutdown was probably partly responsible for his low libido. Williams continued, “Sometimes now Ayda turns to me on the couch and says, ‘We should have sex,’ and I sit there eating a tangerine and shrugging.”
Refuse sex? Tangerines? Shrugging the shoulders ? Let’s be clear, the couple is wildly happy together. But keep in mind it’s Robbie Williams, Cosmopolitan‘s the sexiest man alive in 1999, with his shredded muscles, tattoos, the true job description of “sexy pop star” and, at 49, in the prime of silver fox age. If Williams declares that there is no sex after marriage, should we consider it a historical scientific discovery? Or is it more of a sign of the times, and we’re all unsexy now?
Think of the lack of sex in marriage, or any long-term relationship, and some unwanted imagery comes to mind, mostly from old British sitcoms: Terry and June wearing matching brushed cotton nightwear. George fighting a lascivious Mildred. For those too young to get those credentials, the basic tenor is suburban sex death – an erotic entombment under candle-wick bedspreads. Something few want or believe will happen to them.
Yet here we are, with a pop god munching on a tangerine and breaking what might be the last real taboo: talking about the lack of sex in marriage. It might be time to lift that particular boulder and see all that is dark and wiggling (and not wiggling) below. To ask, what happens (and doesn’t happen) sexually in British marriages, and why don’t people want to talk about it?
First, it’s time to bust the age-old myth that Brits hate talking about sex. Sometimes looking around it feels like sex is all we are talking about. However, often longtime couples only want to talk about a specific type of sex – the kind that “other people” have (wave wave of hand) “out there”. Such reflections go beyond heterosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc. (it’s so past to worry about all that), in the areas of BDSM, polyamory, dating apps, “orbit”, “breadcrumb”, hookup culture, and soon.
Basically, whatever young or single people do, long-term committed couples talk about it. Sometimes with relief that they managed to divert everything; other times, with a kind of melancholy – as if it were some “weird sex” bargain they had missed. What newlyweds are far less likely to debate is their own romantic reality. Small clockwork figures hastily retreat into the long-term torque cuckoo clock. Cue the shame. Stigma. The anguish. Envy (thinking that everyone is still there). And outright lying – let’s call it “sex-washing” (pretending you’re still there).
It’s all conjecture (does anyone really know other people’s lives?), but you get a sense of a bizarre hidden phenomenon – the masked incel – those who are committed to long-term relationships, even married, but for one reason or another do not have sex. Those for whom familiarity did not breed contempt but sparked ingrained sexual abstinence.
In 2019, the British medical journal, survey data from around 34,000 Britons, found that a third of men and women had not had sex in the previous month. Additionally, the biggest drop (since the research was conducted in 2001) is for those over 25 and married couples living together. In 2020, another survey, conducted among around 12,000 Britons and published in the BMC Public health medical journal, reported that most people grouped into the “low interest” sex category were married or living together.
Then consider the steadily declining birth rate (although, of course, sex doesn’t necessarily mean procreation). And voluntary celibacy (vol-cels?): Earlier this year, Google Trends data showed a 90% increase in searches for “celibacy” in the UK. While a recurring theme in having less sex/no sex is aging, are we as a nation generally less interested in sex? Not according to a recent poll which ranked Britain as the fourth most “excited” country in Europe, pouting and smoothing our eyebrows after Italy, Spain and France. Although seriously, who is to judge anyway? Obviously, for those who live in happily single couples, sex is not the glue, nor synonymous with real intimacy.
There are also long-term committed couples who have a lot of sex, and they excel at it. After all, it’s arguable that there’s a better chance of having a more varied and imaginative sex life in a long-term relationship – as opposed to hookup culture, which, in its most mechanical form, could transform into repetition of the same movements with different partners. In some cases, it may be the engaged couples who are the real “hotties” walking around among us. That’s the plan anyway, so why isn’t this blissful nirvana happening as much as it should?
Short answer: life. In otherwise healthy relationships, the great deactivation/de-sexation seems to be caused by an avalanche of potential stressors. Work pressures. Health difficulties. Parental stress. Dealing with own parents, financial issues, housing, cost of living crisis. Then there is the increase in lifespan (therefore to maintain relationships longer). The weight of expectations in post-dating app culture. Even the fact that some people drink less alcohol and have to learn the dark art of sober sex.
It could be impotence, other sexual problems, or a lack of body confidence. Or the proliferation in recent decades of hardcore pornography (which is said to lead to erectile dysfunction, even in young men). It might even be linked to the female orgasm gap: A 2019 Ann Summers survey of 2,000 people conducted as part of her Pleasure Positivity Project found that women missed 1,734 orgasms in their lifetime.
Say it like that, it’s a miracle anyone can put it on. Certainly, this explains how, with the best will in the world, the exhausted and the desperate leave each other momentarily. How some couples can even resort to well-meaning advice to hang out on stilted “date nights”, to “communicate openly and honestly”, “share puddings sexually”, and all the other things anyone in their right mind dig their insides out and lie there sobbing.
Sure, I’m being facetious (well, aside from “sharing puddings sexually”). More seriously, is there really anything to worry about when, at certain points in a relationship, even in this age of uber-erotic abundance, an otherwise solid couple encounters good old retro sexual dryness? Is it, historically speaking, even normal to go into friendship mode for long periods of time? It’s just that people these days (who look, feel, and act younger in many other ways) expect their lives to be considerably sexier. As in: “I use emojis with confidence and I always go to music festivals, so I should have a lot more sex.”
In reality, are Robbie and Ayda so wrong, so out of step? Aren’t long-term relationships designed to wax and wane sexually? Sometimes a couple overlaps, sometimes they prefer to eat citrus fruits. Whatever works for them is fine, and worrying about what other people are doing is both unnecessary and painful. To end with a quote from the poet and author Charles Bukowski: “Money is like sex. It seems much more important when you don’t have one.