New research shows that is is increasingly men who 'have a headache' and are saying no to sex. Is this a response to the stresses of modern life or a manifestation of a new male dilemma?Russell Brand, a self-confessed sex addict, likes to quote Socrates' remark that the male libido is like being chained to a madman. If so, it looks like that madman is presently under heavy sedation.
A recent survey reported by the Men's Health Forum found that 15 per cent of men aged between 18 and 59 admitted to a 'lack of interest in sex', while last year, Relate, the relationship counselling service, reported a 40 per cent increase in the number of men saying they'd gone off sex over the previous decade. These men have no physical problems, they just don't want to have sex. And these findings chime with anecdotal reports from many experts in the field who believe this is a growing trend.
Predictably perhaps, women have been landed with the blame for this. Which makes you wonder: do we have to carry the can for everything these days? Not only do we have to navigate this very sensitive issue in our own bedrooms, experts are now speculating that this drop in desire is a direct result of our changing role in society. The post-feminist woman, quite comfortable with her own sexual needs and desires, is apparently making men wilt. Literally. Men are bombarded with sexual images on the internet, cable TV and in porn-lite lad mags, possibly leading them to prefer the ever-ready fantasy to the reality.
The renowned Chicago-based relationships therapist Michele Weiner-Davis caused a furore in the US by suggesting that at least 25 per cent of all men suffer from low desire. It was, she said, 'America's best-kept secret.' Signs are that British men are following suit.
Simon Farrell*, 39, is a man who appears to have it all: rugged looks, a high-flying advertising job, a good sense of humour. According to his last two girlfriends, he's a perfect ten in every department except one: the bedroom.
'Si is such a lovely bloke,' says Jane Reilly*, 36, his most recent ex. 'But only four months into our relationship, which is usually the tearing each other's clothes off stage, we were only having sex every week or two. Si never initiated anything.'
There was much excitement in May 2008 when scientists at the Medical Research Council's Human Reproductive Sciences Unit announced they were developing a new wonder pill that would artificially boost male sex drive. Which makes you wonder: why? We've been told for decades that men think about sex every three seconds, so why are they having to look to medication to shift their libidos out of neutral? Simon has no clue as to the source of his lack of desire. 'It was never an issue during my twenties and early thirties, but in my last two long-term relationships, while the first few months were pretty full-on sexually, it seemed to tail off after that. I had so many obligations in terms of work and family that I often felt too tired for sex. My girlfriends equated this lessening of interest in sex with a lessening of interest in them, which wasn't true.'
Phillip Hodson, psychotherapist and author of Men: An Investigation into the Emotional Male, suggests that Simon is a casualty of our modern all-work-no-play society. 'Sex is all about play,' he says. 'Libido comes out of a moment of idleness and down time. But play has got squeezed out of our society. British men work the longest hours in Europe. Sex and the clock just don't go well together.'
A 2008 survey by Bayer Schering Pharma, a company that manufactures anti-impotence drugs, found that one in five men suffers loss of libido as a result of work-related stress. Not surprising when you consider that many overworked males are turning to another known desire-suppressant to calm them down after work – alcohol. Booze interferes with the production and processing of testosterone and affects the parts of the brain that control hormone balance.
'Men drink because it's a short cut to relaxation,' says Hodson, 'but alcohol dampens the libido. It's a double whammy.' Antidepressants, another fallback for overworked, overstressed males, have the same effect.
So far, so depressing, but it gets worse. Men are losing their libidos, so the other theory goes, because women have disempowered them to such a point that masculinity is in crisis. 'Western men are feeling marginalised,' explains Michael Gilbert, author of The Disposable Male. 'In a third of American homes where both partners work, women earn more than men. This tears at the fabric of male sexuality. I'm telling you, it shrinks the penis.'
Gilbert believes that boys grow up learning that traditionally male characteristics such as competitiveness and ambition are somehow not desirable, with the result that they're fighting against their own biology – with predictably dismal results for their libidos. As Medallion Man has morphed into Moisturiser Man, he has lost sight
of what it means to be a male.
'Men are confused,' says Gilbert. 'They learn that masculine instinct isn't always appreciated. As adolescent boys they are hit with sexual energy, but they're taught there's something wrong with them if they want to be assertive and dominant, so they withdraw from the arena rather than risk being told they're inadequate.'
'That's right, blame it all on us,' says Sarah Rodwell*, a 35-year-old civil servant. Sarah and her husband, Charlie*, a sound engineer, also 35, are waiting to begin couples' counselling to talk about, among other things, Charlie's flagging sex drive. 'I know I'm supposed to be sympathetic about his stress levels, but I just can't be,' says Sarah. 'Is it so wrong to need to know that the man you're with finds you irresistible? Sex used to be fun and spontaneous, but now it's yet another "issue", and when we do it, it's really self-conscious.'
Sarah tells me they haven't had sex in 'months', but Charlie insists it's only been 'a few weeks'. 'She has made it into such a huge thing, this holy grail that's going to solve everything that's wrong in our relationship, whereas I think there are other, more important problems. I feel under enormous pressure. She's always leaving books open at strategic pages, or looking at me pointedly when anything to do with sex comes on the telly. I do still fancy her, but our bedroom has become a minefield.'
Charlie, he's at pains to tell me, is still a red-blooded male, it's just that his laptop – with its immediately accessible, ever-inviting 24-hour sexual content – helps him to satisfy his physical urges with a lot less emotional investment than his wife. And therein lies the rub, according to Phillip Hodson. 'We're sexually over-stimulated. A computer gives you access to any sexual act at any time of the day. But the paradox is that when you can have anything you want, you don't want it any more.'
Another line of thinking is that a loss of male libido is linked to changes in the environment. For years, scientists have been voicing concerns about the effect
of oestrogenic compounds found in plastic food packaging, pesticides and the hormones we pump into meat. 'These oestrogenic compounds aren't broken down by the body,' says Susannah Lawson, nutritional therapist and co-author of Optimum Nutrition Made Easy: How to Achieve Optimum Health. 'They accumulate and challenge the delicately balanced levels of testosterone in the body, which can mean, among other things, that the libido drops.'
Eating organic and avoiding plastics are sensible precautions. But the male sex drive faces other, less obvious hazards. American scientists are currently researching whether boys born to mothers who take painkillers during pregnancy might have a lower libido in later life. Even mobile phones have been called into question, with
US researchers claiming that men who use their mobiles for more than four hours a day have a 25 per cent lower sperm count, with a knock-on effect on their sex drives. The modern world, it seems, is fraught with danger for the fragile male libido.
But are we really seeing a new phenomenon, or might it be that what we're witnessing isn't so much a fall in men's sex drives as a rise in our own expectations? We live in a super-sexualised culture in which our ideas of what's normal have become, frankly, skewed. For a generation of women weaned on Sex and the City, there's an unspoken assumption that an orgasm should be as much a part of everyday routine as flossing. And yet, says sex expert Suzi Godson, a partner's waning sex drive might be nothing more than a by-product of growing older.
'Sex tails off in most long-term relationships, so couples should have realistic expectations about sexual frequency. A 40-year-old man who says he suffers from low libido because he only feels like having sex three times a month is actually not doing so badly, because, US research says, people aged 40-49 have an average sexual frequency of 69 times per year.'
Dr Richard Petty, medical director of London's Wellman Clinic, doesn't believe that we're seeing a seismic shift in male libido levels at all. 'The peak activity period for the pituitary gland and the testicles – both of which influence the production of testosterone – is 28. Between 30 and 40 there's a huge slacking off, which has a
distinct bearing on libido. But this has always been the case. It's the awareness of it that's increased.'
So maybe reports of the death of the male libido have been greatly exaggerated, or at least a little over hyped. True, the stresses of modern life and evolving gender roles might have brought about a period of fluctuation and readjustment, but it seems there's no need to stockpile the Rampant Rabbits just yet. While men's sex drives might be running a Sunday service, our own could be slowing down in sympathy. After all, women suffer many of the same stresses as men in terms of long working hours and time pressure, with a few extra thrown in, like the fact that we're expected to shoulder the greatest burden of childcare and housework – all of which can have an equally dampening effect on the female libido. So what we're seeing might actually be a rare (if unwelcome) manifestation of equality in action.