You might think sex is the bedrock of any healthy partnership but research suggests we're officially Generation Sex Recessionistas. Rosie Mullender reports on the crisis in our bedrooms and meets a bride-to-be who believes relationships can thrive minus the sex. And it seems the experts agree
Amy can’t really remember the last time she had sex with her fiancé, Ben. She just knows it was at least 18 months ago – and that, despite the lack of sexual intimacy, she’s looking forward to marrying him as much as ever. ‘I’ve been with Ben* for four years, and we’re getting married later this year,’ she says. ‘But even though we haven’t had sex for the past 18 months, I don’t have any doubts at all about marrying him, which a lot of people simply wouldn’t understand.
‘At first, we were like any other couple. But after those early days when, as the cliché goes, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, things gradually slowed down. Neither of us has a particularly high libido – I identify as demisexual, which means I’m only attracted to people I get to know on an emotional level, which happens so rarely I’ve even wondered if I might be asexual.
‘My partner generally prefers other activities to sex, and with neither of us that bothered, once we’d bonded emotionally, we found ourselves feeling in the mood less and less often. It got to the stage where, every few months, we’d turn to each other and say, “We really should do it, shouldn’t we?” We’d make the effort, and the sex was always good – I cry with emotion, every time – but we’d inevitably let things slide again.’
Although a relationship with no sex at all isn’t the norm, we are – and this is not a drill – we’re in the middle of a global sex recession, with Millennials having less sex now than Gen Xers at the same age. In the US, a recent study found that almost almost one in four people had no sex at all in the past year, while fewer than half of British men and women have sex at least once a week. And although Millennials are spearheading discussions about consent, all demographics are suffering a sex slump. Everything from stress and social media, to our inability to leave our phones out of the bedroom, has been blamed for declining rates of sex.
Meanwhile, our growing understanding of a wider range of sexualities, such as asexuality and demisexuality, is making women like Amy question what we think of as ‘normal.’ More of us are happy to be ourselves, ignoring any pressures to conform, rather than looking over our shoulders at what everyone else is getting up to (or not) in the bedroom.
Whatever your orientation, most of us find that sex slows down after the initial, clothes-ripping excitement of a new relationship. But how do you maintain intimacy when you’re not getting it on as often? And, as Amy believes, is it really possible to have a close, loving relationship when sex is put to the back burner – permanently?
‘The answer to that question is: Yes, absolutely,’ says Ammanda Major, Head of Service Quality and Clinical Practice at Relate. ‘But we need to be mindful of how we’re defining the word sex – for some people, that might mean penetration of some sort, while for others it could be a wide range of intimate behaviours that help a couple to feel connected. It’s sensible to start with a fairly broad definition of what sex might be, because it means different things to different people.
‘What’s very important is to be as certain as you can be that you’re actually like-minded with your partner – that you’re not putting pressure on your partner to not have sex, or vice versa. It’s got to be a mutually agreed decision where both people feel it suits them and your relationship. Then, I think it’s perfectly possible to have a good relationship without sex.’
If sex plays a central role in your relationships, it might sound unlikely that true intimacy can be achieved when it’s put aside for good. But intimacy, as well as sex, comes in many different forms. ‘It’s about your definition of intimacy,’ Ammanda explains. ‘For some people, it means that they’re able to be truly emotionally vulnerable with their partner. Being able to be vulnerable, being able to share, and being loving together, are all things that connect a couple.’
For Amy and Ben, intimacy is well and truly alive in their relationship, even without the intense bonding of sex. ‘I feel incredibly close to Ben emotionally – he’s a sensitive and understanding person who I trust implicitly,’ she explains. ‘We’re both incredibly tactile too, cuddling up on the sofa, and holding hands in bed while we sleep.
‘We regularly share passionate kisses – but while that might lead other couples to have sex, it doesn’t trigger anything more for us. I don’t have an urge to take things further, and don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything, and I know Ben feels the same way.’
Even if your libidos are well-matched, checking in with your partner to make sure you’re both happy with the status quo is key to making a low-sex or even sex-free relationship work. ‘It’s about being curious, and asking, “Is this continuing to work for us? Are we still OK with this?” because when people stop talking to each other, that’s often where things start to go wrong,’ Ammanda explains. ‘If you feel you can’t really talk about it, or your discussions aren’t helping as much as you’d hoped, consider seeing a sex therapist. It could be that a sexual difficulty is causing relationship problems – or that a relationship problem is causing a sexual one.’
Amy and Ben have regular conversations to check their libidos are still compatible – usually while snuggling on the sofa. ‘We know it’s an unusual situation, so we have regular chats about the situation, asking, ‘Are you sure you’re still OK with this? Do we need to hit the bedroom?’ It does sometimes bother us – we love each other, and find each other attractive, so why don’t we want to sleep with each other? – but we’ve come to realise that if we didn’t know what other couples were up to, we wouldn’t think twice about it.
‘It’s not like we want to sleep with other people instead, we simply don’t feel that urge. But as long as we’re both happy, we don’t see that it has to be a problem.’
* Names have been changed