Published December 2018
No sex today please!
I was interested to read an article in the Times newspaper (September 29th 2018) entitled “No sex please, we’re millennials”. The article was based on a survey conducted by Mumsnet and Relate which states that 25% of couples in their thirties have a ‘sexless’ relationship. (This is officially defined as having sex fewer than 10 times a year). I think there will be a few eyebrows raised at this point because we have perhaps wrongly assumed this is a generation with access to Tinder and other dating apps meaning sex is readily available and therefore being enjoyed widely. This was followed by a piece this weekend in the Telegraph online (Novemeber 17th 2018) entitled ‘Anxious, lonely and addicted to porn: why have young people stopped having sex?’
Sex: a challenge?
So has sex always been a challenge or is this a new phenomenon? I have worked in the field of sexual medicine for almost 18 years and at the moment, discussions with clients reveal sex feels like hard work to them in a way that it didn’t before. It is possible this has always been the case but it wasn’t socially acceptable to discuss it, or perhaps the millennial generation has a whole set of additional challenges not experienced by earlier generations.
I am regularly asked “What’s the single most important factor to ensure a good sex life?” This excellent question recognises a good sex life doesn’t just happen: we have to nurture it. Although, the best place to start is not with the physical aspects of intimacy, but emotional aspects of our relationship and how to nourish a deep connection with our partner. Perhaps this is at the heart of the problem? In an age where millennials have grown up connecting with their friends, partners and family through social media, has the art of meaningful, face to face human connectivity been lost?
Honest real life, real time conversation is important in all our relationships
As humans, we strive to be known: particularly by those that are closest to us – our partners, and what better way to do this than face to face? But this is often hard, especially if we have difficult things to say. If we learn to do it well, however, we will have the tools to tackle anything in our relationships.
You might ask “Why do we need to talk about sex – why not just do it?” The problem is how do we start again if we have stopped, and how do we ensure that we keep going once we have started? First, we must understand that sex is not a ‘fixed’ experience. It has various seasons, and we need to be able to talk about them. Perhaps millennials have not learnt the art of talking, but rather tapping the keys on their phone. This is particularly problematic if we take phones and iPads into the bedroom and are connected to an online world before we turn the lights out.
As well as talking about sex, we need to be real about sex. Films and media would have us believe that sex is always spontaneous, both partners will be immediately fully aroused, and sex should be effortless and always satisfying. The truth is that when a couple have been together for some time, sex is less likely to be spontaneous. Often it is pushed to the bottom of a busy ‘To do’ list. If we wait for sex to be spontaneous, the chances are it simply won’t happen. We need to be intentional about it. We need to discuss with our partner how we prioritise sexual intimacy and this can feel like hard work, the very thing we don’t want to associate with sex.
It would be easy to generalise at this point and argue that potentially this will be more challenging for the millennial generation because they grew up in an instant world where they haven’t had to wait for or work for things in the same way. They expect instant responses to messages, and instant delivery from online shopping. It may be counter-cultural for them to invest time and energy at working at physical intimacy. But sex in committed relationships usually does lose its spontaneity whatever age we are. If it is planned however, there is the opportunity for increased anticipation, excitement and desire.
Sex should be enjoyable!
It sounds simple but we are much more likely to have sex more if we actually enjoy it! It is important to review what we are doing sexually regularly. If one partner is finding sex unsatisfying, they will struggle to get aroused, possibly leading to such difficulties such as erectile dysfunction or dyspareunia (painful sex). Or we might be tempted to rely on masturbation with pornography, using solo sex to satisfy our needs and therefore not our partner.
Research has shown that men and women function very differently when it comes to sexual desire. Men are more likely to have more spontaneous desire, whereas women are more likely to be in sexual ‘neutral’. They don’t not want sex but they are not actively seeking it in the way their partners might be. Interestingly if a woman is able to get sexually aroused in her body, sexual desire is likely to follow in her mind. So we have to think about how a woman might get sexually aroused physically.
Many couples find that if a woman struggles to get aroused, the pressure to do so perpetuates the problem and this may dishearten both the woman and her partner. If she is not adequately sexually aroused, then vaginal penetration can be uncomfortable or even painful and, as a result, both partners may despair and give up on sexual intimacy.
Try a vaginal lubricant
Vaginal lubricants are often marketed at women who are either approaching the menopause, or already in it, but given the challenges the millennial generation are sharing, this advice should be given to every couple. A vaginal lubricant can add arousal through foreplay because it can enhance sensation and reduce discomfort, and it works even better with a vibrator for clitoral stimulation.
Sex therapists Metz and McCarthy talk about the ‘Good enough sex model’. To think sex could be just ‘good enough’ is very alien in a society that demands perfection, but if we embrace this idea, we can lay aside our expectations and that just enjoy whatever happens. Sometimes sex will be passionate and deeply satisfying and sometimes it will be good or perhaps a bit boring. This is okay. I rarely meet a couple, millennial or not, who say they wish they hadn’t tried intimacy, even if it is not earth-shattering. Most say they find it is really bonding and they don’t know why they don’t do it more. There is hope for us all…whatever our age.
Written by Emma Waring – Psychosexual Nurse therapist, and author of Seasons of Sex and Intimacy.