The American comedian Steve Martin has a gag about wives not wanting sex: “You know that look women get when they want sex? Me neither.”
It’s a classic married man joke but few husbands find it very funny.
It’s real life, for a lot of them. Most women go off sex in long-term relationships. I was recently looking at a graph from Florida University plotting couples’ sexual desire over the first four years of a marriage. At the start there was already a gap between the two partners but while the men’s levels remained pretty steady, women’s desire just dropped through the floor.
Here we have our own Sex in Australia survey of over 20,000 people which found 55 per cent of women experience low desire. All the evidence suggests there’s a biological issue at the heart of the problem. Men have up to 20 times the level of testosterone than women do and that’s a big part of the gap in desire. Just one of life’s dirty tricks.
So, it is not wrong for women to not want sex once the marriage settles in – it’s incredibly common. But does that really mean it is fine for wives to just shut up shop? That’s what’s happening in a lot of marriages today – that if the woman doesn’t want sex it just doesn’t happen. To me that’s what’s wrong.
I’ve recently put out a YouTube video spelling out what it’s like for sex-starved husbands to spend their lives being constantly rejected. Women think it’s just about men getting their rocks off, seeking sexual relief. “Oh, for goodness sake – go have a cold shower or run around the oval,” women tell their men. But that’s nonsense. All men know they can masturbate to relieve sexual frustration.
Being in a sexless marriage means never feeling wanted and often not feeling loved. It means that the one thing that really matters to you is being totally ignored, while endlessly hearing about your partner’s wants and needs. Sex is a really big want for most men, the thing that is top of the list of what’s missing from their marriages.
Physical intimacy gives men that deep sense of connection with their partners. It really is about making love and without that special bond they might as well be living with a roommate or a sister. And that makes for a pretty lousy marriage.
When the boot is on the other foot most of the sex-starved wives really hate it. It’s actually far less common – most research studies find the incidence of men with low libido as less than 15 per cent. Sex therapists will tell you they are seeing plenty of these couples but that’s probably because wives who are constantly rejected are more likely to drag their husbands in for counselling.
Sexually rejected women will often berate themselves for their partner’s lack of interest – doesn’t he find her attractive anymore, is he having an affair? There’s actually a huge range of reasons why a man may not want sex, including health issues like depression, medications, relationship problems, fatigue and stress. And older men sometimes avoid sex rather than risk failure when their equipment lets them down.
So there are many good reasons many women and some men might not want sex. But the bottom line is the ‘low-desire’ person needs to consider the impact of constant rejection on their partner and on their marriage.
For a start that means being willing to talk about it – rather than pretending it is just not happening. You go to bed together every night and this is a mighty big elephant taking up far too much space in your bedroom.
But also you need to do something about it. There’s a heap of good self-help books to help negotiate this tricky issue. Even if you don’t feel like sex yourself there are plenty of ways of giving sexual pleasure – and that also applies to older men with capricious penises. With new research showing many women can experience sexual pleasure without prior desire it’s worth exploring whether desire might kick in when you get going, providing you can get your head in the right place to anticipate pleasure.
It’s crazy how hard some women work to please their husbands. They cook three course meals, spend hours in a shopping centre looking for his favourite underpants when a ten-minute bonk every now and then would make that man a lot happier than a lot of the things she does for him.
Bettina Arndt was one of Australia’s first sex therapists. Bettina then became a social commentator writing mainly on men’s issues. She’s also working as an online dating coach.