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The Love Issue: Is Your Sex Drive Normal?

How often do you have sex? So regularly you lose track? Once in a blue moon, or on every birthday? Or precisely twice a month, diarized, like Comedian Katherine Ryan?

In a recent interview with The Times, the comedian was both open and specific about the nature of her marital relations; she and her husband Bobby Koostra “have sex exactly twice a month.” Ryan logs it every time, “in case I do get pregnant.”

Whether this revelation engendered a ‘wow, that’s pretty often’ or an ‘actually, that feels modestly achievable’ reaction, it’s rare to hear anyone actually admitting how much – or little – sex they have. Ryan’s refreshing admission has done us all a favor – not least because it opens up the conversation. 

So, is there such a thing as normal when it comes to how often we’re having sex? And, while  it’s not a competition, is there an optimal number of times we should be doing it for a healthy sex life?

When it comes to optimal, a 2015 study of over 30,000 adults seemed to suggest that having sex once a week is the ideal for maximum wellbeing; any more than that and the happiness level of a couple actually levels off. Those findings could be correlational rather than causal, however: research from the online doctor Lloyds Pharmacy found that 52 per cent of Britons have sex once a week; 2020 research from the American National Institute of Health found that the majority of married couples surveyed had sex “weekly” – 60.9 per cent of women (although possibly strangely, only 57.7 per cent of men) – compared to, for example, those who indulged only “once or twice a year” (5.5 per cent and 5.2 per cent respectively). 

As that slightly odd percentage difference shows, however, we can be incredibly diffident when it comes to ‘fessing up about what we get up to between the sheets, and, in our sex-obsessed society, it’s easy to assume everyone else is getting a lot more than we are.

A 2018 Ipsos survey asked men and women to estimate how often other people were having sex; the women guessed men were getting laid 13-15 times a month, while the men guessed the women had sex a frankly astonishing 23 times a month. 

‘Yeah, right’ would seem to be the likely reaction to those sorts of numbers, judging by an unscientific straw poll of my female friends. “How often are you all having sex?” I inquired of my book club. “[I have an] 11-week-old baby – what do you think?” replies one. “At this point I think I’ve forgotten what it is – egg freezing is a mojo murderer” says another. “Errr…” responds a third. 

“I think it’s quite hard to put an average on it,” admits another friend in her 40s with three children. “We’ll go through phases. Sometimes we might have sex three consecutive days; other times not for two weeks. It’s always more if we’re out of our domestic context, which I don’t think is a coincidence.” 

One friend of a friend barely bothers with sex anymore as she suffers from recurrent UTIs. Another says she hasn’t had sex with her husband in over three months, although insists that isn’t representative of the state of their otherwise rock-solid marriage. The most recent UK National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, from 2012, showed a 20 per cent drop in the amount of sex being had in the UK since the previous survey in 2000, particularly among partnered couples over 25. Gen Z-ers, meanwhile, are famous for having less sex than their predecessors – numerous studies have pointed to the trend.

So, it’s complicated. And there’s also obviously a difference between having sex, and actually wanting to have sex which is where a mismatch in a couple can become tricky. The latter state can also be further subdivided into sex drive and sexual desire. The former is essentially libido, or, well, horniness. Sexual desire is our interest in sexual activity. The two often go hand in hand, but not always. As one woman I talked to puts it: “I am attracted to my husband; I want to have sex with him. But I just never feel horny.”

It’s not surprising. There are an awful lot of things that can get in the way of both having sex, and wanting it, especially for women and when it comes to midlife. Children, menopause, exhaustion, mental health, testosterone, weight gain, medical conditions, medications – the list is seemingly endless. 

A recent survey from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that the flames of passion die far quicker for married women than for their husbands, possibly because they spend more time on household chores and cooking, which kills the urge somewhat. “If my husband’s been lolling on the sofa watching television while I’ve been doing yet another load of laundry and cooking dinner, the last thing I want to do is have sex with him,” admits one friend.

 “My sex drive – the actual feeling of wanting to have sex – is now so dependent on where I am in my cycle,” says another friend in her mid-40s. “I almost certainly know when I’m ovulating because my sex drive is higher. I worry if we don’t have sex quite regularly,” she says, but adds: “If, as a couple, you wait for the stars to align, when everyone feels like it and you’re not too tired and there’s clean sheets on the bed and all the kids are asleep – well, there are just too many obstacles. Sometimes you have to just do it.” Another mid-life married friend likens having sex to putting the bins out or going to the gym; things she never feels like doing at the time, but knows she’ll be glad about afterwards. 

Is that the solution then: to put out and shut up? Should we be diarzing sex like we do meetings? And what really happens when one of you wants it much more often than the other?

There’s no doubt that sex is demonstrably beneficial for both a relationship and your overall health. On the straightforward health front, good sex lowers blood pressure, boosts your immune system, serves as an immediate form of natural pain relief and promotes good sleep. Relationally, regular sex can be an instant way to establish connection, and is linked to a lower divorce rate in married couples. 

“I’m super aware of it being a really easy way to reconnect and re-establish intimacy,” says my mother-of-three friend. “When you’ve got kids and you’re both working it can be like running a small business together; sex is the only thing that distinguishes your relationship from many of the others in your life. I almost immediately feel better about our relationship when we have sex.” 

Difficulties can arise, however, if your desire levels are out of whack. “If your libido is matched, it’s not a problem if you have sex every night or once a year,” says Mary Clare Gormley, relationship counselor. When the mismatch happens, however, things can get tricky: not only can resentment build, driving a couple yet further apart, but at the extreme, a lack of synchronized sex can lead to one half looking for sex elsewhere. 

So what should you do if you feel you need to get back on track in the bedroom?

First of all, take an honest look at how often you do it, and whether you’re both happy with that. Being able to have open communication here is key, says Gormley. “If you feel satisfied and happy and you’re having sex every six months and that’s your normal, fine,” says Tatiana Aitken, psycho-sexual therapist . If we’re not satisfied, she says, we need to listen to ourselves and try and work out what it is we want, and how we can get there. “Explore your own body,” she advises. “Get to know your likes and dislikes; if you have that desire inside to have more sex but don’t feel it in your body, it may be that the way you’re doing it doesn’t quite resonate.” 

Cyndi Darnell, a sex therapist and the author of Sex, When You Don’t Feel Like it: The Truth About Mismatched Libido and Rediscovering Desire, agrees. “What kind of sex are we having, and who is it for?” she asks. “Is the kind of sex we’re having the sort we want? A lot of people with so-called low libido actually only ‘suffer’ that in response to the quality of the sex they’re having, which is a much more important issue than the quantity.” 

This can be particularly true for women, she says, for whom ‘intercourse sex’ – what Darnell defines as “the white bread of the sex world” – is not often the most enjoyable. Sex, she says, “is a deep intimacy, but it’s a deep intimacy with ourselves. And if you don’t have a connection to yourself, how are you going to connect to someone else?”

Of course, actually connecting with your own desires can be tricky, especially for women. In a 2017 interview, the American psychotherapist Esther Perel nailed the issue.

“In order to actually be sexual – which means to be inside her own mounting pleasures, sensations, excitement and connection – she needs to be able to not think about others,” she says. “To think about others will take her outside the woman role and into the care-taking and mother role.” As any mother will tell you, this is tricky at the best of times, especially if you’ve only got half an hour with the kids downstairs watching television.

Is there merit, then, in the sort of diarized sex that Ryan and Koostra are having? “It’s not the world’s worst idea,” admits Gormley. “It’s about saying ‘I’m present, and I’ll get there’.”

“I’m often surprised by the extent to which, even if I wasn’t in the mood and didn’t instigate it, sex can be amazing,” acknowledges my mother-of-three friend. “That makes me think you should never turn the opportunity down because you never know how it’s going to go.” 

For men in particular, says Perel, “sex is the language through which men have license to ask for love, tenderness, surrender, sensuality, affection and more. Often sex is the only keyhole he has to fulfill these emotional needs.” And having the power, as a woman, to fulfill those needs can in itself be a turn-on.

The good news is, it seems things can get better with age. Recent research conducted by care home provider KYN found that one in five people over 70 are still sexually active, and 36 per cent say their desire and libido have not decreased as they got older. 

A large-scale study conducted in the US by Cosmopolitan magazine and the Kinsey Institute meanwhile found that 74 percent of women over 60 said their orgasms are just as good or better than ever, and that “an expanded definition of what it means to get your groove on” means sex can get even hotter in your golden years. 

The key thing in all of this, is that not feeling like something is different to not wanting it.

If you don’t want something, don’t do it. If you don’t feel like it – well, that’s the bit to explore.

Nail that (if you’ll pardon the pun) and who knows where your sex life could end up? 

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