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Why we’re not having sex
Last summer, Sophie Fontanel published The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex. The book chronicles 12 years of celibacy by choice, first embraced when the author was 27. “I’d had it with handing myself over,” she writes. “I’d said yes too much. I hadn’t taken into account the tranquility my body required.” Fontanel is a long-time editor at ELLE France, and people were alarmed by the idea that a Frenchwoman—a member of the nation that practically invented seduction—would trade in the excitement of someone else’s warm hands for the calm of lavender milk baths and a cold bed.
But Fontanel is not the only one sleeping alone. While most of us haven’t deliberately turned to celibacy, recent research claims that people across the developed world—including Canada, the U.S., the U.K., France and Japan—are having less sex (typically defined as intercourse) than a generation ago.
A 2013 study published in The Lancet found that Britons aged 16 to 44 reported having sex less than five times a month—down from over six times a month in 1990. A 2011 study from pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly found that Canadians have sex less often than the global average— 1.35 times a week versus 1.41—and are less spontaneous. We’re also highly likely to blame “fatigue” for our lack of libido. A 2010 National Sleep Foundation study found that 25 percent of Americans reported “often” being too tired for sex. Despite all of the hand-wringing about youth “hookup culture,” 2013 research from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services found that almost a third of Canadian students reported zero sexual partners in the previous year. In Japan, only 34 percent of people report having sex even weekly, and custom homes are reportedly being built with separate his-and-hers bedrooms. A 2014 survey found that even Frenchwomen choose food over sex: 74 percent prefer a gourmet meal. (Mon dieu.)
The consensus appears to be that sex is in some way incompatible with modern life—everything from stagnant wages and technology to the breakdown of traditional gender roles and heightened individualism is being blamed for keeping us out of the bedroom (and, for the slightly more energetic, off the kitchen counter). The fact that we’re having less sex taps into concerns about whether we’re becoming more detached from not just our communities and neighbours but also the people with whom we might share a bed.
There’s no question that our contemporary attention spans—both inside and outside the bedroom—are increasingly fragmented. The 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada found that two-thirds of Canadians work more than 45 hours a week—that’s up 50 percent from 20 years ago. And one-third of Canadians reported that overextension in both professional and family obligations frequently saps their energy and causes interrupted sleep—hardly the conditions for romance.
Trina Read, a sexologist in Calgary, says that having less sex is yet another facet of the struggle to have it all. “You can’t work fulltime, be a super-attentive mom, still see your friends and have the same amount of sex,” she says. “We have this idea that sex should always be spontaneous, that if you’re with the right person it will just happen. But the reality is that a lot of planning and intention has to go into a healthy sex life—especially when you’re working 60 hours a week.”
Even when we’re not at work or stressing about it, we’re increasingly plugged into a virtual world—and it extends beyond texting during dinner. “People are taking their iPhones and iPads into bed,” Kaye Wellings, head of social and environmental health research at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, noted in the study in The Lancet. In fact, one 2013 study found that 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 admit to using their smartphone during sex. And a 2013 survey by The Huffington Post found that 48 percent of women would choose their smartphones over intimacy.
Dr. Cath Mercer, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Sexual Health & HIV Research at University College London, says our connectivity and increasing dependence on the Internet is making things worse. “Come bedtime, we’re still too connected to everyone and everything out there to be able to focus just on our partner,” said Mercer in a recent TEDx Talk. “If you’ve just paid your parking fine online and you happen to clock an email from your boss about a team meeting, it’s not really going to put you in the right frame of mind.” It’s also possible that we’re having less sex because living arrangements have changed significantly. More Canadians now live alone than at any point in our history. In 2012, 27.6 percent of Canadian homes had only one occupant versus 13.4 percent in 1971. “People are now less likely to be married and partnered and more likely to be single and divorced—and that alone can do it,” says Sharon Sassler, a social demographer at Cornell University. “People often think singles have more sex than married people because we’ve heard such terrible things about what marriage does to your sex life. But the reality is that a regular partner increases both your access to and likelihood of sex.”
The news, then, appears to be grim. The evidence is mounting that we’re turning into a society of sexless robots, preferring screen time, overtime and alone time to actual human contact. But Cynthia Graham, senior lecturer in health psychology at the University of Southampton and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sex Research, says that there’s another side to the story.
“When the results of the Lancet study came out, all of the media stories showed pictures of women in bed with laptops— and it was almost always the women,” says Graham with a laugh. But while there might be a decline in intercourse, there has been an increase in other kinds of activities, including oral sex and, in particular, anal sex. Also, women are reporting significantly more sexual activity with other women and increased vibrator use, and both sexes are reporting more partners. “There’s evidence that there is more experimentation and exploration—by both couples and individuals,” says Graham.
Even as we’re condemned for losing touch with others—both literally and figuratively— we appear to be gaining a greater grasp of our own wants and needs. “Yes, modern life is complicated and stressful,” says Sassler. “But maybe a hundred years ago, women weren’t even allowed to enjoy sex.” (It’s worth noting that, in a recent Durex study, only 31 percent of Canadian women reported that they regularly have an orgasm during intercourse, but almost 70 percent claimed to be sexually satisfied.)
Sassler says that university-educated women—in Canada, approximately three-quarters of women aged 25 to 44 have a post-secondary education—tend to be more assertive in their relationships, especially when it comes to making their needs clear. And recent data shows that egalitarian couples have both slightly more sex and more sexual satisfaction than couples that have a more conventional distribution of household labour.
For many, domestic parity will never rise to the level of aphrodisiac. (I’ve yet to hear anyone yell “I’m folding the laundry!” in a fit of passion.) But those statistics speak to the possible success of a more modern partnership. The past 50 years have seen a dramatic reorganization of not just how we live, work and watch television but also gender and relationship norms. It only makes sense that we might see those changes reflected in our sexual habits.
Yes, we might increasingly reach for our iPhones when we do finally collapse into bed at night, but less-frequent sex has been accompanied by an expansion of sexual choice—both how we partner and with whom. “There are a lot of taboos that are being broken, and I think people are becoming more open in terms of attitudes and behaviours,” says Graham. “People aren’t just looking at heterosexual intercourse as the be-all and end-all.”