It makes us feel good and costs us nothing. So why aren’t we having more of it? Sharon Walker investigates the decline in sex
“The very thought of you has my legs spread apart like an easel with a canvas begging for art.” That is how the 27-year-old Canadian poet Rupi Kaur writes about sex. Urgent, powerful and raw, her bittersweet poems about sexuality, femininity and survival can be read on Instagram, where she first found her audience. The Instagram generation clearly connects, as Kaur’s first book, Milk and Honey, is a global bestseller. It is perplexing, therefore, to learn that sex is fast becoming that quaint, old-fashioned thing we did before we had tech. No one is making out like teenagers anymore, least of all teens. It’s too soon to say what self-isolation has done for our sex lives, but pre-corona, fewer than half of men and women in Britain aged between 16 and 44 had been having sex at least once a week, according to recent research published in The BMJ. The teen pregnancy rate is down (a good thing), but condom sales are also plummeting.
All the data seemingly points to one fact: we are mired in the midst of a worldwide “sex recession”, with one possible cause being our need for the perpetual scroll and swipe. As one recent survey by This Works demonstrates, the under-45s spent more time scrolling than on any other activity, besides sleep, in bed. Sex scored a lacklustre sixth place, after the phone, chatting, watching TV, cuddling and reading.
“We’re all too switched on all the time,” says psychosexual and relationship therapist Kate Moyle. “For sex you need to switch off. We only have a certain amount of attention available, and when we’re distracted it’s more difficult to get into the sexual headspace.” Even when we’re outside the bedroom, the pull of our notifications is making it less likely that we’ll connect. “Those moments that create intimacy aren’t happening,” says Moyle. “Tech puts up a barrier.”
Does it matter that we’re getting our dopamine highs from social media instead of orgasms? Moyle thinks so. “Humans are primed for connection and pleasure is good for us, it can help us sleep, combat stress and boost self-esteem. If you’re the object of someone’s desire, that’s quite exciting. The other big thing is it’s an escape. When you can just focus on the pleasurable experience, you’re in a different zone.” It’s no coincidence that orgasm lights up the same part of the brain as a deep meditative state.
The psychological benefits can also be far-reaching. While sex isn’t a cure for anxiety or depression, the cocktail of uplifting hormones released at orgasm may temporarily help ease the symptoms. Research by scientists at Arizona State University found that women who had had sex the day before reported a more positive mood and less stress, compared with those who had been abstinent.
Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute, adds that a spike in love chemicals can also make us more dynamic and determined. “Romantic love is good for you because the dopamine system gives you energy, optimism, focus and motivation,” she says. “When you have an orgasm you have a flood of oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of attachment and calm.” Not only that, this clever chemical may even stop us straying, as research shows men in monogamous relationships who were given a dose of oxytocin were more likely to stay away from other potential partners. Post-coital bliss could even spill over into other areas of your life, with the afterglow lasting up to 48 hours. One 2017 study at Oregon State University found that sex – the night before or in the morning – improves focus at work.
But while it’s clear we need to reintroduce sex to our lives if it is lacking, does it really matter how often we have it? Clinical psychologist Dr Karen Gurney, whose book Mind the Gap sets out to dispel some long-held sexual myths, thinks worrying about the frequency of sex is “a massive red herring”. The crucial factor is that sex is pleasurable, since you will only enjoy the health benefits if you’re having orgasms.
“When I meet a couple at my clinic, I’m not the slightest bit concerned with how often they are having sex,” she says. “If it blows you away when it happens and it feels like it’s everything you want it to be, then it doesn’t matter if it’s once a month or once a year,” she says.
Rather than obsessing over the frequency, Dr Gurney recommends raising “sexual currency” throughout the relationship. “So even when you’re not having sex you feel like a sexual couple. It could be the way you look at each other across the table at a dinner party. Or that you grab them when you’re making tea for the kids.” Likewise, Moyle suggests making space for sex. The This Works Love Sleep range has been designed with this specifically in mind, using a blend of ylang-ylang, frankincense and patchouli to help us switch off and get us in the mood. “If you use a This Works Love Sleep Breathe roll-on when you leave work, and when you get home you turn on a diffuser or light a candle, then you’re setting the scene and psychologically setting an intention for sex,” she says. “Anticipation is the best aphrodisiac.”