As the response to the Covid-19 pandemic strips us of our normal routines and forces us to spend more time indoors with each other, our sex lives may also be feeling the strain.
The situation is not helped by the myriad myths around how we should behave as sexual beings.
Those inaccurate notions passed down through society can undermine how we feel as a person and affect how we behave sexually with our long term partners.
Such as the belief that we all have a fixed ‘sex drive’ — like a hunger that is beyond our control, and so when we don’t feel desire randomly and frequently, for our long-term partner, there must be something inherently wrong with us.
Or that we all believe everyone else is having sex (unlike us) three times a week, feeding our sense of inadequacy, when in fact recent research in Britain reveals that the average person is having sex less than once a week, or about three times a month, a situation which is likely to be mirrored here.
One woman who has professionally experienced first-hand the damage created by such incorrect assumptions about sex, is 41-year-old British-based clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and psychosexologist, Dr Karen Gurney, who has been working with clients in the NHS for the past 16 years and more recently also in the London-based, Havelock Clinic.
“There aren’t so many areas of science where we have got it so wrong for so long, that gross inaccuracy has seeped into our collective psyche, but sex is one of these,” says Gurney, who is a mother of two young boys.
And yes, sex is a science. “If you don’t make the study of sex a science, then all we are left with is the bias, opinions and the skewed impact of cultural values and assumptions,” she tells Feelgood.
It doesn’t help also when we don’t talk about it with our partners and so are left with those ideas we have absorbed, that are dictated by shame, religion, culture, and politics, which she says “are at the root of many of our sexual problems”.
Thanks to the science, for instance, professionals like Gurney who is a self-professed “total sex-research geek”, can pass down her knowledge from the surprising new discoveries in the past few decades.
That’s why she has written a book called Mind the Gap: The truth about desire, and how to future proof your sex life.
“Worldwide we have high levels of sexual dissatisfaction and sexual problems and a lot of that comes from all the things we don’t know, but need to know,” says Gurney. “It’s worse for women than it is for men, which is partly why I wrote the book. And it’s worse in relation to desire, than any other thing.”
Which brings us back to that so-called sex drive: “It’s based on a male model from sex science in the ’60s, but it’s now been replaced with new ideas of how desire works, but specifically about desire for women,” she says.
“It feels like there is something wrong with them and their relationship. And the reality is that there isn’t — and that all they actually need is to understand how desire works. And for their partners to understand that and then for them to be able to make a decision about whether they want to do something about that or not.”
Desire needs to be cultivated, it needs to be triggered, it’s not just there “out of the blue”, she says. “If we don’t know how desire works, we don’t make time for it because we are expecting it just to happen and therefore it doesn’t happen.
“We often position people’s motivation for sex around a physical need — around releasing a physical urge, and especially for men, we position it as that ‘sex drive’; there’s an itch they need to scratch and that’s what sex is about.
“To be honest that does men a disservice because for men, the same way as women, often the motivations that sex is meeting, are not about a physical itch, but are about something psychological — like they want to feel good about themselves, they want to feel wanted, they want to feel connected to their partner.”
In fact, research has shown that there are over 200 reasons we have sex. And although we may be in a really good relationship, it does not mean we are having good sex, simply because it’s the habits we fall into that can get in the way of desire, even in the most solid relationship.
So, unsexy as it may seem — especially if we buy into the ‘tear off your clothes now’ drive myth, we need to prioritise and nurture creating desire, in the same way that we include exercise and diet, for instance, in our ‘to do’ list.
One of the ways to trigger desire and to “sustain our sex lives over the long term”, is for couples to intentionally work on what Gurney calls their “sexual currency” (see sidebar), which is the amount a couple relate to each other as sexual partners, not just as housemates, friends, or co-parents.
“So one of the reasons it’s more challenging to maintain desire in a long-term relationship, is that the sexual relationship is diluted by all those other roles. But we know that couples who tend to keep satisfaction up even after four or five decades, they do it because they prioritise relating to each other in that way.”
Increasing sexual currency doesn’t have to take up much time: the intention and application can be subtle. “It can be things like turning a peck on the cheek into a four or five second more passionate kiss,” she says.
Increasing sexual currency is about keeping up sexual connection close to the forefront of what’s important to us in our relationship.
“But it’s also a way of triggering desire, because of course the more you have short but passionate kisses, the less when your partner kisses you passionately, you think ‘I know what they want, and I don’t want that now — so I’m going to stop that kiss’.
“This is often what happens when their partner approaches them and, instead of welcoming it and thinking ‘oh this is nice, I will just enjoy this kiss and see if it triggers my desire’, they think ‘I’m not feeling desire, so no’. And that’s why desire isn’t triggered and it becomes a vicious cycle.”
Reward — that is emotional and physical satisfaction, is also important — as pleasure motivates us and influences our desire.
Which leads to another myth, discussed in the book — that women don’t orgasm as easily as men. Scientists refer to the “orgasm gap”, whereby 95% of men orgasm during heterosexual sex, compared with 65% of women.
Yet, Gurney says, research proves that the same number of women as men — 95% — reliably orgasm quickly from masturbation, or when exposed to porn and erotic stimulation.
So why the gap? It is down to the gendered difference in pleasure which is biased towards penetrative sex, and whether it is the man or woman’s pleasure that is prioritised when they have sex together, she says.
“Heterosexual women are often having the types of sex that are not the ultimate for their anatomy, (such as clitoral stimulation), then feeling shame and guilt for not experiencing the ‘right amount’ of pleasure or orgasm, from those experiences,” says Gurney.
Research shows that roughly 50 -65% of women report having faked or regularly fake orgasms and also tend to blame themselves rather than external factors such as the type of sex they are having, or societal influences.
Not getting the physical reward, of course, impacts on our motivation for sex, our desire, which keeps that vicious cycle going. Because of those “negative sex” cultural influences we are all influenced by, we can also get bogged down in not talking to our partners about our sexual needs and feelings.
But, as Gurney points out, research indicates that people who are more able to talk about sex with partners enjoy their sex lives more and communicating about sex, acts as a buffer to a drop in desire.
Given couples are now with each other almost 24 hours a day, it could could be the ideal opportunity to start a new conversation about desire, sex and satisfaction.
Follow Dr Karen Gurney on Instagram at @thesexdoctor and on Twitter at karengurney5
Mind the Gap: The truth about desire, and how to future proof your sex life by Dr Karen Gurney (Headline Home, €16.20)