Not Tonight, Dear, I Have a Headache

Debbie says:

I saw this article a few days ago, and I’m still thinking about it. The premise is that (married) men are showing less interest in sex:

Relate, which provides counselling, sex therapy and relationship education, said there had been a 40 per cent increase in male clients admitting that, despite being physically able to have sex, they can’t be bothered.

‘Men used to come to us with impotence – now known as erectile insufficiency – but Viagra has sorted some of that problem,’ said Peter Bell, Relate’s head of practice. ‘What we have is a lot of men who say, as women did in the Fifties: “I can have sex, but I don’t want to. It’s not rewarding”.’

Unsurprisiingly, the article itself engages in a combination of thinly-veiled evolutionary psychology (“men are turned on by the thrill of the chase”) and thinly-veiled blaming of women:

Bell said the problem is ‘partly because women are more aware of what they want sexually and are prepared to ask for it’. He added: ‘I think it’s also that men and women are more sexually similar than they like to think. It is traditionally believed that, while women only enjoyed sex if it happened in the context of a positive and nurturing relationship, men could always be turned on by visual cues alone. But what we’re seeing is that, once the thrill of the chase has disappeared and the sex is happening in a committed relationship, the libido of both men and women is affected by the quality of the relationship they are in.’

Oursin, who pointed at this article, suggests that this situation may always have been true and now be coming to light, which I also find plausible.

But I keep thinking about yet another explanation. Before I clicked Oursin’s link, I was already thinking about the role of Viagra, and was pleased to see that the article mentioned it up front.

Another unaddressed question is what else these married men are doing. Do they have mistresses? Are they seeing prostitutes? Are they jerking off?

Then there’s the piece I find particularly interesting. In a purely physical sense, human women are effectively always “ready” for sex. For tens of thousands of years, it has been physically possible to have penetrative sex with a woman regardless of her emotional or mental state or willingness to participate. Historically, (most) men have needed a wide variety of special circumstances and preparations to get hard. Viagra and its brothers have changed all that; a man can be physically ready at the crush of a small blue pill.

So maybe part of the story is, as Peter Bell would have it, that “men and women are more sexually similar than they think.” Maybe when married men are as readily “available” to their wives as wives have historically been to their husbands, the power dynamic shifts. Maybe it’s not so much that wives know how to ask for what they want as that husbands are in unmapped territory. Before, their penises told them whether or not they were “ready” for sex at any given time; now, it’s much more complicated.

7 thoughts on “Not Tonight, Dear, I Have a Headache

  1. For some reason I always think of the scene around p. 350 in The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the Victorian era hero and heroine have an erotic encounter that takes “precisely 90 seconds” with most of that time taken up with “Oh, we shouldn’t” and “this is madness” and ripping off various items of clothing. The actual penetration happened only in the last few seconds and was followed nearly simultaneously by ejaculation. Nowadays the man might be conscious of having perpetrated a dysfunctional sex act and be encouraged to work on the problem. The Victorian couple in the book, while guilt-ridden, remained ignorant that their encounter did not measure up to any exacting standards of sexual performance.

    I think we now have so much information and such pornographically detailed agendas to meet that anxiety could easily take a lot of the fun out of it. No one wants a return to the bad old days of, “look at the ceiling–this won’t take long” but I kept thinking how much more work is involved in a sexual encounter now than in the squirt-and-run-before-she-changes-her-mind era.

  2. Another unaddressed question is what else these married men are doing. Do they have mistresses? Are they seeing prostitutes? Are they jerking off?

    I think the article was pretty clear that they’re not doing any of that. Which is what’s wierd.

    From the article:
    “It is a serious issue. It counts as a psychosexual dysfunction, rather than just a relationship problem, because these men haven’t simply gone off their partner, but off sex altogether.”
    “The curious thing is that I can get erections, and I don’t fancy or fantasise about other women. It’s just that, over the years, my desire to have sex with anyone at all has faded.”

    Then there’s the piece I find particularly interesting. In a purely physical sense, human women are effectively always “ready” for sex.

    I really disagree. Maybe we just define “ready” differently.

  3. I haven’t sampled all that many men, nor have I made any attempt to consider a random cross section, but my observations have been that only very young men are instantly ready for sex. For a man approaching middle age (especially one in imperfect health), the spirit can be willing quite some time before before the flesh catches up. Despite the advertising, my experience was that using chemical assistance did not make the preparation go that much faster than doing it by hand. Though there were differences in reliability and in how it felt for both of us.

    I’ve noticed a lot of disconnects between how sex happens and how we usually talk and write about it. It seems very hard to talk about sex without some kind of wishful thinking, even when the tone is blunt and unromantic. (Even when the tone is deliberately crude, details are still idealized away, just in a different way.) Most of my thinking about sex tends to get idealized, even in private. I don’t mean anything about relationship structure or appearances, but editing out inconvenient interruptions or uncooperative physiological details that get in the way. (Not like the fantasies in which I have a convenient third hand. Just like the ordinary fantasies in which my right hand just does what I want, quietly and without any fuss, like it used to.) My boyfriend doesn’t say, in so many words, that he wants to have sex with the physical energy he had 20 years ago and the emotional skill he’s learned over those years…but that’s the pattern of how we talk about sex.

  4. Hi Toby,

    First point: you said “Oursin, who pointed at this article, suggests that this situation may always have been true and now be coming to light, which I also find plausible.” You mention Viagra and I’m pretty sure what’s coming up is that it’s basically unmasking a previously unnoticed difference between unable and uninterested. There really can be lots of different reasons for men’s “headaches,” from depression (a big one, I suspect) to masturbation/affairs, to alienation, to loss of attraction, to… whatever. But that’s obviously true for women as well, which gets to your next great point: “men and women are more sexually similar than they think.” “Doctor” John Gray can talk about Mars and Venus all day long but almost everything he, or anyone else points to, has way more to do with situations and indoctrination and very little to do with biology.

    I’m especially liking the conversation about male readiness and changes in women’s expectations. One of the huge advantages men have had in the readiness department has been the assumption that initiation is all up to them. No interest has therefore meant no initiation, with pretty much everyone from pastors to passers by available to tell the deprived wife she should consider it a blessing. With women, especially older women (facing their generally *even older* partners), less willing to stifle their own sexual interest, and willing, able to assert their own desire *when* they desire, men are suddenly discovering the same mental states and considerations that might once have weighed on their partners are not, in fact, *gender* differences but situational ones. If she’s ready again and you’re not, it’s no for either party than when he’s ready again and she’s not.

    I actually think this is great, by the way. Because if we can unlink the assumptions that “oh, it’s all just gender” then maybe we can actually start *looking at it as if it was a problem* instead of just biological/gender/evolutionary/whatever inevitability.

    Great post! Kind of exciting news. Thanks!


  5. Quick follow-up: The Observer article was about relationship counseling so it wouldn’t have captured what’s going on with single men or women. I’m going to guess, though, that a search would turn up roughly equal numbers of disinterested single men and women — being single, though, I suspect they’re not going to show up for counseling and in fact might not particularly notice their lack of interest. (It seems like it’s the sort of thing someone else, like a still-interested partner — probably has to point out to you.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *