"Take your onesie off," my boyfriend whispered in the dark while slowly caressing my leg on a cold evening in December. I paused, confused. "What?" I asked, checking I'd heard him correctly.
"Take your onesie off," he said again. That's when I burst into a fit of hysterical laughter. "I'm not wearing one," I laughed, before explaining – through the snorts – that I was in fact naked. I wasn't wearing the fleece onesie that I'd been slobbing in all evening while we binge-watched Line of Duty; I just hadn't shaved my legs in three weeks.
This, you might say, was a sexual low point in our relationship (not to mention a personal grooming one on my part). A sign that I’d gotten too comfortable, that our sex life wasn’t as rampant as it once was; something that comes with the territory of a long-term relationship.
I’ve been with my now husband for nine years. In the early days of our relationship, we’d have sex three or four times a week. This slowly tailed off to a solid once a week; nowadays, it varies. Sometimes a few weeks will pass before we do it, and on the rare occasion that we somehow find the time and energy to have sex more than once in a week, we feel like sex gods.
It turns out we aren’t alone. New research shows that sex is on the decline in Britain. According to a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which surveyed 34,000 people in the UK, sexual activity has fallen from 2001 to 2012, with the steepest decline among the over-25s and those who are married or cohabiting. It revealed that fewer than half of men and women have sex at least once a week, and over 29% said they hadn’t had sex in the past month.
The reason? Researchers can only speculate, but Professor Kaye Wellings and the team who carried out the research point to the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the global recession in 2008 as two events that could be significant.
I’d be lying if I said that neither of these things have had an impact on our sex life. There have been times when my husband and I have spent 20 minutes lying in bed next to each other, scrolling through social media. We know we should be having sex but after a long, stressful day, we’re feeling tired and lazy; plus, this cat video is hilarious.
When I was made redundant we didn’t have sex for a few weeks, because my head was consumed with What the f*** do I do now? and Maybe I’m just not good enough thoughts. The last thing I needed to worry about was whether or not we should be having sex.
So why do we assume that having less sex is a bad thing? Perhaps the problem lies in our almost-pathological belief as a society that there’s a certain amount of sex we should be having. The researchers of the study admit that a more likely explanation for the decline in sexual activity is that nowadays, we feel less social pressure to exaggerate how often we have sex.
Women no longer feel that they must 'satisfy' their partner sexually, regardless of their own desires, to make sure they don’t go looking elsewhere; and men aren’t expected to exist in a permanent state of horniness, as if the number of times they get laid directly correlates to their masculinity.
When I revealed to my friends that I was writing this piece, a string of relieved 'us too' messages flooded our WhatsApp group. One friend revealed that she and her husband hadn’t had sex in over a month: "That’s toddlers and Game of Thrones for you." Another said it had been a few weeks, and she even blamed the rain: "It dampened my spirits. I just need a free weekend morning, you know?!"
Sure, we could all probably be prioritising sex more in our lives. But Peter Saddington, a sex therapist at Relate, agrees that it’s time we all stop chasing the mythical sex quota: "There is no 'normal', when it comes to how often you should have sex," he explains. "There’s no life manual that says you should be having 2.5 children, get married before you’re 30 and have sex three times a week, but never on a full moon. Every couple, every individual, is unique. It’s about what feels right for you. There will be some weeks when you want to do it more, and others when you just aren’t in the mood. As long as both of you are in agreement and feel happy with how often you have sex, there’s no need to worry."
I asked my husband what he thought: was he secretly disappointed and unsatisfied? "God, no!" he said. "You’d always like to have more, but I’m happy with how often we do it. I’d rather do it less and really enjoy it, than have sex just because we think we should."
After nine years together, my husband and I may not have sex as often as we used to, but we feel more connected and fulfilled in our relationship than ever before. We have Fajita Fridays, where we cook and drink wine before settling down to something binge-worthy on Netflix. We go for long hikes in the countryside, and discover new places together. Sunday nights are spent watching documentaries while we give each other foot rubs. All of these things make us feel close, even if they don’t lead to sex.
And research backs this up: studies show that blood pressure and heart rates drop in women during touching and cuddling, regardless of whether or not sex takes place. And intimacy, rather than passion, ranked highest in a survey about marital satisfaction and long-term relationships.
Intimacy is that sense of another person fully knowing you and loving you because of who you are – as well as in spite of it. It requires us to take a leap into rare honesty and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s a wonderful milestone to be able to forgo shaving for three weeks, or agree to skip sex so you can watch one more episode of something on Netflix, without worrying that your relationship is in trouble.
So what does sex look like for us in the future? Who knows. Maybe we’ll have more of it. Maybe we’ll have less. But I’m not worried. I hope that when we’re 80, we still hold hands when we watch our favourite TV show and have a silly dance while cooking in the kitchen. He feels like home, and that’s all that matters.