According to Esther Perel, the Belgian/American psychotherapist, there is an inherent tension between security and desire that has to be bridged for any successful sexual relationship. Careful retirement planning spiced up with sex toys or lingerie cannot bridge that gap, she explains, because the things that nurture love are the very same things that stifle desire. Love comes from selflessness and desire grows from selfishness.
In the 1980s I was as selfish as any 20-something-year-old today, with a lot less opportunity and information. No one had imagined a world where you had access to sex in your pocket 24/7 and yet we felt as if we were on the verge of a new frontier. We did the walk of shame home from ill-advised sleepovers after too much Blue Nun wine. We had the pill and we were financially independent – not true for our mothers. With no internet, our collective information about life, relationships and sex was gleaned from friends, music, films and the books we read. We were open and talked as honestly as we knew how, but in truth no one talked as honestly and openly as we all do today. Quite simply we didn’t have the vocabulary.
The talking stopped for most of us somewhere in our late 20s or early 30s as one by one we put on bouffant wedding gowns and paired off. At that point, it felt like a betrayal to discuss intimate details with outsiders. We circled the wagons. There was too much at stake. We had responsibilities, financial and emotional, we had jobs, we had children. That was enough, or so we told ourselves. The sexiest thing your partner could do, we’d say to each other, was take the children to the park and let us sleep in on a Sunday morning. What was there to say to your friends about sex when you could get tips on how your child could ace the 11 plus?
Of course, sex sometimes did come up. After the birth of a baby you might agree with a close girlfriend that there wasn’t much going on 'down there' or suggest that your partner was feeling a bit left out. Conventional wisdom had us believe that men were 'up for it' all the time and women were not, even if we also suspected this wasn’t quite the truth.
Eventually the children got into their chosen schools, we’d all remodelled our kitchens, secured the promotions or just given up worrying about things like that. That was when the divorces started in earnest: first a trickle, then thick and fast. Friends huddled together over coffee or glasses of wine in book clubs as lurid details bubbled out of sexual indiscretions or marriages with no sex at all. Recounting other people's disasters felt talismanic, as if chanting them in hushed female voices might somehow stop the spirits from turning their evil eyes back onto us.
Then one day, our children had grown and many more of us were on our own, widowed or divorced. We read in The Economist that worldwide almost 200 million people are now on dating apps looking for love and sex. That’s like the population of Brazil swiping left and right. There had to be something in it. We’d always prided ourselves on being on trend so maybe we’d give it a try. With less oestrogen in our bodies and fed up with years of looking after everyone else, we could afford to be selfish again. Only this time, maybe our demands were a little more straightforward – someone to go to the theatre with or to finally have some cracking good sex. We understood what we wanted and if we didn’t, we knew how to find out. We were less willing to put up with second best. And the newly single men we met were thinking that too. They were spending a lot of time in the gym. They’d bought the Viagra. They also suspected that things had moved on from the marital bed and they had the desire and the interest to find out what they could do about that too.
Eventually our happily married friends were curious too. Through single friends on the front line, they had an insight into a world they couldn’t safely access without the very real risk of financial and emotional ruin. They wanted to know more. They relayed stories to their husbands and feeling a bit competitive, some of their husbands started to suspect they might need to update their skills too. Was everyone else practising tantric sex? What was the deal with genital piercings?
Suddenly we felt like trailblazers again. We had the desire to make the best of a long marriage or to search in pastures new. We felt like we did in our 20s, without the Blue Nun and with an Uber home. We’d reopened the conversation with each other and ourselves and even if we weren’t as graphic as our children and their friends, we were talking again. It wasn’t only politics, retirement plans and children’s achievements around dinner party tables. We were talking about how to bridge that gap between love and desire.