Recessions come with plenty of side-effects. If you read the small print of the credit crunch malaise and its painfully slow recovery you would no doubt discover that it brought along with it the increased risk of all manner of physical disorders: anxiety, sleeplessness, panic attacks, depression and, therefore, as your pharmacist might advise, a predictable loss of libido. Certainly that would seem to be one interpretation of the results of the Observer’s Sex Uncovered survey. Before George Osborne’s age of austerity the average British adult enjoyed sex nearly seven times a month; in 2014 that figure has apparently double-dipped to a miserly four times – less than once a week – with a full third of the population admitting to no sex at all in those 30 days and nights. Previous Tory administrations may have been able to boast that you have never had it so good; one legacy of this limp coalition era might prove to be that you have never had it so infrequently.
The last time the Observer snuck under the nation’s duvet and asked a representative sample of consenting adults those $64,000 questions – How many partners? How satisfied are you with your love life? Do you use toys? – was in September 2008, just days before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and desperate queues began to form outside Northern Rock. The red blood of a decade of debt-fuelled priapic growth was still pumping in the nation’s veins. There is no direct line of cause and effect, of course, but still, six years on, the nation’s male population in particular appears to have lost a significant amount of horizontal confidence. In 2008, more than half of the sexually active considered themselves to have above average prowess as lovers; now that figure has declined to little more than a third. Along with the GDP figures, everything appears to have been shrinking. The average British man’s approval of the size of his manhood has drooped somewhat alarmingly over the last half decade (though it has stayed robust among the wealthiest category of respondents to the survey, further proof perhaps of the growing gap in perception and optimism between the haves and the have-nots).
You could argue that the desire for greater financial security has invaded our fantasy lives also. At the same time as Booker prize judges have been complaining that sex has all but disappeared from the nation’s serious fiction (perhaps because of fears of ridicule in the Bad Sex Award), a whole new category of bonkbuster (adult erotica) has emerged. One new question for this year’s survey sample concerns the reading of Fifty Shades of Grey – an extraordinary 43% of people owned up to at least thumbing through the trilogy (or its many imitators). Its popularity, however, perhaps owed an equal amount not to its slap-and-tickle raunch, but also to the fact that the sex came complete with first-class travel and the temporary suspension of money worries.
EL James may have been whipping up the repressed bondage fetishes of a receptive audience (in which 90% of Brits don’t view their actual sex life as “very adventurous”) but at the same time she was secretly appealing to a make-believe in which financial insecurity was suddenly a thing of the past – her writing shared that much with Jane Austen, at least. As Andrew O’Hagan put it in the London Review of Books: “The expensive silk tie on the cover tells you everything about the acquisitive vibe behind the whole thing, the appeal for mothers who wouldn’t mind a slightly naughty son-in-law if he also had tousled hair, an Audi R8 Spyder, several apartments and a general handiness with the black Amex … many comforts [are] offered for a life of mild depravity: people in these novels don’t wear underpants they wear Calvin Kleins; they don’t drink wine they have Pinot Grigio; nobody wears sunglasses they wear Ray-Bans … It’s not that having these things is at all unusual, but the specificity implies a desire much larger here than any desire people might have for kinky sex. They are buying the books because the books invite them to be submissive too, not to punishment, but to a 1980s-style dominance of money and power and products.”
Other observers have seen even greater significance in the Fifty Shades… phenomenon, which quickly went global. Earlier this year writer Lori Gottlieb (bestselling author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough) created a Twitter-storm of controversy with a front-page New York Times Magazine article that asked the question “Does a more equal marriage mean less sex?” Gottlieb offered evidence that the more couples share childcare and household jobs – the more progress that was made toward breaking down sexual imbalance in all things – then the less sex they were likely to have. Fifty Shades… in this context was escapism for a generation of women who had won the battle of having husbands and partners share domestic and family responsibilities, but who perhaps lusted toward them a little less as a result.
Gottlieb’s argument was supported by a study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage”, which appeared last year in the American Sociological Review. This research found that when men in heterosexual couples did what researchers characterised as “feminine” chores – folding laundry or vacuuming – then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands or partners who did what were characterised as masculine chores, such as heavy lifting or mending the car. The study showed that it was not just the frequency of physical intimacy that was affected – at least from the woman’s point of view. The greater the husband’s share of masculine chores, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction – what you might call the Lady Chatterley argument. The study concluded: “The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.” In other words, as Gottlieb claimed, “in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered”.
In this context the allure of Fifty Shades… is seen, counterintuitively, as an expression of feminism, a victory for work-life balance and the merits of “leaning in”. American psychologist Pepper Schwartz, of the University of Washington, argued, that, paradoxically, such fantasies of submission reflect how much relative power women now have attained in real life. “The more powerful you are in your marriage, and the more responsibility you have in other areas of your life, the more submission becomes sexy,” Schwartz claimed. “It’s like: ‘Let me lose all that responsibility for an hour. I’ve got plenty of it.’ It’s what you can afford once you don’t live a life of submission.”
That kind of conclusion would seem perhaps to be supported in two other findings of this latest survey. The sexual revolutionaries of the 1960s and 70s, you imagine, would be profoundly shocked by the responses to the question of whether it is possible to be in a happy relationship without sex featuring at all. Just about two-thirds of British adults apparently believe that such a relationship is perfectly feasible. Whatever became of that philosophy expressed, for example, by the indefatigable Norman Mailer, a vigorous exponent of marrying for passion and divorcing when it disappeared, who contended, looking back, that “orgasm in a certain sense was the essence of the character [and] when your orgasm was improving, you were improving with it…”? In a list of priorities for relationships in 2014, sex comes out on top for only one in 50 people.
And how do such findings square with the overriding anecdotal feeling that society, on the surface at least, is becoming ever more sexualised – that the media are saturated with sexual reference, and that our children are confronted with twerking and worse everywhere they look? Parents – like a proportion of all parents before them – who fear their teenagers are growing up much too quickly might take comfort from that fact that in London, for example, the average age for the loss of virginity is quite an abstemious 19 years old. Is sex losing out to the virtual reality of it on smartphones and laptops?
The current survey suggests that the invasion of internet pornography, particularly into male lives, continues its territorial advance. I was reminded, reading some of the findings of this survey, of watching Beeban Kidron’s fine film about teenagers and the internet InRealLife, which came out this time last year. In particular I was reminded of her young interviewee Ryan, who quite sweetly talked the film-maker through his ritualised internet porn habits, their menus and the sheer volume of graphic high-definition choice that was presented to the formative adolescent mind, and accessible any time of day or night. Ryan, aged 15, was quite evangelical about the possibilities that had been opened up for his viewing pleasure, but he feared seeing so much so young “had ruined his whole sense of love”. Kidron’s camera followed Ryan out into town, watched him chatting up girls, all the time comparing the reality with the fantasy he shared with his computer, always feeling a little let down.
Is the digital commodification of sex ruining the real thing on a wider scale? There is plenty of anecdotal and research evidence to suggest that it is. Is the kind of disjunction between fantasy and reality experienced by Ryan responsible for the falling rates of sexual satisfaction, both in the “performance” of a partner (the word itself is loaded with depersonalised baggage) or in yourself? Certainly there has never been a moment in human history when we have been surrounded by so much idealised or extreme sexuality to live up to.
Three-quarters of men (and a quarter of women) admit to looking at online pornography. And when nothing seems off-limits online – not to mention the intimate moments of any celebrity under the sun, or the private photos Jennifer Lawrence makes for her lover’s eyes only – does the proper fleshy privacy of sex with a partner lose its glamour? You would hope not. Readers of Mariella Frostrup’s column in this paper over recent years would have to conclude otherwise, however. A decade or more of listening to relationship troubles led her to observe recently: “The access to and availability of sex onscreen is, I believe, the biggest seismic change to society in my lifetime. We should be analysing and learning from what we discover before sex becomes simply a spectator sport, totally adrift from the intimacies of a loving relationship.”
In our work-obsessed, time-poor culture, it would seem that regular sex is one of the “luxuries” that we are prepared to dispense with. As various recent reports have suggested, women in particular, given the roles and responsibilities they have to juggle, are as likely to fantasise about proper rest as about physical intimacy. Sleep we are told, in many working lives, has become the new sex.
And as the boundaries between working lives and home lives are dissolved by technology and email, the mental space in which sex exists would seem to be constantly under threat. Perhaps not surprisingly, given our cultural addiction to ever-longer working days, one of the few rising trends since the Observer surveys of 2002 and 2008 concerns the fact that a greater number of people are finding lust (and maybe love) in the workplace – often literally – and not only that, one in five people say they would sleep with someone to further their career.
The other side of that particular work-life balance points, however, to the office colonising the bedroom – email and text follow many of us everywhere, more global working practices mean communicating across many time zones. Though all sleep counsellors suggest that the bedroom should be reserved for sleep and sex, more than half of British adults admit to taking their technology to bed with them. Which bedside table these days isn’t a scramble of chargers and wires? In austerity Britain in 2014 a smartphone may well be the last thing you caress at night – and, it seems, increasingly, the only thing that gets turned on in the morning.