Let’s start with the good news. You’ve been married – or in a relationship – for 20 or even 30 years. You love being married. Your wife/partner is your best friend, you have a great, comfortable life and you have zero desire to blow it all up. Congratulations. Put like that, you are truly one of the lucky ones.
But then there’s an awkward side issue – one you might not even talk to your best mates about. The fact is that you and your wife haven’t had sex for so long you can’t even remember … it might be years. And it’s starting to eat into your soul.
A sex survey in The Daily Telegraph in 2016 found that one in five people said they were having sex less than once a month (24 per cent women, 17 per cent men) and ‘almost half’ of men who responded said they’d definitely like a more adventurous sex life.
Meanwhile, The Conversation reported that an Australian Study of Health and Relationships, published in the journal Sexual Health in 2014, collating data from 20,094 phone interviews with Australians aged 16 to 69, had found that Australians over 60 were averaging sex once per week, which seemed to be a very healthy figure. However, 14.6 per cent of respondents also admitted they had not had sex in the four weeks leading up to the survey.
Interestingly, the Daily Telegraph survey found that roughly 28 per cent of respondents felt that you could have a perfectly happy relationship without sex, while almost the same number completely disagreed.
So, as always, there are some generic figures, but really, it’s only what’s happening – or not happening – in your bedroom that matters. As ever, sex is a continuum, where some people over 50 are no doubt making rabbits look lethargic in terms of frequency and enthusiasm for sex, while others would admit to a complete lack of action, over a long period of time. For some men, that might not be a problem while, for others, a timebomb may have been ticking for a while, even though they can’t admit it to their wife, their friends or maybe even themselves.
Dr Naomi Stekelenburg is a Queensland academic who has spent a lot of time gently prodding the delicate subject of the sexual desires and fulfilment of Australian men. ‘Sexuality is a key way that a man asserts himself and feels masculine,’ she told Giants Among Men. ‘As John Romaniello says in his book, “Engineering the Alpha”, men need to reclaim their masculinity and the pure satisfaction of being able to satisfy your partner is a central part of a man’s being.
‘Most men want to be with their partners,’ she said. ‘In all the feedback and discussions that I have with men, they always say to me things like I actually want to be with her, she’s the one. It’s this quite romantic notion. A man doesn’t want to have sex with, like, 5000 people, he really just wants to have sex with his partner. He’s very happy with that but he wants to know that he satisfied her, that he’s still having sex regularly.’
And yet there are the men who simply don’t get that chance, because their relationship has settled into some kind of sexless groove, or maybe their wife no longer radiates any signals of being in the mood for sex, or the man feels that it is always, every single time, his job to suggest sex, which can feel like pleading or asking for a favour, rather than a mutual attraction and togetherness fun time.
Naomi says that one emotion she perceives in many men through her work is of ‘longing’. Not rampant lust or sexual energy bursting to be inappropriately misplaced at an office Christmas party. Longing. And often just for intimacy, for touch. For things they just don’t feel they can ask for from their partner of many years, their best friend, for fear of ridicule or rejection.
In fact, Naomi believes that this entire subject doesn’t get much sunshine, not because Australian men are a bunch of Neanderthals who can’t talk about their feelings, but because men are genuinely worried about how their true passions and wishes may be perceived.
She recently approached a range of men for a project she was working on, to discuss passion and fear, but found almost everybody politely declined. ‘Men felt very silenced,’ she said. ‘Academics, people in the public sphere, they were all worried that they would look like deviants. They were, like, “I would love to do this with my girlfriend, wife or partner, but they would be so angry if I raised that.”’
Around the time that interest in that I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-a-documentary book and then film, Fifty Shades of Grey, was at its peak, Naomi found herself speaking on panels, discussing erotica and sexuality. But it was the post-panel action that really surprised her. ‘Sex is such a magnetic topic,’ she said. ‘I would get these massive letters from guys who had been on the panel or in the audience, afterwards, saying they had all these desires, but they didn’t feel comfortable expressing them to their partners.
‘Men are scared of being conceived as deviants, perverts or weirdos.
‘I think it is a silent and repressed part of a man’s life, especially in our culture, so it doesn’t really surprise me that much to hear that a lot of people are in, say, 20 or 30-year marriages and actually aren’t having sex,’ Naomi said. ‘I mean, how could you if you can’t talk about it or say what you’d really like to do, let alone actually be doing it?’
Okay, so let’s cut to the chase: what can a man in this situation do about it?
Partly, what might be going on is physiology. Virile, sexually active men need high levels of testosterone but your levels naturally decline as you get older. Worse, your estrogen levels (that’s right: a key female driver) rise as you age so that, at a certain point, as those two markers fall and rise, you may physically, unconsciously, be shifting into a body that is sort of middle-aged feminine man.
No wonder your wife isn’t finding you as hot as Brad Pitt at this point.
So let’s soup the testosterone back up, quick. Building muscle, moving, power, strength: these are the things that spike testosterone, so getting to work can help a lot. And, as Naomi points out, just the act of committing to physical exercise can be naturally attractive to your partner, even before you have tangible physical results. ‘Rather than bringing home flowers, if a man works on himself, and his wife or partner can see that he’s doing that, she’ll be as impressed as anything. Nothing impresses a woman more than to see a man working on himself and taking responsibility to be the best man he can be.’
In fact, that guy might even be somebody that a woman may want to have sex with. Worth a try, hey?
Naomi also advises rethinking how you define your understanding of sex. She points to the long-married couple who never hold hands, walking around in public. If there is no physical contact, in their daily lives together, it seems unlikely that the pair would be a sensual and sexual volcano once they climbed into bed.
‘There are different ways of having sex, of sexual expression,’ she said. ‘There are plenty of ways a man can express his sexuality to his partner in a non-penetrative way, which he might find just as satisfying and connecting. It’s about being creative and about being fresh, and realising that touch is a very powerful thing.’
The final piece of advice is a tough one – demanding that a man owns the situation, instead of quietly resenting his partner for no longer having sex. ‘Take responsibility for it,’ Naomi said. ‘A quality of a good man is that he isn’t afraid to take responsibility. If your wife isn’t happy, if she doesn’t want to have sex, ask yourself why not and is there something you can change, that you can do about it?
‘Don’t blame everybody else. Try to be constructive and proactive.’
As always, don’t be shy to seek counselling if this all feels too hard. It’s a hard burden to carry alone, but you don’t have to. Try the links below, as a starting point: