Maybe we can blame Sex and the City. Perhaps it’s the fault of Cosmopolitan and its 1970s “Sex and The Single Girl” column. It may even be down to agony aunts like me, insisting that everyone gets their “needs” met every five minutes.
Regardless, we’ve somehow arrived at a situation where it’s considered normal to count the times you have sex in a month, and extrapolate theories about your relationship from that number. Not only that, it’s no longer a “maybe” but a “should” – at least according to one newspaper, whose banner headline this week was a demanding and inappropriately probing: “How often should YOU be having sex?”
It went on to divide these harangued sex-havers into categories and explain what they “should” be aiming for if they don’t want their relationships to wither and die. If you’ve just met, apparently, it should be “every time you see each other”. Awkward if you met at work, but needs must.
If you’re exhausted new parents, you should be “aspiring” to have sex once or twice a month, in between sobbing and sterilising. And if you’ve been together for “a long time” (or even if it just feels long, presumably), once a week is “ideal”. In response to all of this abject nonsense and horrifying pressure, I would ask “ideal for whom?”
Where is the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary for domestic sex, where you can look up your living situation under “c” for cohabiting, or “m” for mutual loathing, and immediately see how often you should be engaging in physical intimacy to keep the world running as it should be?
I do wonder whether all of the late-feminist focus on discussing sex as openly as we once shared housewifely tips for whitening net curtains is a poisoned chalice. Because while it’s vital to be able to talk about our problems and concerns, the flip side of that is an untenable amount of pressure.
Not only do we have to worry about what’s going on in our own relationship, we also have to consider how it will play to the imaginary gallery. And if we’re having less sex than some random sexpert has arbitrarily decided is “ideal”, we’re likely to feel abnormal and unsexy, and wonder what’s wrong with us.
The shift from problem page topic to pub gossip happened around the turn of the millennium, amongst the ladettes and lads’ mags, and was exemplified by Sex and the City. For all that its brunch revelations were considered groundbreakingly thrilling, they also carried an inescapable waft of judgment.
Why weren’t you as bold and free as Samantha? Why wouldn’t you describe your sexual problems as openly and hilariously as Miranda? It led to women’s magazines becoming obsessed with the minutiae of what does and doesn’t happen in bed – despite the fact that only the two people directly involved (or more if you’re a crazy Samantha, do the quiz!) ought to know the details.
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Nobody truly knows what goes on in someone else’s bed. People lie, to sound impressive – see the scene in last year’s Married at First Sight, where all the men frantically calculated how many women to claim they’d slept with, and desperately tried to make each other speak first.
Survey-takers know subjects lie, but generally, they’re trying to sell something – because why else are you formally poking your nose into other people’s sex lives via an online form? Advertisers know that most people, of reproductive age and beyond, hope to be thought of as attractive, sexy and hot. That’s why there are so many “statistics” floating about. Not because some scientist in a white coat has taken down important facts, but because someone in a marketing department has been tasked with selling more sex toys.
“Should” is a dangerously pressurising word at the best of times. When it comes to sex – how often, what kind, who with – it’s obnoxious. Sex is the last bastion of privacy most of us have. And what happens – or not – in bed, ain’t nobody’s business but your own.
Flic Everett is a writer, editor and agony aunt