Thursday, August 6, 2009

The sexual gulf war

Orgasms and the sexual proclivities of OAPs are slightly surreal topics of conversation to have with a stranger at 9am but that's what happened when I got Australian sex therapist Bettina Arndt on the phone for an interview...

Saturday August 01 2009

They say men and women are from different planets, but if Bettina Arndt's research is anything to go by, most couples are light years apart in bed. SUSAN DALY talks mismatched libidos with the Australian sex therapist.

ADRIENNE dreads the "creeping hand" groping across the marital bed to check if she's in the mood for love. Rachel says, "I feel like I'm enduring sex most of the time". Megan's friend tells her husband to "Hurry up and get it over with". Unsurprisingly, he now has erectile problems.

Women want less sex than men, says Bettina Arndt, and couples spend their lives negotiating who gets what, how much of it and how often. Arndt (59) is Australia's most prominent sex therapist and the women quoted above are three of the 98 people she persuaded to keep sex diaries for six to nine months.

If The Sex Diaries, the book based on the chronicles of her male and female subjects, is representative, then we're all treading through a sexual minefield. For every couple that records joyful physical intimacies in their diaries, there are 10 describing hugely mismatched libidos.

Adam (36) has only had sex twice in six years of marriage. Once on his wedding night, when his wife fell pregnant with their first child, and on the night when his second daughter was conceived. His wife won't speak to him about the sex drought, so he's thinking of turning to prostitutes, but can't justify spending the money. "It takes milk from my babies' mouths, if you can understand," he writes.

Craig has not had sex with his wife for five years. "The last time we had sex she obviously did not enjoy it, and she got up the instant I had finished to go and wash any trace of me off her. Her manner and extreme reaction made me feel like I was dirty and worthless."

Another man made the mistake of telling his wife after yet another rejected advance that he would not ask again -- she would have to initiate sex the next time. That was eight years ago, and he's still waiting. Yet another is trying to keep a spark of intimacy alive in his marriage to a wife who suffers from severe OCD: they have agreed to have sex once a week, at 9.15am exactly every Sunday.

There are sad men lamenting the loss of the early passion of their relationships, and women who wish they felt desire -- but don't. While there are a few reversals of this state of play in the diaries -- where the woman has the higher sex drive -- Arndt believes that this is just how it is with men and women. She's very sure of herself when I ask her about the generalisation.

"I tried to spell it out in the chapter called The Search for the Elusive Pink Viagra," she says in her frank Australian accent. "I think there is something biological there that means women have a more distractible, fragile libido.

"Evolutionary psychologists argue that we are supposed to be mothers, and mothers aren't meant to be bonking all the time. We might be in the bedroom, but we have an ear to the door."

Men, she says, are the complete opposite -- they use sex as a form of relaxation, a way to sweep away the worries and arguments of the relationship. "Men are able to use it as a distraction. That's a big gulf there. They can perform in all sorts of adverse circumstances. They can have sex with people they don't even like, for goodness' sake!"

Arndt doesn't exactly offer quick fixes, but she is fond of the phrase, 'Just do it!' It puts the onus on the partner with the lower libido to have sex even when they don't feel like it. Once they decide that sex is on the cards and put themselves in a positive mindframe, they will enjoy it, says Arndt.

This nugget of advice, which is at the heart of Arndt's book, sparked outrage in her native Australia, where The Sex Diaries is currently a bestseller. "I was expecting that," says Arndt. "Did you see that I mentioned the internet blog that started with, 'F*** you, Bettina Arndt'?"

She says she is not advocating women having unwanted sex forced on them -- a return to the days before marital rape was criminalised. She paraphrases Michele Weiner-Davis, whose book The Sex-Starved Marriage is one of a range of studies and works referenced in The Sex Diaries, when she says: "Desire is a decision. You have to put sex on the 'to do' list."

She was so affected by some of the heart-breaking diaries written by the sexually-frustrated men, she is putting together a book based on their experiences, The Male Sex Diaries. "This is not about sex, getting your rocks off," says Arndt. "It's about yearning to be wanted by the woman they love. I had a man tell me the other day that he'd had no sex in 16 years and he is still there in his marriage because he loves his wife. He was joking about the gulf war -- the 16 inches in bed between them feels like thousands of miles."

Arndt is past caring what her critics think. A clinical psychologist who specialised in sexual therapy, she carried out ground-breaking sex studies. By the age of 23 she was advising Australians on sexual issues. "Sex was such a great area to work in. There had been so much ignorance and discomfort around it."

She attracted a ban from live TV and radio for two years for speaking on radio about masturbation. "Back in the early 70s, Australia was a more conservative place," says Arndt. "That was too much for the censorship authorities. They never spelled out what exactly I had done and people thought I had used four-letter words! It was these nervous middle-aged men ready to push the button." I can only imagine what reaction she might get with a similar subject in Ireland, even today.

Born to parents who fled Nazi Germany, she was widowed at a young age with young children and is divorced from her second husband. "I've learned a lot through life itself and the things that have happened to me," she says.

Arndt says the feedback from men and women who say The Sex Diaries reflect their own lives far outweighs the Outrageds from Brisbane. "One woman told me that she was sitting in the car with her husband driving and listening to me prattling on the radio about the book. As soon as she got home, she ran into the house and sent me this email. Sitting next to him and knowing that this was their problem, and neither of them saying anything, it was excruciating."

But if, as Arndt seems to contest, a drop in libido as a relationship progresses is a biological and therefore natural event, should women (and the occasional man) be worrying if they're not swinging from the light fittings every night? Yes, she says, because apparently we are conditioned to think that desire needs to come first for sex to happen. "I've had a lot of response from women saying I know I might not feel like it, but I know when I relax, I will enjoy it. I'm not saying suffer through unwanted sex, but it's not a big ask to just make the effort."

How much effort is enough is debatable. I was far from turned on by the celebratory tale in Arndt's book of young parents Shirley and Luke, who ended up having sex while her husband held their crying baby. They weren't going to let parenthood ruin their sex lives, no way! I had reservations too about a woman called Antonia (58) who gets up at 5am to do the household chores, makes her husband a cup of tea afterwards, comes back to bed to have sex with him -- every day -- and gets back up to go to work. And her husband, to be honest, comes across as a bit of an ass, who has about a tenth of Antonia's workload but makes nasty comments when she is too tired to have sex twice in one day.

A frequent contention of Arndt's male diarists is that women are harder to please in bed. One man amusingly speaks about pleasing his partner being as difficult as "a blind man in the dark searching for a black cat that isn't there". A chapter describes some particularly nasty male sexual habits, which must have contributed to the lack of desire in some of the women. "When foreplay is bad," says Claire (32), "I feel like skipping it altogether." A wife recounts her husband's hatred of kissing her: "He doesn't like kissing -- he says I'm stealing his air."

It begs the question: where's the pleasure? Arndt points to the example of Michael and Heather, both in their 60s and still enjoying a passionate sex life. They have even kept a calendar of their sexual activities for the past 23 years, each day marked with enigmatic symbols. A green square marks a mutual orgasm -- there are plenty of those -- green lines denote a 'serious' cuddle, and four interlinked circles means they had sex in their Audi car.

"That couple are what I call my juicy tomatoes," says Arndt.

The Sex Diaries: Why Women Go Off Sex and Other Bedroom Battles, by Bettina Arndt, is published by Hamlyn and is in bookshops now

PANEL: Pillow Talk - Tales from the bedroom.


Clive (48) has been married for 22 years. He and his wife make love once or twice a fortnight, while he would love it twice a day.

"I try hard not to exceed allowable limits; to sense her mood. I wonder whether us men are sometimes the more sensitive sex. We seem to have a lot of practice at it. Grope too much and you'll be 'off sex'. So you must do it carefully.

"It's almost like being a young man and trying to work out how far your girlfriend will let you go before the shutters come down, she crosses her legs and says 'NO'. I know that a caress won't get me any sex. It's more like, 'I love you, I'm desperate for you. Just touching you is a connection from me to you. I'm still here. I still adore you. Hullo! Where has she gone, this lover I married?'"


Arthur (63) has been married for 37 years. He and his wife haven't had sex for 15 years.

"I wake up before her. We have to get up soon and go to work. I reach out -- she leaps out of bed and says, 'I have to go to the toilet'.

Me: 'When you are finished come back and make mad, passionate love to me.'

She: 'Ha ha!'

Two minutes later she does come back, dressing gown over nightie. I persuade her to cuddle into me. It's pretty awkward and not at all sexual."


Kevin and Amanda, both in their early 30s and together a year, are still in the 'limerence' phase of their relationship, when the initial cocktail of chemicals inspires lust in a new couple. One of their special rituals is a quickie at the kitchen sink.

"Eventually we make it to bed, hot with the expectation of what is about to happen. I can actually feel my heart rate go up as I get into bed, in anticipation of Amanda's touch. We make love a second time and it is just incredible. I feel so high when I make love to her; it must be like being on drugs. I feel like I am in a place when I am untouchable, invincible almost."


Mary (42) has been married to Peter for four years. It is a second marriage for them both. Their sex life has ground to a halt over arguments about housework.

"I'm working a full five-day week, 6am to 6.30pm. I come home, usually to cook (because he cannot and will not cook; at least, not reliably).

"Occasionally, he might put himself out but it's generally, 'Let's go to Subway', which I end up spewing about because I don't want the kids learning to rely on takeout and I spend a fortune each pay day stocking up with fresh foods and meats.

"My weekends are guaranteed: all day Saturday cleaning the house itself, then Sundays attacking the ironing.

"Yes, he does 'do the washing', which consists of putting the washing into our 10kg washer/dryer and putting the finished dried washing into a pile on the lounge floor, where the dog promptly lies all over it. Now, if he took the clothes out straightaway and hung them up or folded them, life would be sweet.

"But, he piles them load on top of load, so by the time I get to them, I've got steam-dried, cardboard lumps covered in dog hair and he wonders why I'm so bloody ungrateful and why that night I'll knock his block off when he wants 'it'."

- Susan Daly

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