If there’s one thing we absolutely, definitely know about sex, it’s that men desperately want penetration and women need more hugs to be happy. Except that, actually, maybe that isn’t true at all, because an international survey of couples for the Kinsey Institute suggests that it’s men who thrive on non-sexual physical intimacy, while women are remarkably unfussed about being cuddled.
All this time we’ve been enjoining the boys to try a little tenderness, and it turns out that it might be girls who tend to be stingy with their embraces.
The Kinsey survey is only a start to understanding how couples feel about sex and intimacy in long-term relationships, but it’s fascinating because – despite the fact that we seem to live in oversexed times.
when we can all enjoy Rihanna whooping up her love for whips and chains, get the ins and outs of footballers’ lives on tabloid front pages and even be seduced into buying cat food with weirdly eroticised adverts – we don’t actually know very much about how much sex matters in ongoing partnerships.
We certainly don’t seem to be very good at valuing sex as a part of relationships. Over the weekend, I was surprised to read a moving confession from a man describing himself as “the rejected husband”, who describes the misery and rejection of being in a relationship where sex has died. “I ache for you,” he writes. “Not for sex, but for sex with you.”
It shouldn’t be shocking to hear that sex is important, and those who are forced to live within the restricted means of a beloved partner’s limited libido are often very unhappy; but it is, because the voice of honest, faithful frustration so rarely gets a platform.
And when people like the rejected husband do get an answer on problem pages, it’s rarely a sympathetic one.
Instead, they’re often told that they’re the one doing it wrong. Give your partner a break from housework and offer her a massage, suggests Dear Deidre. Talk to your wife about sex, says Luisa Diller, to a man whose question explicitly states that his wife refuses to talk about her lack of desire for sex.
Have you considered, asks Mariella Frostrup of a man whose wife has refused to have sex at all for two-year stretches, that you might actually be a bastard?
Sharing out the burdens of domesticity, communicating and reflecting on your own behaviour are all important things, obviously; but the underlying message here is that if you’ve tried those things and you’re still not satisfied, then you’ll simply have to live with sexual starvation, or leave. That doesn’t seem very fair.
It’s actually pretty reasonable to expect sex to be a continuous part of a relationship; the partner who’s being unreasonable is the one who’s decided on their own that physical intimacy is over – not because of health problems, other relationships issues or an immediate obstacle such as just having had children, but purely because he or she doesn’t fancy bunking up any more.
In that situation, the partner who’s been shunted off to the edge of the mattress should be able to say that this is a problem without feeling guilty or ashamed. And the one doing the shunting should be encouraged to concede that, actually, expecting someone who wants sex to go without it permanently is asking them to go way beyond any reasonable definition of fidelity.
One other, encouraging way that the Kinsey report went against expectations was by showing that women became more sexually satisfied as they got older (the researchers guessed that this might be a result of children growing up relieving stress on mothers.
while reduced anxiety about fertility made sex more enjoyable for women). And the really heartening finding was that, when relationships lasted, they seemed to get better with time.
Things do seem different for men and women, but, if the Kinsey research is accurate, not in exactly the ways we expected. Agony aunts, maybe it’s time to stop suggesting that rejected husband makes do with giving his wife a neck rub and insist that she gives him one instead.
It’ll make him happier, even if it doesn’t lead to sex; and for her, it’s an investment towards a contented middle age where the sex begins to get really good.