Alex*,remembers clearly the last time she had sex with her boyfriend. He’d just got a promotion, and for the first time in months had managed to quiet the anxiety and stress that usually stopped him focusing on sex.
That was in August 2018.
The couple, who are in their late 20s and met on Tinder three years ago, say their relationship is otherwise healthy and happy. Alex says she has a high sex drive and desire for her partner, but her partner’s career worries, and the uncertainty they live with about money and housing (they currently rent a place in Manchester), means that once they are in bed, sex is the last thing on their minds.
“We’re not the only ones in our group of friends – lots of my girlfriends won’t admit it at first but after a couple of drinks they all tell me they’re worried they aren’t having enough sex,” Alex tells HuffPost UK. “We all feel like we have endless lists of things to achieve at work, in our lives, and we’re exhausted.”
It’s no secret that millennials (those born roughly between 1981-1996) are having less sex than previous generations, with several studies showing that they are having less sex than their parents did at the same age. In Japan, this is so marked that it has implications for population decline.
This is true for those in relationships, as well as people who are single and choosing to live alone. In the UK, research from Relate, Mumsnet and Gransnet last year showed that a quarter of couples in their 30s have sexless relationships – in other words, having sex fewer than 10 times a year.
Although that percentage continues to increase as people get older (28% of couples in their 40s say they’re not having sex).
Emily Fieldhouse, a counsellor registered with the Counselling Directory, reports seeing a sharp drop in the average age of clients seeking help with sexless relationships. “The average age of couples seeking therapy experiencing a lack of sexual intimacy has fallen from 55 years of age to 29,” she explains.
Despite this being an increasingly common for young people, many still feel a great deal of shame in not having regular sex. Alex explains: “You just presume you’re alone and everyone else is out there like rabbits.”
The standard narrative that men always want sex and it’s more frequently women who turn over and face the wall, or claim to have a ‘headache’, is also been problematic, says Alex. “I hate all that. I love sex and it was embarrassing to say ‘yeah my partner never wants to have sex’. Men are meant to want this.”
“Our hearts just weren’t in it … We’d make excuses: too tired, too drunk"”
It’s an experience that resonates with Sarah, 31, who got divorced from her husband in 2018 after an eight year relationship. The couple married when she was 22, and for the first few years had regular sex despite issues with compatibility.
Sarah wanted her husband to be dominant but he wanted to be submissive. They also had different preferences when it came to foreplay, which meant the chemistry was more forced than would have been ideal. “But we did go on and get married; we wanted to please each other,” she says.
The couple tried sex toys, dressing up in lingerie and costumes, and also went to see a counsellor – but the issues got progressively worse, and Sarah says that if they ever did have sex it lacked passion; the pair “going through the motions”. On birthdays and their wedding anniversary, they both felt compelled to mark the date. “Our hearts just weren’t in it,” Sarah says. “We’d make excuses: too tired, too drunk.”
The crunch point came when her husband returned from a business trip. He’d been away for a couple of weeks: “I thought I really would make an effort when he came back,” Sarah says. “But it just ended up I don’t think we even had sex – I mean it’s bad I can’t even remember if we did or not.”
Unlike Sarah, Laura*, now 45, remembers exactly when she last had sex with her now ex-husband. “I woke up on my 33rd birthday in a separate bedroom from my husband knowing I would have sex that day for the first time in a year,” she recalls.
The couple got married in 2004 when Laura was 30, having already been together for a couple of years. At the beginning their relationship was highly sex-driven – Laura says they were having sex at least once a day for the first three years. Unlike others who spoke to HuffPost, Laura says the reason her relationship eventually became sexless was clearcut and one-sided – her partner decided he didn’t want to have sex anymore.
“I have a very high libido and because our relationship wasn’t going so well he used it as a tool to control me. He explicitly told me he was doing that. He knew it was my number one priority. We went months without having sex.”
Bad communication is the cornerstone of many of the sex problems Fieldhouse sees through her work. “Sexless relationships can develop, regardless of age, when communication begins to break down between the couple,” she says.
“Typically, when communication is unhealthy, it opens up the opportunity for resentment, misunderstanding and unfulfilling sex to creep into the relationship,” she adds.
The counsellor says as well as communication issues, younger people might feel pressure from social media to look a certain way, they might have increasing work pressure, peer pressure, anxiety related to performance (which might be increased by exposure to porn), and also general exhaustion.
Of course a number of people find their sex life is halted for physical reasons, rather than emotional or mental ones. Laurence, 24, hasn’t been able to have sex with his fiancé since December because she suffers with vaginismus - the involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina which can make penetration or sexual activity painful, or even impossible. And Corii, 27, says that her relationship of eight years has become sexless because of medications she is taking that causes low libido.
But it would be a mistake to presume physical barriers are the only reason younger couples aren’t busy between the sheets. “There is a general perception that younger people are having more sex than older generations, when actually that’s not true,” says Fieldhouse.
For Sarah, she just wishes that young people would be more honest about what was really going on. “My friends were always talking about having sex and children and I would just think well I’m glad I don’t want a baby now because it wouldn’t happen!”
She says now she is single and out of the relationship she is having more honest conversations with her colleagues and finding others who are in the same boat. “They’re not having as much sex as I thought they all were.”
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity of case studies.