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If sensationalised and cunningly reported research is anything to go by, it seems that there are an awful lot of leisure activities that women are happy to participate in place of sex. From eating chocolate, to reading questionable if intensely popular erotic literature, sleeping and watching movies, it would appear that sex does not rate highly in a woman’s list of favourite things to do. Indeed my primitive research, in the form of google predictive sentences, indicates that you could probably tap in ‘women prefer eating a cactus to sex’ and you would get some positive results. To add to the list, The Project tweeted about a new study last week claiming that 4% of women prefer grooming to shagging. Who knew that bikini waxes were so much fun?
According to sex therapist Amanda Robb, the seemingly endless interest in surveying women’s attitude to sex comes down to the stereotypes that are still happily bounced around in our allegedly enlightened, post sealed section society– i.e. women lie back and think of England, men are always up for it.
“The myth that men prefer sex more than women will continually be popularised in the media due to each genders stereotyped sexual status; women are romantic and men are just plain horny … I do think these studies give the message women are disinterested in sex, but I think this is portrayed by how the study is represented,” says Robb.
Stereotypes such as women seeking an emotional connection through sex and men wanting just, well, sex are each as damaging as the other says Robb.
“We also know that the notion men are 'always up for it' is one of the biggest misconceptions of all. … I believe the desire for sexual frequency, for sex to have an emotional connection, and for ones libido to be low is interchangeable between both genders.”
These studies remind me of a game women used to play – which Sex and the City character are you. Or, more likely, who is Carrie and who is Charlotte, because nobody ever wanted to be Miranda or Samantha. Caustic writer AA Gill summed up the game best when he went on a Sex and the City tour of New York City for Vanity Fair magazine in 2009. The tour guide asked for a show of hands as to which character Gill's fellow SATC enthusiasts were most like.
“O.K., who’s a Samantha?” There are giggles, and a couple of birds at the back raise their hands. They might just as well have spread their legs. “Ooh! Sluts! My sort of girls!” The tour guide breathes into the microphone suggestively, and this huge intercontinental tour bus pneumatically, and empathetically, jerks itself into the traffic," writes Gill.
The problem with this example, and indeed the media’s interest in surveys that conclude that women don’t really like sex, is two-fold. For one, there is the problematic word slut – a word that has been both the insult of choice by misogynistic shock jocks and reclaimed in slut walks around the world – but, two, that there is something ‘naughty’ , giggle worthy and shocking about a couple of birds admitting that they, like Samantha Jones, like sex.
This attitude is depicted in movies where sex becomes a bargaining chip in a worn-in marriage (see for example the scene in recent film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen where Ewan McGregor has rather awkward sex with his wife who in post-coitus pats him on the back and says “that should do you for awhile”), in Bettina Arndt’s The Sex Diaries in which dozens of men said they didn’t get enough sex and in jokes among women about not wanting to have sex with their partners (“in the end I had to resort to sex” et al). Sex then becomes either something for the footloose and fancy free (i.e. not the settling down kinds) or a chore for the partnered up woman. It’s little wonder that women say they would rather do X than have sex when those cheerful survey types come knocking.
As silly as these surveys may be, the danger lies in the stereotypes that underpin them. Sex is a normal, fun and important part of many romantic relationships, and indeed life. It's not always straightforward though, and intimacy issues that may arise in a partnership go far beyond any ‘would you prefer chocolate to sex’ survey. As sex therapist Amanda Robb points out, issues such as you or your partner losing interest in sex requires much “talking it out” to find out the real problems. And here’s a hint, it’s probably not because of that delicious Mars Bar in the fridge.
“Personally I don’t think anyone should have sex when they do not desire it to please another person. I think this idea has the potential to remove sex from being an intimate experience shared between loved ones, to seeming like a ‘chore’ or ‘responsibility’ in a marriage or relationship, and sex should never be a ‘task’ … The healthiest way to trouble shoot this is by talking it out. Tip: Find out what impacts each other’s libido in order to understand why each partner needs to fuel a healthy libido," says Robb.
If you pinpoint the trouble, says Robb, you can start working through to a solution.
“Once you understand the issues that may be affecting the desire to have sex you can support each other to alleviate them. Reclaiming a happy sex life together can be as simple as changing a relationship routine i.e.: switching the time of day you have sex from night to morning, spending more time on foreplay, creating a relaxed environment and eliminating daily distractions from the bedroom. Relationship habits or ‘norms’ can be the unrecognised barriers impacting your partner’s libido. Once they are identified they can be changed to accommodate a more satisfying sex life for the two of you.”
It is true that some people might indeed prefer chocolate to sex and that is of course perfectly fine too. There will be times in your life – whether it be because of stress, children, ill-health or any other of life's challenges - that sex will be the last thing you feel like doing. But this fluctuates, and it will never be something that a media soundbite can properly capture. It is also heartening to think that despite what these surveys say, Amanda Robb - a woman who talks to people about sex for a living - believes that women feel more confident about it than ever.
“I’d like to think that women are feeling more empowered to embrace their sexuality today and reclaim it for themselves," she says.
And that is undoubtedly far better than eating a cactus.