Katherine Rowland in Aeon:
Julie still loves her husband. What’s more, her life – from the dog, to the kids, to the mortgaged house – is built around their partnership. She doesn’t want to end her marriage, but in the absence of desire she feels like a ‘miserable fraud’.
‘I never imagined I would ever be in the self-help section in the book store,’ she says, but now her bedside table heaves with such titles as Sex Again (2012) by Jill Blakeway: ‘Despite what you see on movies and TV, Americans have less sex than people in any other country’; Rekindling Desire (2014) by Barry and Emily McCarthy: ‘Is sex more work than play in your marriage? Do you schedule it in like a dentist appointment?’; Wanting Sex Again (2012) by Laurie Watson: ‘If you feel like sex just isn’t worth the effort, you’re not alone’; and No More Headaches (2009) by Juli Slattery.
‘It’s just so depressing,’ she says. ‘There’s this expectation to be hot all the time – even for a 40-year-old woman – and then this reality where you’re bored and tired and don’t want to do it.’
Survey upon survey confirms Julie’s impressions, delivering up the conclusion that for many women sex tends toward numbed complacency rather than a hunger to be sated. The generalised loss of sexual interest, known in medical terms as hypoactive sexual desire, is the most common sexual complaint among women of all ages. To believe some of the numbers – 16 per cent of British women experience a lack of sexual desire; 43 per cent of American women are affected by female sexual dysfunction; 10 to 50 per cent of women globally report having too little desire – is to confront the idea that we are in the midst of a veritable crisis of libido.
Today a boisterous debate exists over whether this is merely a product of high – perhaps over-reaching – expectations. Never has the public sphere been so saturated in women’s sexual potential. Billboards, magazines, television all proclaim that healthy women are readily climactic, amorously creative and hungry for sex. What might strike us as liberating, a welcome change from earlier visions of apron-clad passivity, can also become an unnerving source of pressure. ‘Women are coming forward talking about wanting their desire back to the way it was, or better than it was,’ says Cynthia Graham, a psychologist at the University of Southampton and the editor of The Journal of Sex Research. ‘But they are often encouraged to aim for unrealistic expectations and to believe their desire should be unchanging regardless of age or life circumstances.’
Others contend that we are, indeed, in the midst of a creeping epidemic.