Passion killer: Is your smartphone wrecking your sex life?
New research shows there's been a steady decline in how often adults make love, but are devices the cause or just a symptom? Rowan Pelling investigates
A couple of weeks ago, I had a moment of rude awakening. It was 11.45pm on a Friday night and I was lying in bed with my best beloved, paying him no attention whatsoever. In fact, it suddenly occurred to me that I'd just spent an hour reading friends' Facebook posts, with the occasional detour to browse 1950s' frocks on eBay.
My other half, meanwhile, was totally focussed on a laptop trawl through political opinion pieces with which he violently disagreed. We hadn't spoken since we brushed our teeth and our bodies weren't touching: we might as well have been in separate rooms, separate space stations, galaxies apart.
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I said loudly: "This is how the human race will disappear. Not climate change, not fire or ice - but no one ever having sex again because we can't prise our wild, staring, bloodshot eyes away from ruddy screens."
My love and I are in danger of becoming part of a troubling trend. The latest data from UK's Natsal (the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which has been conducted once a decade since 1991) reveals there's been a steady drop between 2001-2012 in the frequency with which adults make love. Fewer than half of those aged 16-44 were managing to have sex at least once a week, but the most marked decline was in the 35-44 age group; women in this bracket had averaged sex four times a month in 2001, but this had dropped to twice a month by 2012.
Men also reported a decrease, from four bouts of sex to three. The number of people of both sexes who said they were having no sex at all had also risen significantly over the decade. Professor Kaye Wellings, who led the research, said: "In the digital age, there are more diversionary stimuli that can take up your spare time," citing smartphones, Netflix and social media as, "likely distractions that may prevent intimacy".
You may question why this matters, as sexual frequency is surely up to individual couples. I'd counter by saying that sex is the oil that makes the marital engine run smoothly. Those who enjoy a generous portion of physical intimacy tend to report better health, mental well-being and greater harmony with their partner. A quick vox pop of good friends suggested Wellings wasn't barking up the wrong tree. One long-married old school friend spoke for many when she said: "Yes, my highly sedative antidepressant iPad is having an enormous effect on my sex life." Meanwhile, a pal in his mid-50s, who I've always thought of as highly-sexed, said ruefully: "Sex was the best entertainment when we were young, but that simply isn't the case any more."
And pretty much every honest married woman I consulted admitted that given the choice between an early night and sex with their spouse or several unscreened episodes of Fleabag, they would plump for the latter.
One friend from college days pointed out that when she and I were first married, back in the 1990s, there wasn't much diverting entertainment to fill long evenings: "There might be one gripping drama a week, like Prime Suspect or Cracker, but basically the choices were Newsnight or legover." She said she had barely had sex with her spouse since they discovered Game Of Thrones, "Except when we're on holiday, because then I ban screens from the entire family."
Even the most steadfast sexual enthusiast can feel themselves coming a cropper in the online age. A writer friend from my years as an editor of Erotic Review, renowned for her all-round raunchiness, admitted her enthusiasm for "a good straight-forward shag" has been torpedoed by working long hours, mothering a small child and the "terrifying addictiveness of Orange Is The New Black and stalking your frenemies on Facebook."
Meanwhile, her lovely partner, who also works and is a hands-on dad, "comes to bed too late for rumpy-pumpy," because "he's on Discogs, or a meme forum devoted to electronic dance music, or listening to clips of James O'Brien." In similar vein, a pal in her late 40s says of the father of her two children: "I know I'm not getting any when his ear-buds go in and he zones out."
It's not just mid-lifers who are taking a sexual nosedive. Research last year found that one in eight millennials in the UK (the project tracked 16,000 young people born 1989-90) were self-confessed virgins, but if you included those who ignored the popping-the-cherry question, the number could be as great as one in six. There have been similar findings in America, to the extent that the journalist Kate Julian coined a whole new term for the zeitgeist when she wrote a widely reported article entitled 'The Sex Recession' for The Atlantic magazine just before Christmas. Julian examined the paradoxical fact that people in the Western world live in times where sex has never been so freely available - courtesy of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble - and free from fear and censure, due to widely available effective birth control and evolving sexual mores.
"But despite all this, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex." Data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behaviour study found the percentage of high school students who'd had sexual intercourse had dropped from 54 to 40pc between 1991 and 2017.
Over a similar period of time, data drawn from the US General Social Survey by psychologist Jean M Twenge indicated the average American adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times.
However, not everyone I talked to viewed their smartphones as passion killers. Single friends see them as essential dating tools, the great enablers of flirtation. An acquaintance whose 14-year marriage ended a while ago said that bedtime use of smartphones was a symptom, rather than a cause of diminishing passion, and now her phone aids and abets her love life: "I met my new love on a dating app and we spend hours exchanging intimate messages, or revelling in Facetime." She thinks people are confusing causes and symptoms: "We're not getting relationship counselling because of our screen habits, although maybe we would have talked out our problems sooner if we hadn't taken refuge in Netflix and social media."
Whatever the upsides of onscreen life, I can't help feeling the best way to maintain a healthy sex life is to ban the darn things from the bedroom. The most inspiring tale I've heard of late involves a couple in their late 50s whose children have left home.
The husband told me they've established a new routine after finding they'd got a bit slack about lovemaking; whichever one of them gets home from work first has to go upstairs and tidy the bedroom, open a bottle of wine, turn off all devices and then lie naked in bed awaiting the other's return.
He says that when they're reunited there are no firm rules about what happens next: they can just spoon, or talk, or read, or make love, depending on the mood of the day. He says the effect on marital intimacy has been nothing short of amazing. It's harder for those of us with school-age offspring to emulate this idyll. But if we now ban screens and smartphones from our children's bedrooms, surely we should follow the same rule ourselves?