Putting the sex back into marriage
Nothing takes the erotic charge out of a relationship like the daily grind of childrearing, bill-paying, and unloading the dishwasher. But sparks flew for Oonagh Montague when she read a book that claims to fire-up the flames of lost passions. If we had rambucntious sex every time it crossed our minds, we'd be cream crackered in a week
Do you remember when you fancied the pants off your other half? The days when you couldn't put each other down for 10 minutes and you worried that you might actually rupture something?
Now fast-forward by 10 years and two "I do's" and tell me if things have changed. Because they did for us.
After several years of child rearing, office going, bill paying, lawn mowing, dinner making and dishwasher unloading, my husband and I looked at each other and realised that, somewhere along the way, we had lost our spontaneity.
We had gained some pretty cool things in its place -- intimacy, trust, in-jokes -- but the fact was that the days of having fabulous and frequent sex were far behind us.
But did they have to be? Did one really need to cancel out the other? Surely it should be possible to have both -- to hold on to the crazy lust of the old days and make sure to buy milk on the way home from work?
Life itself is an antidote to wild sex. Sex in real life is never like in the movies. The fact is, if you're worried about bills or work, or you've got PMT and he needs a shave, if your fridge is on the fritz and one of the kids is spiking a temperature, it becomes rather tough to rustle up a good time.
As the years go by it can become a tad tricky to fancy the pants off someone when you're the one who buys his jocks and pointedly hands him the nail scissors. And it's tough to swoon when you're keeping one ear open for a small person wandering down the hall.
We once attempted a quickie in the only room in our house with a lock. There's nothing quite like your son banging on the bathroom door roaring, "MUMMMEEEE! I SCARED A GOAT!" to put you off your game.
Actually, while we're on the subject, anything to do with children is anathema to friskiness. Once kids arrive, your sex life takes an impressive nosedive. According to some, this downward spiral is entirely my fault. Correction -- the woman's fault.
"The real reason for this lack of sex, or at least the most profound, is that the wife's passion has been refocused," says Ayelet Waldman in her 2005 'New York Times' article. "Instead of concentrating her ardor on her husband, she concentrates it on her babies. Where once her husband was the centre of her passionate universe, there is now a new sun in whose orbit she revolves.
"Libido, as she once knew it, is gone, and in its place is all-consuming maternal desire."
Right. That's all very well and nuts -- but back in the real world there's nothing quite like witnessing or partaking in childbirth to take the 'Oooh!' out of the bedroom and replace it with 'Aaaaaargh!'
But something happened to us. One minute we were lounging about on the sofa watching movies, the next we were entertaining each other in dimly lit rooms. Not bad for a Monday night.
What happened was Betty Herbert. According to the author of 'The 52 Seductions', we are not alone. 'The 52 Seductions' is the true story of one thirtysomething couple's crusade to get the heat back into their marriage.
Or, rather, it's one woman's quest with her husband very helpfully rowing right in behind her. I mean, who wouldn't, right?
Betty and Herbert have been married for 10 years and are still very much in love.
"It's just that the fireworks ceased in the bedroom long ago... Nervously, I sidle up to H in the kitchen and make a proposition. 'We're never going to be the couple who have sex once a day,' I say, 'so let's be more realistic. What if we book a date for sex once a week, but with a twist? We take it turns to arrange a seduction for each other every other week for the next year'."
This very excellent idea sets Betty and Herbert off on a year-long journey which sees them trying bondage, cross-dressing, open air, sex shops, movies, sex board games, foot fetishes, phone sex, remote-controlled vibrators, role play, one German sex festival and the totally excellent-sounding tantric firebreath orgasm.
Along the way they have sex ranging from the mediocre to the mindblowing, all reported back via the honest and self-deprecating voice of Betty.
And she's a funny woman. The kind of person you could imagine holing up in a country pub with for an evening of excellent chat -- and by excellent I don't just mean sex.
Betty is possessed of a candour I admire. It's not a 'look at me, aren't I only brilliant?' honesty. It's a truthfulness that is hard won and often hard to share. A tad hard to read sometimes too, if I'm honest; there's a bit about a boil that, frankly, I didn't need to know about.
I'm a tough crowd, but I actually shook the bedsprings in laughter a few times. (Note: there will be many double entendres throughout this piece. Once you're writing about sex it becomes well nigh impossible to avoid them. So, let us continue safe in the knowledge that if you spot them, you are as juvenile as I am.)
Speaking of bedsprings, Betty and Herbert had 52 weeks. We had two. Right off the bat, my husband gamely volunteers to attempt the full 52 in a fortnight but, after I did the maths, I decided to stick with the book's original plan.
Not being one to shirk my responsibilities I, like Betty, decided to carry out the first seduction. This seemed only fair, given that I was the one who had persuaded my husband that it was perfectly normal to have his exploits detailed in the paper.
Again, like Betty, I take my mission seriously. But that's where the similarity ends. Where I head outside to the garden with a cup of tea and a biscuit to have a good old think, she, "in desperation does as any sane woman would".
She types 'seduction' into Google.
Is she completely mad? I have never even typed the word 'sex' into Google. I'd be afraid the whole thing would blow up on me. What's that statistic about how much of the internet is actually made up of sex? Typing a portal word such as 'sex' would surely end in my Mac starting to fizz and pop, spewing out pages and pages of mind-boggling porn as the circuit board melts and a robotic voice chants "system overload" and the door bell rings and it's the gardai here to arrest me for downloading pure filth as I stand there trying to work out what exactly is happening in that picture. And breathe.
Anyway, back to my calm cuppa in the garden. For the first time in years, I stop to have a very specific think about what my husband likes best.
I ponder the fact that, for a woman, it is easy to take for granted that saucy underwear and a meaningful look are all it takes to get your man going. Hell, a dropped dressing gown and a "go on then, but be quick about it" counts as seduction in most houses with young kids.
But this is different. I am determined to make an impressive effort to seduce my man. The kind of effort I might have made back when we were first together. So I ask myself, "What does he love more than anything in the whole world?"
The answer is right in front of me. Uncle Buck, his 1982 Cadillac Seville. Eureka! What better way to make my man's dreams come true than by combining his wife with the best of classic American engineering?
That evening, once the children are asleep and my husband has taken the dog for a walk, I set to work. First I rummage through my wardrobe and come up with a rough approximation of a bugle babe ensemble -- I'm not sure why, but I've decided that the 1940s are the way to go with Uncle Buck.
I choose a blouse and a sticky out skirt teamed with black heels, suspenders and some rudely red lipstick. Next, I administer the Essex facelift by way of an extremely tight and high ponytail.
To top this all off -- the pièce de résistance -- I throw on my dressing gown. The big red furry one, the one that says 'stop looking at me'. Every woman has one. I want to throw him off the scent, to surprise him.
I give the kitchen a quick once-over, do one last check on the kids and then set myself up on the sofa with a book to await his return.
Thirty long minutes of clock-watching later, in comes the man. He says hello and grabs the paper to settle down beside me, but then, like a whippet on a scent, he stops dead. I keep my eyes firmly on the page as I wait for him to assess the situation. He clocks the lipstick and the dressing gown and the smile I'm having difficulty smothering. I'm still feebly attempting nonchalance as his eyes travel down to the shiny heels and he starts to grin. That's my cue.
I stand up, drop the dressing gown and strut towards the door in a manner I hope is vampish or vixenish or something. Unfortunately at this point I have to turn back and ask him for the keys to Uncle Buck, which I'm afraid rather gives the game away. I haven't been able to find them anywhere. In fact, I'm now pretty sure he sleeps with them in his pants.
Luckily, instead of my question ruining the moment, a slow smile warms his face as he begins to understand what's ahead. He produces the keys, takes my arm and looks as happy as Mr Happy in Happyland as we head outside to baptise Uncle Buck.
The next morning at half-past stupid, when the kids have decamped to our bed, we manage to hang on to the afterglow for a surprisingly long time. Which is pretty impressive given the fact that we are midway through toilet training. If you've been through this particular step in child-rearing, then you don't need me to tell you just how effectively it takes the edge off that tousled feeling.
Which leads me on to my only quibble with 'The 52 Seductions'. Betty Herbert has orgasms all over the place. Yes, she does chart the path to this stage in her life and she does admit defeat at some junctures, but on the whole she is doing awfully well.
I confess this began to get on my nerves. "Ah come on! Again?" But that's the big difference between the author's 52 seductions and mine. I have two small children.
It is near impossible to lose yourself in the moment when the moment is four minutes before the end of 'Chuggington' on a Saturday morning. I have friends who confess to getting turned on as soon as they hear the theme tune to 'Thomas the Tank Engine'. Because that's about the only time we smug marrieds can pencil in anything resembling a regular shag.
We have it down to a fine art. Chuck in the DVD, hand out crackers and juice and leg it to the bedroom. You then have T minus nine minutes before someone gets bored and wanders in asking for a biscuit. Given that backdrop, it's damned hard for a lady to give way to wanton abandon.
Right, back to the job in hand. Seduction No 2. For the past three nights, my husband has been laughing so hard at passages from 'The 52 Seductions' that he has forgotten to angle for sex. Hence he is taking this mission even more seriously. First, he is determined to surprise me. Which proves difficult seeing as, according to him, I'm a deeply suspicious person. I beg to differ. I'm just helpful -- offering tidbits such as, "You do know I love it when it's nice and warm?"
"Did you just see me move the radiator into the bedroom?"
"No, but good idea, honey."
Despite my interference, Seduction No 2 was pretty awesome. Not least the run up to it. There was something very sweet about the way he was busily scurrying from room to room like a squirrel with nuts, hiding things behind his back and checking to see if I was watching. I loved the secrecy, the feeling that something illicit was going on.
By the time I was invited into the bedroom I was actually a bit nervous. Something approaching butterflies were whizzing round my stomach as I opened the door. Inside, he had artfully dimmed the lighting and transformed the usual mess of our bedroom into something resembling a boudoir. There was a banquet of strawberries and Prosecco and the Cocteau Twins played in the background.
After feeding me treats he gave me a full body massage, which left me in a rather good mood. If you catch my drift. In every way, it was my kind of seduction.
So, the book is working. We're thinking about sex more. At least I am. He's always thinking about it as far as I can see.
Actually, Betty Herbert has something to say about this. "It is a commonly held myth amongst women that their menfolk would have sex every day given the chance," she tells us. "We woman often see ourselves as the gatekeepers of sex, carefully limiting our partners' worst excesses."
As it turns out, this is not actually the case in her marriage, but she has a point. Who, apart from couples in the first throes of lust, has the time, stamina and willpower to get down with it every single time it crosses their mind?
Perhaps in every couple you need one to do the asking and one to do the rebuffing. Because, let's be totally honest here (as Betty's husband is), if we had rambunctious sex every time it crossed our minds, we'd be cream crackered in a week.
It's only later that I begin to see the real impact the book has had on us. Betty and Herbert are an ordinary couple brave enough to invite you into the most private part of their lives. In doing so, they give you a chance to measure yourself against them and say, "Oh, thank God. That happens to other people too. Looks like we're normal."
How often do you get a window into such an intimate world?
The media corrodes married life, with its perpetuation of the myth that everyone is having oodles of sweaty, rambunctious and photogenic sex. You can drunkenly chat with your mates all you like; it's not the same as a couple inviting you into their lives for a whole year.
'The 52 Seductions' acts as a great leveller, letting the reader know that we are all relatively the same behind closed doors. Instead of pretending that we are all rocking each other's worlds on a thrice-daily basis, Betty Herbert approaches sex in the easy-going, honest and laugh-smothering way one hopes for in a loving long-term relationship. It gives you flashes of the vixen and stud you used to be -- before you grew up and got busy.
But this isn't just about acrobatic 'Kama Sutra' shenanigans. It's about life and marriage and the worries that drag us all down. Above all, it's a tender portrayal of a couple who are just like the rest of us.
My advice? Give 'The 52 Seductions' a whirl. I, however, won't be lending you my copy. That's staying on the bedside table as a reminder. I'm up next, you see. And I have something pretty special lined up for Seduction No 3.
Now, where did I put those jade eggs?
The 52 Seductions by Betty Herbert is out now