When Sexless Marriage Becomes the Norm

I went over to Vancouver last week to see an old friend open in her signature role, Shirley Valentine, at the Arts Club's Stanley Theatre. Nicola Cavendish has been playing this one-woman show across the country for a decade or so, and heavens it is a strange and satisfying thing to see someone you've known long and well, be actively loved, even adored by strangers. Hundreds of prosperous, sophisticated Vancouver couples from 30 to 80 sat in their seats brisk with anticipation, those who had seen her before excitedly telling their guests they were in for a real treat. And once she appeared, they all sat, to a man or woman, faces lifted towards the stage, expectant as birds in their mother's nest, putative worms dangling overhead.

Nicky did not disappoint. By turns sweet and vulgar, she can turn on a dime and be soft, insecure, almost pleading, then raging, sharply disappointed, deeply insightful -- and always, very, very funny. There is just no predicting her, so you have to pay close attention. Which is when the love part kicks in.

Not a little of this identification (and what can only be called hope), however, has to do with the subject matter of the play. Shirley Valentine is the story of a working-class English housewife whose children have left home, and whose husband ignores her. So one day she accepts an invitation to go on holiday with a girlfriend, and finds, in Greece, a fisherman who, how shall I put this, awakens her to her sensual self, which triggers a rediscovery of the self she left behind when she married. At the end of the play, she is awaiting a surprise visit from her husband, and we know that good things await her, and probably even, marital sex.

It is nice to know that Shirley Valentine is having sex because no one else is. I've given up asking my married and coupled friends about this queer crash, because it doesn't seem to be getting any better, Viagra aside, which is, for the hipsters among us, somewhat degrading. It doesn't seem to be limited to the menopausal either, it's just as rife among 40 year olds, not in need, let me assure you, of plumbing instructions or a quick run through of the Kama Sutra. A sexless marriage, in fact, seems more the norm than any other these days, though I suppose, the 30-minute, Saturday night, post-dinner party toothbrush, as one old friend puts it, has been around a long time. Newsweek recently reported that their experts had found that between 15% and 20% of all marriages were completely sexless, but that those experts thought that, given anecdotal reporting, it could be many more, since when it comes to sex, especially if you aren't getting any, people lie.

The Sex-Starved Marriage; OK, So I Don't Have a Headache; I'm Not In the Mood; For Women Only: The marketplace is replete with best- selling advice books for the condition. On his Web site, Dr. Phil states that "sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic." At the upmarket end, Caitlin Flanagan observed in The Atlantic last winter that, "it has become impossible not to suspect that a large number of relatively young and otherwise healthy married people are forgoing sex for long periods of time and that many have given it up altogether."

In fact, continues Flanagan, "Nowadays, American parents of a certain social class seem squeaky clean, high-achieving, flush with cash, relatively exhausted, obsessed with their children, and somehow -- how to pinpoint this? - - undersexed."

Pretty much a social ideal, I'd say. Flanagan, and most observers put this down to the double shift women have been pulling at home and at work for the past 30 years. Women are simply too exhausted, too over-burdened, and generally, too pissed off. Men? They feel resentful and trapped. The only solution promoted by all these experts, seems an old-fashioned one: Put time aside for yourselves, shut your eyes and just do it, be kind to each other. The success of this limp advice is, as you'd expect, patchy.

I personally think it is because our culture has methodically murdered romantic love. As Kay S. Hymowitz points out, "companionate marriage -- cemented with shared interests, common background and sexual pleasure, rather than strong emotion, was the ideal promoted by the first wave of feminism." This is so true as to be cemented as actual fact. All Oprah's children have bent themselves to establishing that romantic love leads to obsession, jealousy, violence, co- dependence, relinquishment of self to an unworthy other, abandonment of the development of self to an illusion which will inevitably pass. The real, the valid romance, the good romance, is, as Shirley Valentine makes so clear, the romance with Self.

But it was somehow supposed to make our lives so much better. What it seems to have made us is casual predators, on constant patrol for whatever will satisfy that self. I've taken an informal poll of my more active (and charming) male acquaintances in recent weeks. That many of them have had sex with a hundred women or so doesn't seem particularly shocking, but set that against the lives of my father, uncles and grandfathers all of whom shepherded 50- year long marriages through to death, and raised still-thriving families, and it does. As Hymowitz says, "lifting the veil of illusion of love might reveal not the sweet smile of equal, harmonious sexual relations, but the predacious grin of raw impulse."

And when that impulse fades? There's your business partner in bed with you. Where's the mystery? Where's the romance? Where's the transcendence? Where's the recognition that in sexuality one is wrestling with the gods, that the sacred codes of old might give heft and meaning to the long haul? Sacrificed to the sociologists, psychologists, health police and a commercial culture that peddles sex so assiduously that celibacy seems the only private space left.

Somehow we have triggered a sex strike that would have astonished Lysistrata. Crashing birth rates, come on down.