It is a common assumption that once a couple ties the knot, sex goes out the window. Indeed, the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, who said “I do” nine times, once quipped: “I know nothing about sex, because I was always married”.
Yet new research indicates that most couples in long-term relationships remain happy well into their sixties.
While it is not uncommon for couples to disagree about how often they should have sex, this does not necessarily alter their commitment to the relationship, scientists at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Manchester will hear on Wednesday.
Levels of sexual desire
Researchers surveyed more than 5,000 heterosexual, lesbian, gay and bisexual people aged 16 to 65 to discuss their relationships.
Around 60 per cent of respondents believed that sex was an important part of their relationship while 15 per cent disagreed. The remainder neither agreed nor disagreed.
One third (33 per cent) of women reported that their partners wanted sex more frequently than they did, while a larger proportion, 40 per cent, said this was not the case.
Only 10 per cent of men said that their partners wanted sex more frequently than they did, compared with nearly two thirds (60 per cent) who said they did not.
‘Part and parcel’ of relationship cycle
The research, conducted by Professor Jacqui Gabb, of the Open University, and Professor Janet Fink, of the University of Huddersfield, and presented in Manchester on Wednesday, reveals that differences in sexual desire are not considered “particularly significant”.
“Couples are saying that differences in sexual frequency and desire are just part and parcel of the relationship cycle and are accepted as not particularly significant,” Professor Gabb said.
Still going strong
The study also found that many older participants continued to derive pleasure from their sex lives even when sexual activity was less frequent than it had once been.
One older woman who participated in the research described sex as “one of the prerequisites of a relationship” for her.
However, she added: “There are other areas of a relationship which I think need a lot more work and are far more important, like trust, money, love [and] teamwork.”
Professor Gabb said of the findings: “Fluctuations in desire are inexorably tied into other life factors, but it is the sharing of a life together, the investment in that joint venture and the acceptance of change as an integral part of this shared life which enables couples to weather the ebbs and flows that characterise sexual intimacy and the passage of time in long-term relationships.”
She added: “The longevity of partnerships seems to be connected with couples’ capacity to negotiate changing circumstances. For older couples, the first blush of a new relationship may have worn off but the relationship has not tarnished.”
For some couples, the idea of having sex with anyone other than your significant other seems unfathomable. It can be hard to understand how “swinging” — when you swap partners with another couple and sleep with someone new — can actually lead to stronger relationship bonds. But believe it or not, it can, and there are more couples interested in doing it than you may realize.
If you’ve ever remotely considered getting into swinging — with your spouse, significant other or just that cool friend with benefits — there are a few things you should know before you dive in. Below, four women get real about what their own swinging experiences were really like.
Nicole has been with her husband for 18 years and they’ve been swinging for 17.
How she got into it: “I grew up with this idea that there’s not just one person for anyone and that we can enjoy being with multiple people, as well as the idea that you can have sex without having emotion tied to it. My husband knew that I was bi-curious when we met, so on the anniversary of our first date, we decided to explore and went to a swingers club.”
How it impacted her relationship: “It’s really helped strengthen our relationship. Not all experiences were 100 percent pleasurable, so we made an effort to have those conversations and keep the lines of communication open. When you talk about [swinging] it makes it so much easier to discuss other issues in the relationship.”
Her advice to those considering the lifestyle: “For couples who are considering it, we suggest that you better have a really good relationship starting out because it doesn’t fix broken relationships, it only breaks them up faster. Also, you need to have conversations with your spouse or partner before you go into it. Know your rules and limits before you get into a situation because you can’t really get upset with your partner if you didn’t talk about.”
Jody was introduced to swinging five years ago and is currently single. She loves her work as a sex coach and says if it weren’t for swinging, she wouldn’t be where she is now.
How she got into it: “I was introduced to swinging by my former husband, and not in a good way. One day he forgot to log off the computer and I looked at his browser. I saw some sites that I was not familiar with, but I was appalled by what a saw. Some time later, I confronted him about it. He explained to me what swinging was, but I furthered my knowledge by reading everything I could. I then told him that if he had just talked to me about it, it was something I could be open to.”
How it impacted her relationship: “[Swinging] honestly had no effect on our relationship, which ended for other reasons. Swinging changed me personally for the better. I have sexual confidence that I didn’t have before. I exclusively date swingers now because I meet a much better class of men. They really honor and respect women.”
Her advice to those considering swinging: “If your marriage is struggling, don’t do it. It will only make things worse. If you have a good marriage, dip your toes in the water. Attend a meet and greet or other event. The swinger couples I know have absolutely amazing marriages. For a single woman, you’ll meet the best men ever, but take it slow and make sure you take the usual dating precautions.”
Julia Allen, co-founder of StockingsVR, was 24 when she first walked into a swingers club and has now been swinging for 25 years.
How she got into it: “My boyfriend thought it would be fun to try. We didn’t do anything except dance and talk to some people the first night, but it was exciting and I couldn’t wait to go back. A few months later, on New Year’s Eve, we had a hotel room and invited a few people up. Well… Everyone came up. It was packed and before I knew it, everyone was having sex all around me. A lovely woman wanted to play with me and my boyfriend. I loved it. I loved watching him with her and having him watch me with her, and then both of us just getting lost in the whole experience. I loved the experience of being able to have sex outside of my relationship.”
How it impacted her relationship: “I’ve never been tempted to stray outside of my relationship by having an affair. Swinging takes care of all of my sex needs. I really feel that it strengthens every relationship. I don’t view sex as something that you only have with someone you love. Sex is recreational. I think every boyfriend I’ve had has felt the same way. Along the way, I started filming myself with various people and decided to take my swinging/exhibitionist/kinky lifestyle and make it full time. I guess you could say that swinging has enriched my relationships and also enriched my life.”
Her advice to those considering swinging: “Don’t feel pressure. Most people who are new to swinging don’t actually have sex. They like to watch. In a swingers club, no really does mean no. Many times, I’ve had men or women approach me and if I don’t feel like it, I just say no. You can explore any fantasy you have at a swingers club. I would suggest for first timers to try a larger club where there are lots of people. People who go to swingers clubs are normal people who you would never guess in a million years are swingers. About 90 percent of people who swing are married with kids and just want to try walking on the wild side together.”
How she got into it: “Depending on the state of each relationship and my boundaries with different partners, I had different experiences. In the beginning, when I was younger, it felt awkward based on my inability to be assertive about my wants and needs. It felt more like that group sex stereotype that you might see on TV or in porn… and definitely more male pleasure-centered.”
How it impacted her relationship: “Sexual jealousy has never really been an issue for me, and as long as my needs are being met, I feel secure and aroused when I watch a partner enjoying someone else. I think one mistake some people make is assuming that swinging has only one meaning, but it’s something that is totally open to interpretation. Some of my most intimate, fulfilling encounters lately have been ‘soft swap’ — meaning I have sex with my primary partner, and have foreplay only with our ‘guests.’”
Her advice to those considering swinging: “If you want to start experimenting with swinging and swapping, you need to take a look at your sexual values and belief system. Compare it to the way your partner perceives things, and before you proceed, have an honest discussion. Overall, if you find yourself wanting to try this later on in life, go for it! It may reawaken you and give you a sexual second wind. It’s never too late. There are people of all ages, all body types, all colors, who come from a variety of backgrounds looking for like-minded people.”
Don’t assume ‘the lifestyle’ does not come with a rulebook. Communication is important, and rules can make relationships better.
Fatima Mechtab, Marketing Supervisor and events coordinator at Oasis Aqualounge, poses at the Toronto adult playground.
Toronto’s Oasis Aqualounge, at Carleton and Church Sts., is a pretty open environment. The clothing-optional sex club hosts events each week for people to explore their sexual fantasies. But for such a sexually free venue, there are certainly a lot of rules.
No photos. Certain areas are off limits to men unless accompanied by a woman. No touching of any kind unless given permission. No means no, of course, but the club takes it a step further: only yes means yes. That means there are no sexy times until consent is verbalized, says Fatima Mechtab, the marketing and events co-ordinator at Oasis, which had approximately 16,000 members last year.
The clothing-optional space, where sex is allowed, is by its nature vulnerable, she says. The rules are to make sure everyone feels safe, comfortable and encourage people to talk. “A big problem with consent is people assume it’s something you don’t have to verbalize,” she says. In fact, when it comes to sex, there’s lots that people don’t talk about — but should.
Mechtab, a queer woman who has explored swinging and polyamorous relationships in the past, says these types of strict rules — don’t make assumptions, ask before touching — are common in “the lifestyle,” a term for consensually nonmonogamous couples. And, she says, rules make relationships better.
Couples and the locations they go to play have to create an environment in which all parties feel not only safe, but also heard. These boundaries take away the grey areas, forcing couples to say what they do or don’t want and what they need from sexual encounters. And there’s a lot non-swingers can learn from them about building a healthy (and satisfied) relationship.
A successful swinging relationship is based on constant communication, says Carol Hunt, founder of VenusCouples, a Montreal-based online forum for “sex-positive” exploration of the lifestyle. She and her husband have been swinging for a decade. Before any party or outing, they agree upon a set of boundaries (such as they’ll always be in the same room during sex) and expectations for the evening (be it sex with another person or a night observing others). Afterwards, they always break their experience down: what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what would they like to try in the future?
While it might seem exhausting to always talk about sex, Hunt says it means both parties feel their needs are being heard. If her husband wants to try something new, but she’s not interested, the decision isn’t shut down entirely. Instead, they discuss both points of view and try and find a happy middle ground in which they can explore. No always means no — but that’s only the start of the conversation.
That consensus building trickles out of the bedroom, says Edward Fernandes, a professor of sexuality specializing in swingers, at Barton University in North Carolina. “I’ve had people say, ‘We used to have trouble with our finances — we couldn’t talk about this,’ and once we went into swinging, that (inability to communicate) went away,’” says the Toronto expat. “Now, they’re able to talk about everything.” If you can talk about a taboo topic like sex freely, there’s nothing to stop you from vocalizing issues with the chores, he says.
One 2014 study from the University of Oklahoma, which compared monogamous and consensually nonmonogamous couples, found those in open relationships rated their happiness and health higher than their counterparts. Another study from 2000, found 90 per cent of couples said their marriage became happier after they started swinging.
“People will often avoid talking about things, because they don’t know how (their partner) is going to respond,” says Fernandes. “So we hide. Swinging tends to pull that curtain, and allows them to have direct communications with each other.”
Write your own sexy rule book
Hunt suggests couples looking to spice up their bedroom can start small: make it a point to go to a sex shop, for example, to discuss what both parties might enjoy or not. To avoid embarrassment, make it a rule that neither party can wander off on their own: you’re in it together and that can decrease the awkwardness.
Watching porn can be a great way to get both parties in the mood. But before hitting play, Hunt suggests setting expectations: you’ll only watch for an hour, and collectively pick one act to try and re-create.
If you’re trying something new and don’t enjoy it the first time, Hunt say don’t shut it down right away. Commit to revisiting the act at least once at a later date, and if you still don’t enjoy it, then it’s OK to take it off the table for the future.
Great relationships need work, she says. Set aside a couple hours each week just to be with each other. No television, no distractions (and if you want, no clothes).
Make a relationship rule to do one sexy thing a day — even if it’s just kissing each other deeply for a few minutes, Hunt says. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that, but it ensures a daily connection with your partner.
In the prologue to her new book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, philosopher Carrie Jenkins is walking through Vancouver, from her boyfriend’s apartment to the home she has with her husband. She wonders at how the romantic love she experiences firsthand is so different than the model presented by popular culture and academic theory alike. “If indeed romantic love must be monogamous, then I am making some kind of mistake when I say, ‘I’m in love with you’ — meaning romantically — to both my partners,” she writes. “I am not lying, because I am genuinely trying to be as honest as I can. But if romantic love requires monogamy, then despite my best intentions, what I’m saying at those moments is not, strictly speaking, true.”
Her book examines the long, sometimes awkward legacy of philosophers’ thinking on romantic love, and compares that with a new subfield in close-relationships research — consensual nonmonogamy, or CNM. While singers and thinkers alike have been riffing on a “one and only” for decades, she argues that space is being made in the cultural conversation to “question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” These norms are more fluid than they appear: In Jenkins’s lifetime alone same-sex and cross-ethnicity relationships have become common.
When I asked Jenkins to describe how it feels to have both a husband and a boyfriend — she rejects the “primary relationship” moniker altogether — she said that it’s like having more loving relationships in your life, like a close family member or friend. She and her boyfriend, whom she’s been with for about five years, used to work in the same building; he was teaching creative writing on the floor above her philosophy department, though they didn’t meet until they matched on OkCupid. While both men have met each other, they’re not close; Jenkins describes the relationship as having a “V shape,” rather than a triangle. Both helped in the development of the book: husband refining philosophical arguments; boyfriend editing the writing, and helping her to sound like a normal person, rather than an academic.
Still, CNM faces lots of stigma; even the study of it is stigmatized. Yet in the limited yet rich vein of research out there, the evidence suggests that it’s a style that, in some populations, leads to greater relationship satisfaction than monogamy. In any case, the researchers tell me, the insights into what makes more-than-two relationships work can be applied to any given dyad, given the communicative finesse required when three or more hearts are involved.
In a forthcoming Perspectives in Psychological Science paper, Terri Conley, a University of Michigan psychologist who’s driven the field, defines CNM as “a relational arrangement in which partners agree that it is acceptable to have more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship at the same time.” That’s distinguished from the “polygamy” practiced by some religious groups, where it’s not always clear whether wives can opt out of the relationship.
I was surprised to discover how common it is: A 2016 study of two nationally representative samples of single Americans — of 3,905 and 4,813 respondents, respectively — found in each case that about one in five people had practiced it during their lifetime. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 31 percent of women and 38 percent of men thought their ideal relationship would be CNM in some way. Other research indicates that around 4 to 5 percent of Americans in relationships are in some sort of CNM, be it swinging, where partners have sex with people outside their relationship at parties and the like; an open relationship, where it’s cool to have sex with other people but not grow emotionally attached to them; or polyamory, where both partners approve of having close emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships outside of the couple itself. People are curious, too: From 2006 to 2015, Google searches for polyamory and open relationships went up. Other data points to how sticking to the boundaries of monogamy doesn’t come easily to lots of people: A 2007 survey of 70,000 Americans found that one in five had cheated on their current partner.
Jenkins says that as a tenured philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, she’s in a unique, privileged position to openly talk about being in a nonmonogamous marriage. She’d been interested in being in more than one relationship ever since she can remember, but it used to seem like some sort of impossible dream situation — she didn’t realize it could be an option in her real life until she was about 30. (She’s now 37.)
Jenkins met her husband, Jonathan, who’s also a philosopher, back in 2009, at a philosophy workshop that he organized at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; they later got married in the same hall the conference took place. They took one another’s last names as middle names.
Now married for almost eight years, they talked about polyamory early on, though defining the relationship that way came later. As philosophers are wont to do, they soon wrote a bit of a manifesto about their arrangement. They observed that even if their wedding guests were woke in any number of ways — not batting an eyelid if a colleague was gay or bi, eschewing heteronormative assumptions, and the like — there’s still the shared assumption that a nonmonogamous relationship is less sexually safe and less committed than a regular ol’ monogamous one. “Even our very liberal pocket of our relatively liberal society is massively — and, to us, surprisingly— mononormative,” they write. “Acquaintances, friends, and colleagues are constantly assuming that our relationship, and indeed every relationship that they think of as ‘serious’, is a sexually monogamous one.”
To Jenkins, the biggest struggle with polyamory isn’t from managing multiple relationships — though Google Calendar is a crucial tool — but rather the strong, sometimes violently negative reactions that she gets, especially online. When I spoke with her by phone, she was struck by a comment to a YouTube interview of hers, where a pseudonymous user invited “everyone” to read her column in the Chronicle of Higher Education about having multiple loves.
“THIS WOMAN IS A DISGUSTING ANIMAL,” the troll wrote. “Every bit as twisted and queer as the Mormons with their multiple lives [sic]. This femme-pig is the spectral opposite of Trump; a far far left-wing freak that desires to completely overthrow Western Christian Civilization.” Jenkins walked me through a deep reading of the bile: Bundling in politics — the “left-wing freak” bit — with the monogamy norms signals to her that there’s a judgment of what it means to be a good person in here, since politics is about living correctly, collectively. Plus “if you’re an animal, you’re out of the range of humanity,” she says. She’s also gets a lot of “get herpes and die, slut” suggestions, she says, which speaks to the hypersexualization of CNM. Nonmonogamy leads to lots of sex, the presumption goes, and with that STIs, and it proceeds from there. The way news articles covering CNM tend to be illustrated with images of three or four people in a bath or bed doesn’t help, either.
“The way we normally think about romantic love, we don’t imagine that it’s entirely about sex,” she says. “For a lot of people sex is a part of it; if we’re just having a hookup or a friend with benefits, we don’t call that romantic love. When it comes to polyamorous relationships, if you’re in love with more than one person, the same applies — to fall in love with someone is not the same as to sleep with them. We’re clear with that distinction in monogamous relationships, but in CNM that distinction between love and sex gets collapsed.”
Researchers who have studied stigma around CNM have found lots. In a 2012 paper, Conley and her colleagues found that monogamous relationships were better rated on every metric by different sets of the population, including nonmonogamous people. When 132 participants recruited online read relationship vignettes that were identical except for one being monogamous and the other not, the CNM was seen as riskier sexually, more lonely, less acceptable, and having a lower relationship quality. People in CNM were also seen as worse with non-relational things, like making sure to walk their dog or paying their taxes on time. Amy Moors, a co-author on the paper, says it had some of the biggest effect sizes she’s seen in her research. Elisabeth Sheff, a leading polyamory researcher who left academia for lack of grant funding, now frequently serves as an expert witness in custody battles; she says that often a grandmother or a former spouse will find out that a co-parent has multiple relationships, be scandalized, and demand to take the kids — even though her longitudinal research, reported in The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, indicates that kids who grow up in polyamorous families aren’t any more screwed up than average American children.
That same paper finds that there were no differences in relationship functioning between monogamous and nonmonogamous couples. People in CNM had lower jealousy and higher trust — yet also lower sexual satisfaction with their partner. Polyamorists were more satisfied than people in open relationships, perhaps because it’s hard to block of feelings for people you sleep with frequently. Polyamorous people were a special case, with higher satisfaction, commitment, trust, and passionate love than monogamous individuals, though they had lower sexual satisfaction. CNM people also had higher sexual satisfaction with their secondary partners than their primary partners, though that difference fell away when controlling for relationship time, with primary relationships averaging three times the length of secondary relationships.
“Overall, the standard for human responses for relationships is habituation,” Conley says. “That involves a loss of sexual attraction, and we can tell that from stats from therapy. And to the extent that a couple is frustrated sexually, it spills over to other parts of life.”
There are other explanations for high satisfaction scores for polyamorous people, she adds. It could be that they’re just acting out a social desirability bias, given that they’re participating in a study about CNM and want the lifestyle to look good; it could also be that people who enter into polyamory have self-selected themselves into a hypercommunicative population — all the poly self-helpbooks emphasize the importance the need to explicitly talk things out. “People interested in polyamory are more relationship-y than the average person,” she says. “They like thinking about relationships, talking about relationships. That’s great in monogamy, but needed in polyamory.”
All this suggests the kind of people that are the right fit for CNM. Beyond being relationship-y, a Portuguese study out this year found that people with a high sociosexuality, or disposal to casual sex, had less relationship satisfaction when in a monogamous relationship, but those effects disappeared if they were in CNM. Still, they were just as committed to their relationships — signaling that exclusivity and commitment may not be one and the same. Harvard sexologist Justin Lehmiller has found that people who are more erotophilic — i.e., that love sex — will be a better fit for CNM; same with if they’re sensation-seeking.
Amy Moors, the Purdue psychologist, has found that people with higher avoidant attachment — where you’re just not that into intimacy — have positive feelings about and a willingness to engage in polyamory, but they were less likely to actually partake of it. While a correlational study, Moors explained that from a subjective perspective, it makes sense: “When you have avoidant attachment, you like a lot of emotional distance, physical distance, time by yourself,” Moors says, which is not a fit for the relationship-y remands of a poly lifestyle. Also, there’s reason to believe that folks who have relational anxiety, and are thus sensitive to separation, might be prone to the jealousy that’s known to flare up in CNM, though it’s not like that doesn’t happen in monogamy, too.
What motivated Jenkins to write What Love Is, she says, was a gap — or silence — in the philosophical literature, that polyamory was rarely discussed or even acknowledged as a possibility. “Noticing these philosophical silences and denials, while simultaneously being made aware of how society at large viewed me for being a polyamorous woman, made me realize there was something important here that I needed to do,” she says. “To do it meant bringing my personal life and my philosophical work into a conversation with one another. The familiar slogan says that the personal is political, but the personal is philosophical, too.”
Two key themes emerge from reading the book: that love is dual-layered, with social scripts overlaying evolutionary, physiological impulses. And that the “romantic mystique,” like the feminine one before it, assumes that love is mysterious and elusive and corrupted from examination — a sentiment that protects the status quo. But with investigation, and conversation, the mechanics of love reveal themselves, and norms can change socially, and be tailored locally. Like Jenkins, you can custom-fit your relationships to your life — if you dare to talk about them.
Writhing about naked, covered in sweat: sex is one of the most uninhibited things you can do with another person. So it’s sort of odd that a lot of us are so terrible at talking about it.
And whether a relationship is in those heady stages when you fumble around trying to work out what marks “ooh that’s nice” from “er, please don’t do that”, or together for so long that you think you know their body better than Google Maps knows our planet, it can be tough to express exactly what you want.
Enter the sex menu. This is list of what a person loves, hates, and would be up for trying during foreplay and sex. The depth that this goes in to depends on the person. Yes, this sounds cringe-worthy, but so is sex and that is why we are in this mess in the first place. And judging by a recent study by relationship charity Relate – which found that less than half of people are satisfied with their sex life, and 51 per cent had not had sex in the last month – a lot of us could do with some help in the bedroom.
Sex expert Dr Stephen de Wit suggests taking twenty minutes to be completely open with yourself, and run down his detailed list of turn-ons and positions, from holding hands to bondage, cross-dressing and caning, and marking ‘yes’ or ‘no’. To refine the list further, the answers can be ranked from one to five for willingness, with a section for notes explaining any concerns, fears or specific requests.
This simple exercise enables a person to build awareness about their body, and to take the time to consider what they enjoy, and how best to share this information with future partners.
“Do not judge others” he adds on his website. “There will be things on the list that turn you on tremendously and some that you’ll say ‘Oh Hells No’ or think something is gross. That is perfectly ok that you are not comfortable with it at this time of your life and it may be something that turns someone else on.”
Sex menus also avoid goal-oriented sex, where orgasms rather than pleasure, experimentation and exploration are the focus.
Peter Saddington, a sex therapist in the Midlands who works for the relationships charity Relate and is a chair of the College of Sexual Relation and Therapy, told The Independent that sex menus can certainly be a useful tool.
“Consistently people assume when they get together and they are sexual they develop a way to work and stick with it and don’t experiment.”
“Sex is still a strange subject. There is pressure to think that people are having lots of great sex and that you need to do the same, but that is not the case for lots of couples.”
Saddington goes on to argue that a lack of understanding when it comes to sex starts from a young age. “Sex isn’t talked about successfully by parents talking to kids or in schools. There is a general lack of knowledge and understanding about it as a subject.” As such, people can feel embarrassed and pressured into having sex they don’t fully enjoy.
An alternative to a sex menu is a three circle exercise, adds Saddington, where a person lays out what they are OK with, what they are no OK with, but also what they are happy have to give but not receive and visa versa.
But he stresses that while a sex menu is a good guide, it should still be perceived as flexible.
“How and whether you want to have sex is affected by that day and the relationship. There are questions you need to consider each time you are being sexual. Just because something worked last time, it doesn’t mean a person wants it a second time.”
For couples with clashing lists, Saddington suggests discussing the actions. “This can help ensure you are talking about the same thing, and see if the partner is willing to explore or meet half way.”
From there, try exploring verbally and physically but be sure to stop if something is uncomfortable.