When Mel* met Roy* it was love at first sight. Roy was creative, unafraid to share his feelings, and keen to take their budding relationship further. He wrote her poetry and spoke of their future. They came from conservative communities, so while they held hands, kissed and made out, they never went “all the way”.
When they married, Mel, then 25, looked forward to their honeymoon and taking their relationship to the next level. Yet nothing happened on their wedding night and for days afterwards Roy was tired, or concerned about house guests hearing them. The weeks turned into months, the months into years and Mel was forced to face a reality she couldn’t quite fathom: her marriage was never going to be consummated.
“We would make out on the pretext of wanting to have sex and he would do things to me but it never culminated in sex,” she says. “He would try to put his penis in me but say he was scared to hurt me. He’d blame me, but deep down I knew it wasn’t my fault.”
In a world where sex is in our faces like never before, it’s hard to imagine a relationship without it. Yet experts estimate that as many as one in five couples are in sexless marriages, defined as engaging in sex fewer than 10 times a year. Some, like Mel and Roy, don’t have sex at all. Given our alleged hypersexualised culture, how is that possible?
Sexologist Vanessa Thompson says medical issues such as vaginismus, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation can prevent people from having sex. Pain is another factor, particularly for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, as is a history of sexual abuse. Culture, religion and family attitudes towards sex can play a part as well.
“If a person isn’t having sex with their partner, in my experience, it’s rare that the partner is the reason why,” Thompson says.
Jane*, 29, believes her strict religious upbringing contributed to her anxiety about sex. Four years into her marriage she was still unable to have sex because of vaginismus – a condition where the vaginal muscles clench and prevent entry into the vagina – yet she found it very hard to talk about.
“I grew up in a household where sex was only spoken about in the context of ‘don’t do it’,” she explains. “It was associated with bad things, bad people, sin and immorality. We weren’t allowed to call our genitals by their actual names, in fact, we weren’t allowed to mention that area at all. I grew up feeling a deep sense of shame about sex, desire and my body. I felt dirty.”
Jane became aware she might have an issue with sex when she struggled to use tampons, but gynaecological tests found no physical problem and her condition went undiagnosed.
“I put it out of my mind and didn’t think about it again until my husband and I tried to have sex for the first time. A sharp, stabbing pain would shoot through my vagina, and sex became incredibly stressful for both of us. My husband was scared of hurting me, and I was scared of getting hurt.”
The couple turned to oral sex which was pleasurable and exciting, and helped them discover what they liked. (“If it weren’t for my vaginismus we may have never discovered my clitoris, which would have been the greatest tragedy of all,” she says.) Yet Jane felt guilty every time she had an orgasm.
“It was infuriating that despite my whole body desiring to have sex with my husband, the guilt and shame that was in the back of my head just wouldn’t let me,” she says. “As a partner and a woman, I felt like I was a huge letdown, like I was failing at something that’s supposed to be completely natural.
“Oral sex started to feel like a consolation prize, and physical intimacy became a burden because all I could think about was what I couldn’t do.”
Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality, counsels couples against judging their relationship based on the quantity of sex they have. “Sex is part of the way we connect with our partners, it makes us feel loved and feel loving,” she says. “But you can’t measure how loving a relationship is on sex alone.”
Hills says that while our culture places so much emphasis on intercourse as the main form of intimacy, labelling a marriage “sexless” based on how often intercourse occurs doesn’t take into account other forms of physical intimacy and different sexual acts, such as oral sex.
“Sex in a relationship ebbs and flows,” she explains. “There are many sex therapists who will say that even if you have sex eight times a year or zero times a year, it doesn’t mean your relationship is bad, as long as both partners are happy with it.”
Yet the stereotype that men want sex all the time and women don’t persists. “Anyone who falls outside that stereotype feels ostracised,” says Thompson. “People dwell on it, particularly women. They expect that their partner will want them, and if they don’t, it can have an impact on their feelings.
This was the experience of 33-year-old Lily*, who, after enjoying a healthy sex life with her partner for four years, found that sex suddenly stopped completely. She didn’t notice it dwindling at first – in fact she felt relieved not having to have sex after a long day at work. But when a three-week holiday involved no sex at all, she realised work wasn’t the problem and her self-esteem suffered.
“I felt unattractive and unworthy, and this led to feelings of resentment about why I didn’t deserve to feel that way,” she admits. It was hard to go out and be hit on by guys, but having to say no because she had a partner at home, even if he didn’t want to sleep with her.
“I felt like I was missing out,” she says. “I remember feeling ashamed when TV shows would depict men racing to the bedroom for sex whenever the wife dropped a hint. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me.”
She tried talking to her partner about how she felt, and later to a friend, but both told her that as long as everything else was going well, then that was what was important. But sex was important to her; she felt like she was being shut down. Therapists advise talking about sexual issues with our partners in a way that doesn’t lay blame. Says Thompson, “I recommend the ‘I feel’ approach: ‘I feel like we’re not having sex enough’ as opposed to ‘you don’t’ or ‘you won’t’.” “People don’t break up because they’re not having sex, it’s because their communication about the lack of sex is not effective.”
But Mel found that talking didn’t help her relationship. She trod softly around Roy in the first few years, telling him that even if something was medically wrong with him, she would stand by him. His response was to abuse her and blame her for their problems.
“I wanted to find out what was wrong, fix it and move on,” she recalls. “He’d say I had no right to initiate sex, that he should. He told me I had vaginismus. He said that I was a bad-tempered, horrible person. Every time I asked him about sex, we would end up fighting.”
Thompson says that pressure and expectations can compound sexual problems, particularly if the relationship has evolved past its initial frisson (where chemicals mean sex is more frequent) and partners have reverted to their baseline libido, or if there’s been an injury or traumatic child birth.
She encourages couples to seek professional help and says that it’s important to maintain intimacy by coming up with your own ideas for how to express your love. “Create a list of things that you’d both like to do and will enjoy, and ensure those things are done on a regular basis,” she advises. “Things like kissing, hand holding, showering together – something that creates a connection.”
Lily’s emotional connection with her partner eventually faltered and they split. She’s now in a happier, more fulfilling relationship.
Jane is still with her husband and says she is thankful for his patience and understanding. While she hasn’t totally resolved her qualms about sex, she says that therapy and the purchase of a clitoral vibrator that distracts her from painful intercourse have been a big help. “Every so often I struggle with guilt, in that when I enjoy myself, I sometimes feel ashamed,” she says. “It’s completely messed up. But I recognise when I’m doing it now and to keep my head in check I make sure I’m being honest with my husband. I remind myself that sex is bloody amazing and nothing to ever be ashamed of.”
Mel realises in hindsight that affection had always been missing from her sexless marriage. If she hugged or kissed Roy, he’d reciprocate, but he never initiated it. “We were like roommates,” she recalls. “He was afraid that any affection he’d show [me] would lead to something else. There were times when I asked him if I could have a hug and he actually refused.”
Now, almost 10 years later, she’s no closer to knowing what the issue was. She suspects it could have been erectile dysfunction (“I think he was too egotistical to admit it”), or perhaps Roy was gay. But she’s married someone else, moved and now has a baby, creating a life that would have eluded her had she remained in the relationship.
“I was silent for four years, then I started telling people about my situation and every single person urged me to leave,” says Mel. “Those conversations gave me confidence. If someone else is going through this, all I can say is don’t suffer alone.”
* Names have been change