Could your smartphone habits be killing your sex life?
A few weeks ago, I had a rude awakening. It was 11.45pm on a Friday and I was in bed with my beloved, paying him no attention. I'd just spent an hour reading friends' Facebook posts, with the occasional detour to browse '50s frocks on eBay. My other half was focused 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. 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."
My love and I are in danger of becoming part of a troubling trend. The latest data from Natsal (the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which has been conducted once a decade since 1991) reveals a steady drop between 2001 and 2012 in the frequency that adult Britons make love.
Fewer than half of those aged 16-44 were having sex at least once a week. 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 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.
Kaye Wellings, a professor who led the research, said: "In the digital age there are more diversionary stimuli." She cited smartphones, Netflix and social media as "likely distractions that may prevent intimacy". You may question why this matters, because 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.
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."
A man in his mid-50s, whom 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 hitherto unscreened episodes of Fleabag (the British TV comedy series), they would plump for the latter.
One friend from college days pointed out that when she and I were first married, back in the '90s, there wasn't much diverting entertainment. "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.
Kaye Wellings, a professor who led the research, cited smartphones, Netflix and social media as 'likely distractions that may prevent intimacy'
A writer friend, renowned for her all-round raunchiness, admitted her enthusiasm for "a good straightforward shag" has been torpedoed by working long hours, mothering a small child, the "terrifying addictiveness of Orange is the New Black and stalking your frenemies on Facebook".
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 earbuds go in and he zones out."
The department for education's Next Steps Project announced last year that its research showed one in eight millennials (the project tracked 16,000 young people born between 1989 and 1990) were self-confessed virgins.
There have been similar findings in the US, to the extent that the journalist Kate Julian coined a new term when she wrote a widely reported article entitled "The Sex Recession". Julian examined the paradox that people in the West lived in times where sex had never been so freely available - courtesy of dating apps such as 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 pupils who'd had sex had dropped from 54% to 40% between 1991 and 2017. Over a similar period, data 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.
THE TYRANNY OF PORN
A politico friend points out that though older couples may find their love lives sunk by social media and clickbait, younger ones are increasingly subject to the tyranny of porn.
He says his 25-year-old girlfriend abandoned her previous relationship when her then partner made no attempt to hide his online porn habit, taking his phone to bed to watch X-rated films while making almost no effort to pleasure her. She said he could only get an erection while watching pornography.
If we ban screens and smartphones from our children's bedrooms, surely we should follow the same rule?
As the era of virtual reality headsets and AI-enhanced sex toys is already upon us, you can only imagine such scenarios becoming more common.
Not everyone 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. Now her phone aids and abets her love life.
Whatever the upsides of on-screen 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 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 love-making. Whoever gets home 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. There are no firm rules about what happens next: they can just spoon, or talk, or read or make love.
It's harder for those of us with school-age offspring. But if we ban screens and smartphones from our children's bedrooms, surely we should follow the same rule?
- © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019