No wonder we're confused. The government is launching a multimillion-pound campaign to fight the growing sexual health crisis, and yet we are apparently having less sex than ever before. More women are turning to cosmetic surgery to make themselves look younger and more beautiful, but one of the anxieties facing those having surgery is that a face/bottom/thigh lift will have the tiresome effect of making them more attractive to men. What is going on?
"Sex has become a cult, with the assumption being that we all want to, need to, should have sex a lot of the time. And yet sex has become something of a chore," is the verdict of the clinical psychologist Ron Bracey. "Of the people I see, sexuality is one of the biggest sources of anxiety that exists. It's about status, social ranking and the capacity to perform. There's no connection between the amount of sex we see around us and our understanding of it." Certainly when I told friends that I was researching a feature on people having less sex than they used to, all guffawed embarrassedly, most backed away and all of them refused to comment.
One explanation for our ambivalence towards sex is the increase in the number of couples seeking fertility treatment. As if the daily injections, the emotional roller coaster, the hopes, the expectations and the almost inevitable failure weren't enough, doctors are now explicitly warning those trying IVF not to have sex during treatment. One woman from California who was foolhardy enough to view sex as a little light entertainment while undergoing IVF managed to become pregnant twice in one month. First she conceived twins naturally, then the following week she conceived twins through IVF. The woman ended up carrying quads, even though only two embryos had been transferred back into her womb as part of her fertility treatment. Having quadruplets increases the risk to both mother and child, and in this case all four babies were delivered at 32 weeks. Sex can damage your health.
Ron Bracey says that one of the difficulties involved in receiving fertility treatment is that there is an added risk of natural conception, which couples find exciting. "The danger of pregnancy can be like sexual Russian roulette for some couples. IVF takes that risk away, and let's face it, sex and risk go together. The idea of getting caught is very exciting to some people. They can become addicted to it, and if you take the danger away, you take away the point of doing it in the first place."
Men attempting to deal with their sexual problems may well turn to Viagra. But even here, there are pitfalls. Scientists at Queen's University Belfast suggest that men who take Viagra when they are hoping to start a family could be affecting their fertility. Dr David Glenn, who worked on the university's study, says that "nearly half of licensed fertility units in the UK currently use Viagra to assist patients". There are other scientists who disagree. They point out that "it would be a terrible shame if an unnecessarily alarmist headline put people off using a treatment such as Viagra which may actually help them". According to Bracey: "We're getting very American in our attitudes. We think we can buy a solution to every problem ... but interestingly I'm seeing people in my clinic who feel compelled to buy the solution even if they don't mind the problem."
Britain's growing sexual health crisis doesn't mean that more and more of us are having more and more sex. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 708,083 people were diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection in 2003. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University say the amount of sex on television is partly to blame for the increase in infections. Interestingly, the figures do not show either an overall rise in the numbers of people having sex or even an increase in the amount of sex that most people have. …