This article was originally published in the October issue of The Australian Women's Weekly in 2017.
Katie Harlow* used to lie in bed wondering what on earth was wrong with her.
Her husband – a fit, healthy, high-flying alpha male – was never in the mood for sex. While friends bemoaned their husbands' insatiable sexual demands, Katie went for weeks, months and then a year without making love to her husband.
"I felt totally rejected, bewildered, frustrated, angry, but mostly just sad," she tells The Weekly. "And so alone. Was I the only woman in Australia whose husband didn't want to have sex with her?"
Since splitting from her husband and feeling free to confide their bedroom blues, however, countless female friends have shared a similar tale. "I've started to think perhaps our sex life wasn't that unusual," Katie says.
Interestingly, Katie may be on to something...
Sexless marriages: a rising trend?
It's difficult to say exactly how many of Australia's married couples are too exhausted, cranky, overworked, resentful, stressed or depressed to get it on, but experts estimate that 15-20 per cent of couples have sex fewer than 10 times a year, which is how they define a sexless marriage.
The traditional tendency is to blame the woman, but sex therapists say the age-old story of the sexually indifferent wife with a permanent headache and the libidinous male who is always up for it is a myth.
"I see as many women who complain about their partners not wanting sex as much as they do, as I see men," says Sydney relationship counsellor and sex therapist Matty Silver.
How many Australians are coping with a sexless marriage?
In a groundbreaking study into Australian sexuality, 14.6 per cent of women in heterosexual relationships reported that they hadn't had sex at all in the preceding four weeks and only 0.7 per cent of them were OK with this.
The vast majority (68.3 per cent) said they wanted sex more often than they got it and 84 per cent said their ideal frequency would be two or more times a week, according to The Australian Study of Health and Relationships.
Based on both her own clinical observations and conversations with colleagues, Matty believes that the number of sex-starved women in Australia is "grossly under-reported and under-discussed".
In a culture where virility is linked inextricably to masculinity and desirability to femininity, it is hardly surprising that men and women in this predicament choose not to broadcast their bedroom woes.
Books such as He's Just Not Up For It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex And What You Can Do About It, by Bob Berkowitz and Susan Yager-Berkowitz, and The Sex-Starved Wife: What To Do When He's Lost Desire, by Michele Weiner Davis, have started to shed light on what has been, until now, a social taboo.
"I'd say that low desire in men is America's best kept secret," says Michele Weiner Davis. Some local therapists believe it is Australia's, too.
Why could this be happening?
Conventional wisdom holds that the only reasons men ever turn down sex is if their "plumbing" isn't working, their partners have let themselves go, or if they are having an affair.
Yet therapists say that a man's sex drive can fluctuate for the same reasons a woman's can: emotional disconnection, underlying resentment, unresolved relationship problems, stress, depression, sexual tedium, a heavy workload, exhaustion, or a sense that their partner is too critical of them.
WATCH: Five signs you're likely to cheat on your partner. Post continues after video...
Tobacco and alcohol can wreak havoc on libidos, as can medication for depression (of particular concern when Australia is the second highest prescriber of anti-depressants among the 34 OECD nations – 8.9 per cent of us are on some form of daily anti-depressant).
Health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, hormonal fluctuations or diabetes can also affect sexual function and if men suddenly experience erectile problems, premature or delayed ejaculation, they can become too embarrassed to have sex and acquire 'performance anxiety'.
Why communication is NOT happening
Sex therapists say men are typically reluctant to discuss the reasons for their drop in libido, leaving their partners baffled. The more pressure women put on them to discuss the issue, the more they withdraw.
Katie says she still has "no idea" what made her ex-husband stop desiring her.
"I brought it up regularly with him. I would just ask him what was going on and he would get really angry," she says. "He just did not want to talk about it. I think he saw it as a slight to his ego."
Sex therapist Bettina Arndt recognises that there is a "significant" body of high-drive, sexually frustrated women out there, but insists their numbers are dwarfed by the army of sex-starved men across Australia. However, she acknowledges that the misery is likely to be more acute for women who are sexually rejected.
"It is the very fact that women are so rarely on the other side of the fence that makes this experience particularly painful. They never expect not to be wanted," she says.
"Since many of them are surrounded by friends whose partners are driving them mad by wanting sex, these women end up feeling there is something wrong with them."
While many second-guess their desirability – "Are my boobs too small?", "Have I put on too much weight?", "Does he find other women sexier?", "Am I doing something to put him off when we do have sex?" – Katie says her imagination ran wildly in other directions. Was her husband gay? Just not interested in sex? Should she take a lover?
"It's very dangerous," she says. "I would have had an affair if I had had the opportunity. And I wouldn't even have felt bad about it."
The (possibly negative) ramifications of a sexless marriage
Research shows that there ends up being less sex in relationships when the partner with the low libido is the male. The person with the lower desire in a relationship controls the frequency of sex and men have to be up for it – literally – whereas women can just go along for the ride.
Bettina adds that in our culture, men are expected to be the sexual initiators and have a high degree of resilience to rejection. Yet when the woman initiates and gets rebuffed, she soon throws in the towel.
"If you are a guy, it's expected that women will put up a little bit of resistance," agrees Katie. "But as a woman, you have grown up thinking that guys are always wanting to have sex and that you control that to a degree.
When, all of a sudden, nobody is tapping you on the shoulder and the excuses you would expect to give are being given to you instead, it's very hard to take."
Relationship counsellors, sex therapists and psychologists can't – and won't – tell you how much sex you should be having. Some couples are happily sexless, while others are delirious doing it daily.
However, marriage pros agree that if either partner in a couple is unhappy with the frequency of sex in their relationship, the consequences can be catastrophic. Mismatched libidos can drive a wedge between partners, affect moods, undermine trust, raise resentment, cause hurt, destroy emotional intimacy, annihilate self-esteem and so on.
WATCH: Sex-starved relationship problems. Post continues after video...
What can you do to help the situation?
Experts stress that for the partner with the higher sex drive, the desire for sex is seldom about the orgasm itself, but about feeling wanted, loved and emotionally connected.
- A good first port of call is a counsellor or sex therapist, who may also refer you on to a sexual health physician if the problem is physical.
- Talk things out as a couple. "The most crucial thing is to get couples communicating," says Matty Silver. "Talking about sex is one of the most difficult things a couple can do, but how can you learn what is going on with your partner if you don't talk to each other?"
- Make a healthy sex life a priority in your relationship. "Sex is what differentiates you from all the other women in your partner's life. He comes home and sleeps with you. It's that reconnection," says Katie.
*Some names have been changed for anonymity.