Our ‘Sexperiment’ and Other Methods of Improving Our Sex Life
After Jancee Dunn and her husband became parents, their sex life was non-existent. Rather than ignore the problem, they decided to do something about it.
Like many new parents, my husband, Tom, and I experienced a sexual drought after our baby was born. Sex was the easiest thing in the world to forgo, thanks to stress, near-hallucinatory fatigue and zigzagging hormones, which can wreak havoc for men and women (during the first year of fatherhood, one study found, testosterone levels drop by roughly a third – and never again reach pre-baby levels).
But as the months went by, I began to feel uneasy about our paucity of action. Surveying the advice offered by women’s magazines, however, I found it unrealistic for exhausted new parents, not to mention embarrassing (Cook dinner topless! Give him a sexy striptease!). If I sent Tom a “steamy text”, his most likely reply would be, “Hi, hon, on runway and flight attendant telling me to shut down my phone, talk later.”
Typically it was Tom who was feeling more deprived, but a recurring problem for us was timing: inevitably, he made his overtures just after I had got our daughter to sleep, which was disastrous. Fresh from dispensing endless lullabies and bedtime stories, I viewed sex as just one more thing to do for someone. (In retrospect, we would have saved a lot of hurt feelings if I had simply said that sex was off the table for the first few months of our newborn’s life – then if it did occur, bonus.)
We had fallen into an endless cycle of his approaching and me shutting him down, so I reluctantly brought up the subject. As awkward as it was to talk about our dormancy in the bedroom (“talking in bed ought to be easiest,” as Philip Larkin once wrote), it was better than sinking into ennui: a Georgia State University study of sexually inactive married couples found those who argued about sex were at least more likely to be having it.
To help us break this dispiriting pattern, I consulted the sex therapist Esther Perel. She told me that you can’t create desire, but you can “create an atmosphere where desire might unfurl”.
Granting me some agency was key. One night, we tried kissing for 10 minutes, with no pressure to take things further. The stereotypically male definition of sex, Perel told me, is that foreplay is the mere introduction to the “real” thing – but often, for women, it is the real thing. Another time, my husband gave me an obligation-free massage (a real one, not a halfhearted one-minute rub). One night, I read some erotica for 10 minutes that a friend recommended.
In each case: score.
Tom also volunteered to put our daughter to bed half an hour early to create some much-needed extra time (he is more businesslike at bedtime, and doesn’t cave in and read seven stories, as I do). Simply shutting down the computer and going to bed on time invites more opportunity, too.
After I read sex research that women find intimacy in words, I suggested to Tom that giving me compliments might prompt some action – so one night we lay quietly in bed and just talked for a while. A new mum is often insecure about her wobbly, leaky new body, and I had heard over and over from friends that they yearned for nice words that were specifically about them. As one friend said, “I know it’s not rational, but I just felt like when he’s approaching me, what goes through his mind is, ‘I have a random sexual urge and you’re nearby, so I guess you’ll do.’”
Several marriage counsellors had advised Tom to give more compliments (One told Tom that he often advised men that it wouldn’t kill them to say, “You look hot today” or “I love you?”). I found that I had really been missing sweet words from him. As parents of a young child, our conversations were most often about logistics (“Where’s the rainhood attachment for the stroller? Is this it? Crap, we’re going to be late again.”) When he looked me in the eye and said things such as, “You are even more beautiful to me as a mother,” I melted.
By far our most interesting venture was our seven–day “sexperiment”, a scheme devised by the Rev Ed Young, a Texas pastor, to guide his flock towards greater intimacy. Citing Corinthians 7:5 (“Do not deprive each other of sexual relations”), Young’s directive was simple: sex every day for a week. That’s it. At first, it was weirdly difficult to engineer, but as the week went on, relations became much easier (the more sex you have, the more you want). Nor was a tantric marathon necessary. A Penn State survey of sex researchers found that after foreplay, the optimal stretch of intercourse was – sorry, Sting – a mere seven to 13 minutes.
As Hilda Hutcherson, a Columbia University assistant professor of obstetrics and gynaecology and mother of four, told me, it’s critical to just do it. Your physical connection, she says, bolsters your emotional connection: sex releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones, and also oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that promotes feelings of trust and devotion. And as she said, the little things that usually irritated her about her husband didn’t bother her quite as much after sex. (“And he’s not as testy, either!”)
Perel finds that the biggest turn-on, across the board, is when people see their partners holding court at a party, or doing something they’re passionate about – any time they are presenting their most radiant selves to the world. “You can admire them,” she told me. “You look at them and they are forever somewhat mysterious, elusive, unknown. When they are in their element, they don’t need you, and hence you don’t have to take care of them, emotionally or psychologically.” In that space cleared of needing, she says, rises the wanting of desire.
And so I ask Tom if I can attend a talk he is giving at a nearby symposium. As I watch him in the audience with the others, I see him as they do: confident, witty, handsome in his natty blue suit. It’s the same charge I get when I see him across the room at a party, and for a split second, I don’t recognise him and think, “Well, hello there …” before I realise, “Oh, it’s you.”
Read the full Guardian article.
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