When Bettina Arndt asked 98 ordinary couples to keep a sex diary, says Joy Orpen, the sex therapist discovered a world full of despairing men and utterly indifferent women
What exactly do couples get up to behind closed doors? And while they are doing whatever it is they do, are they having fun? Or is it all a 'let's get this over with' kind of thing?
Browsing the internet, there is relatively little material to be found on sexual practices in Ireland. We seem to be more concerned with sex education and same-sex unions than with our actual performance in the sack.
So, could it be that the Irish experience is somewhat similar to the recent findings in Australia, which reveal that there is a chasm between what men and women expect?
The woman who unearthed this particular can of dissatisfaction is Bettina Arndt, a journalist and former clinical psychologist and sex therapist, whom I interviewed recently when she was in Dublin. When she came up with the idea of 98 couples keeping bedroom diaries for many months, she believed that she had hit on a winning idea. What she can't have known was just how wide the gap is between what men want and expect in the bedroom, and what they actually get from their female partners.
The resulting book, The Sex Diaries, takes an in-depth look at the reasons why women go off sex, and it also looks at other bedroom battles. The book is a wonderful, but somewhat chilling, insight into the dysfunctional and hurtful world that lurks behind many bedroom curtains.
The following cases illustrate the problem: "[My] Sexual interest is right up there with algebra, housework and trying on bras," says Judy, married for 27 years. Or the woman who said to her husband: "You can have 50 thrusts, but don't jiggle my book."
No surprise then that Clive, another diarist, wonders if his three sons will spend their lives grovelling for sex.
Bettina says: "Many men feel duped, and are in despair, finding themselves begging for sex. They are stunned to find their needs ignored."
There are flaws on both sides, but the faltering female libido appears to be the main stumbling block.
According to Bettina, scriptwriters for the film Annie Hall got it spot on in its depiction of male and female sexual relationships. When Woody Allen's character is asked by his psychiatrist how often he has sex, he says: "Hardly ever, maybe three times a week." Simultaneously his on-screen partner, played by Diane Keaton, is being asked the same question by her therapist. "Constantly," Keaton groans. "Maybe three times a week."
There rests the kernel of the problem: the gap between the sexes.
It's a topic that has long puzzled Bettina. "I wondered -- what is the primary issue going on? And decided it was desire. Lots of women don't feel like having sex at all. Yet, if you ask men what is the one thing they are missing, most will put sex at the top of their list. So, we have relationships resting on this fragile, distractable libido."
But what is causing the lack of fire in women? Housework is certainly part of the story, but it's not the answer. "Some of this is about power," says Bettina. "In the past, women had to put up with whatever was thrown at them. But now women are flexing their muscles. There is this sense of entitlement that revolves around her whim. It seems men have lost all their power. But it's not just about giving 'it' to him; it's about the two of them and what they can do for each other."
Bettina explains that another notable aspect is the difference in our biology. Michael Gurian in his book, What Could He Be Thinking? How a Man's Mind Really Works claims that the bonding chemical oxytocin, found in relatively low doses in men, changes during orgasm and it produces a "hugely strong" emotional connection for men. "In male biochemistry," Dr Gurian states in his book, "sex is the quickest way for a man to bond with a woman."
"Men experiencing sexual rejection feel ashamed," comments Bettina. She urges couples to begin to negotiate a way through their sexual problems.
They could learn a thing or two from the seemingly small percentage who do enjoy an active sex-life. There's Bob from Perth, married for more than 44 years, who has no recollection of ever being refused sex. And there's the couple who have had sex most nights of their 35-year marriage, especially now that the husband's erections are slowly returning after his surgery for prostate cancer. And there's a couple in their 60s, where the wife cooks their supper in nothing more than her slinky underwear. "It's an added bonus if she hangs out the washing or shifts the sprinkler," says her admiring husband.
"He still sees her as a highly erotic woman," says Bettina. She adds that men like the visual element, and they don't want their women to be too coy.
As far as having sex is concerned, Bettina urges women to "just do it", even though they may not be in the mood, initially.
You can almost hear the men cheering her on, their condoms whizzing gleefully through the air.
She says overriding the automatic response to say no can often result in a pleasurable experience for both parties. And, while the author was somewhat surprised by the diary findings, she might well have anticipated the feminist sisterhood would throw their sturdy knickers out of the cot following her "just do it" suggestion.
One blogger advised men: "Do not bully, or guilt, or coerce someone into having sex with you. No-one owes you a f***: married, partnered or single, there is no guarantee your sex quota will be filled."
However, a less strident diarist ponders the reasons behind her good sexual relationship with her husband: "Is it the fact that from the start I insisted on being 'finished off' every time we had sex, and my husband willingly obliged, without question? Is it the fact that our bed is a sanctuary in a busy world, where we can be gentle and tender, before rising and facing the world?"
Certainly, mutual respect and satisfaction are desirable, as is the need to make intimacy an integrated part of domestic routine.
As Bettina says: "The starting point is in understanding we are dealing with biological differences. This is probably just the way we are and we have to learn to live with this gap.
"Write a really careful letter to your partner, sit on it a while to consider what you say. Make a case for why there needs to be a reassessment," she advises. "Talk about the complexities, while realising we're not all the same. Men want willing women -- women who want them."
Ultimately, it's about validating the other person and recognising their needs are as important as your own.
Give it a go -- it might be fun.
'The Sex Diaries' by Bettina Arndt is published by Hamlyn