After 11 years together, Kathleen* and Scott are, in many ways, the envy of their friends. "We can still spend 24 hours a day with each other and never get bored," says Kathleen, a 34-year-old teacher in New York City. "We're entirely 100 percent supportive of each other." But behind the scenes, they share a secret that most of those friends would never suspect. Sometime during their second year together, Kathleen realized they hadn't had sex in a month. She was shocked. "Then it became three months," she says. "By year seven, it was, Whoa, we haven't had sex this year."
Natalie, 30, a Brooklyn-based novelist, can relate. A month before her wedding last year, "my friend tried to stage an intervention," she says with a wry laugh. "She said I was dooming myself to a sexless relationship." Unfazed, Natalie said the woman— who, incidentally, was 10 years into her own still-hot marriage—was missing the point. True, after four years of cohabitation, sex had dwindled to a biannual-at-best event. But that felt like "the cheap, weird part of it," Natalie says, whereas the impending wedding "was about our love." Sex, she says, was less important than the other reasons Tom would make a great life partner: "He's great with kids. And he brings an element of joy into my life that wasn't there before." Can that be enough?
There's no RDA for sex; no prescribed "supposed to" frequency. But most of us assume that, barring significant health or emotional issues, a good relationship has to have at least a little of it. When sex slumps, it's supposed to be a red flag, a sign that other things—intimacy, connectedness, romance—are on the way out, if they're not gone already. Right?
According to Kathleen, no. She insists that while her marriage isn't perfect, it's happy, stable, loving, and fun—without sex. It's not that she thinks sex is somehow wrong or even unimportant; she just doesn't happen to want it. And she's sick of hearing from society at large that if her marriage isn't steamy, it must be somehow illegitimate. The few people she's told have reacted with incredulity—"I think people would be less shocked if I told them I had one of those sex swings in my bedroom"—followed by unwelcome advice based on assumptions that range from false to insulting: He's gay, she's gay, they're asexual.... "The worst is when people say, `Oh, so he's like your brother?' " she says. "Ew. He's my husband."
Despite what Kathleen's friends might believe, low- and no-sex couples are not all that rare. In one survey, 14.1 percent of married men and 14.9 percent of married women experienced little or no sexual activity in the past year—and not necessarily as a side effect of menopause or because a relationship had cooled over decades. The women I talked to for this story are dynamic, intelligent, attractive, childless, financially independent. And they're young.
"The idea that age is what slows us down is a myth," says therapist Michele Weiner Davis. When her book The Sex-Starved Marriage (Simon & Schuster) came out several years ago, she was inundated with e-mails from readers in their twenties and thirties. "They're young, maybe they just got married, and they're saying, `I've lost it. What in the world is going on here?' " she says.
In a study of 1,748 women cited in Why Women Have Sex (Times Books), by sex researchers David M. Buss, PhD, and Cindy M. Meston, PhD, 32 percent of women aged 18 to 24 (single and married) reported having little interest in sex in the past year. According to Meston, who heads the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, that one-third percentage remained relatively constant throughout all age groups, until the fifties and sixties, when it rose to 37 percent.
It's not that these women don't want to want sex. The decline of a once-thriving libido can be devastating: an identity altering loss that results in feelings of inadequacy and frustration not unlike those associated with erectile dysfunction. "Sex used to be the easy part, a bodily urge like hunger or tiredness. It happened, whether I wanted it to or not," says Gina, 32. "Now, I can't even quite remember how that spark felt."
This loss would be painful at any age, but young women are also keenly aware that while waning desire can always be milked for a laugh—thank you, Liz Lemon—it can also feel like a failing on a wider social scale. Liberated, educated young women don't want sex? One can imagine our feminist forebears shaking their heads in disgust. For if The Feminine Mystiqueand Cosmo converged on one point, it's that the modern woman isn't just entitled to sex. She also wants it, enjoys it, and, by this point, should be pretty damned good at it. Today's twenty and thirtysomethings are among the first American women to grow up operating under that assumption. Shouldn't they, if anyone, be hopping into the sack?
If they're not, well, it's possible that sexual liberation is in some way to blame. Call it bachelorette syndrome. For some, monogamy becomes tougher if your single years conditioned you to expect different kinds of sex with different kinds of people. Newness, mystery, and novelty have always been an essential part of the turn-on; after a while, coming home to hubby, even if he's Mr. Right, may leave you cold.
It's a matter of habit and taste but also of basic human chemistry. In the heady, initial phase of love, "the brain chemicals are very much like those of women who have obsessive-compulsive disorder," Meston says. You want to have sex constantly, and even being away from that person for a brief period can be depressing. But a few months later, each partner reverts back to his or her hormonal baseline. Your baseline drive compels you to want sex every night, while your partner turns out to be a oncea-weeker? It can feel like a hormonal bait and switch.