Is Sex the New Infertility?
Image: Rupert Ganzer via Flickr
I’ve found that most of the time, when women speak about sex amongst casual friends, they speak about it in vague terms that neither confirms nor denies whether anything is taking place in their bedroom.* For instance, “He thinks he’s getting some tonight.” Well… is he? Or “Sex is the last thing on my mind.” So… er… it is, at least, on your mind even if it is in last place. I mean, for instance, the farm bill is not on my mind at all, so “last” trumps “not at all,” right?
Which is why I was surprised when I was out a few years ago with 12 thirty-something women. Most of the women in the group were married. A majority of the women in the group had children. And after we had exhausted topics such as potty training bribery and our jobs, the conversation took a very unusual turn. We started talking about… sex. As in, who was having it and who wasn’t.
Maybe I remember this conversation so vividly since it has happened so few times in my life: not the joking about sex or teasing about sex, but women openly sighing while blinking back tears about how they weren’t having sex and it made them feel like crap. Especially since they assumed, based on newspaper articles citing the average number of times per year that constitute a healthy marriage, that everyone else was doing something right while they were effective destroying their marriages by not getting around to sex. And then there were the women who were exhaling big sighs of relief that at least they didn’t have the no-sex problem on their plate.
The women in the group talked about being jealous of other people’s orgasms. Being too tired to add sex into an over-packed schedule. Feeling as if their sex life had been decimated by earlier struggles in their marriage that were hanging around, stinking up their libido like garlic breath.
The whole talk sounded quite a bit like a blog post I would find in the ALI community, except substitute “sex” for “baby.” The same feelings of inadequacy over something that is largely outside one’s control. The same feelings of frustration that others are getting something easily that you are working at so hard and perhaps not getting at all. That feeling that everyone knows something that you don’t know; and that you’d be embarrassed if they knew the truth about what goes on (or doesn’t go on) in your bed.
I was speaking with a gynecologist who was outlining a new problem that has bubbled up with the advent of Viagra. The drug is wonderful at treating erectile dysfunction, and many men are using it to extend their sexual life**. The problem, of course, is that it does nothing to treat their female partners who are also experiencing a sexual denouement. So now you have women who are experiencing post-menopausal side effects such as a decreased libido or vaginal dryness or tissue thinning but their partners are no longer sexually aging with them. They’re able to chemically rewind to much younger sexual capabilities whereas women can’t. At least, not yet. As of right now, there are “no FDA-approved medications for treating sexual arousal problems in women.”
Not every woman experiences that post-menopausal dip in sexual appetite. According to a New York Times article on the topic, about 45% report a decrease in interest (or ability to comfortably have) sex. 37% report no change, which doesn’t really tell us whether they are or aren’t having sex. 8% didn’t answer at all, and 10% reported an increased libido after menopause (attributed to the removal of pregnancy anxiety that happens, apparently, for fertile people). Additionally, sexual satisfaction is all in the eye of the beholder.
Yet as Dr. Potter put it, “What might be a satisfying sexual life for one woman may seem woefully inadequate to another,” adding that what a woman expects from her sex life can make a difference. She cited the findings of various large surveys: “Only one-third to one-half of women who report decreased desire or response believe they have a problem or feel distress for which they would like help.”
We are, after all, supposed to age. Our bodies are supposed to change. The problem is a society that is constantly berating us to make a furious grab at youth via hair dye, make-up, sex.
The emotional side of sex seems as if it has the potential to divide women much in the same way the emotional side of infertility divides women.
We even talk about it in the same way. Some women brag about their sex lives in the same way that other women boast about their ability to have children. (“All we did the whole vacation is eat, sleep, and have sex” or “We got pregnant on the first try!”) In both cases, it’s not really information we need to share in that it has no potential to benefit the listener. People say it because they want to say it. And consequently, people whisper about their lack of sex in the same way they whisper about their infertility. It’s something women rarely advertise: hey, look at me, I’m infertile/not having sex!
Perhaps the two topics are tied together in my mind because sex plays a role — or, as the case may be, doesn’t play a role — in both infertility and… sex itself. Neither of which are life-threatening situations but both are lifestyle-threatening. They threaten our quality of life; perhaps not in the physical sense, but certainly in the emotional sense.
I guess I bring it up because I can see the potential down the road for this to become a divider like infertility amongst women of a certain age. No one knows whether or not you have sex unless you tell them whereas infertility is a bit more visible due to the lack of child. But the internal processing? The feelings it brings out in us that subsequently affect our relationships with the people around us? I have to imagine that people who aren’t having sex don’t want to sit through even a teasing conversation about other people’s sex lives any more than I wanted to attend baby showers when I was in the throes of treatments.
And in the infertile world, because sex is tied into that unsuccessful babymaking process, it becomes about as appetizing as grey meat. Infertility can decimate a sex life. Some people bounce back (or don’t take a hard hit through it) but many others still feel the effects after they are parenting. And why shouldn’t they? We’re not shocked when soldiers come back from the field with PTSD. Well infertility is a crisis, and it changes you to the marrow. We can’t expect people to be dragged through the trenches of infertility and then emerge with a baby in their arms exactly the same as they were before they started. Or without a baby in their arms and just going through life as usual.
I haven’t gone through menopause yet, so I have no clue which statistical category I’ll fall into. But will it become the new infertility in the emotional sense? Will women slyly insinuating how much sex they’re getting and how fantastic it is become the dividing line between women? Will those who can’t or have no desire to have sex feel inadequate? And what role do the hormonal imbalances of infertility (when that is the reason for the diagnosis) play in the pleasure factor of sex down the road?
I understand completely if people want to comment anonymously for this, but I would love to hear your thoughts on whether sex lives become an area of life to covet like parenting when either is held out-of-reach***.
* Apologies if this post is hetero-focused. Libido issues can affect all regardless of sexuality.
** Of course, this isn’t the only usage of Viagra, and many younger men use the drug too.
*** Sometimes having sex is within our control, but other times it’s physically impossible due to bodily changes.