Putting in the Work – Sex in Long Term relationships
Since starting my blog my children have grown beyond the baby/toddler stage and I do now have more time to go on regular dates with my partner and generally hang out in the evenings. Which has got me interested in topics not just about parent’s relationships with their kids but with each other too. So, I’m going to start with the fun topic of sex in long-term relationships.
When I say fun I mean largely unspoken about and assumed to be boring by most, including researchers! Whilst it’s super easy to find countless academic articles about sex work, extra marital sex, pre-marital sex, adolescent sex etc etc. Sex between married or long-term couples does not seem abundant beyond some basic stats.But a sociological study I read did make it clear that many couples feel they are not having enough sex.
The romantic story about being human most of us carry around in our heads is roughly along the lines of, we’re born, we grow up, we meet someone, we have children and then we die. There’s a lot of research about all these stages (as well as a lot of art about the growing up/meeting someone stages too) but the after we meet someone and before we die bit doesn’t get that much attention. This part of our romantic lives however, can last a really long time so I’ve been digging around a bit and found a really interesting academic paper about the sexual lives of Aka and Ngandu married couples in the Congo.
Anthropologist couple Bonnie and Barry Hewlett have spent a lot of time with the Aka and Ngandu and they noticed that married couples seemed to have a lot more sex than couples in the US. They were referencing research from the early 90’s that showed couples in the US having sex around 2-3 times a week. More recent UK research was lower than this with once a week on average. Both the Aka and Ngandu however, have sex around three times a week but significantly for us, they have sex around three times on those occasions, not just the once which we consider standard practice.
Why are they having so much sex? And why aren’t we? Or maybe we are? Are you having sex several times a night three times a week with your partner? I’m not one for oversharing but I can comfortably say that I am not doing this. So how do the Aka and Ngandu find the time and energy? As they put it, this is important ‘night work’ which whilst pleasurable it’s done in order to have children. Pregnancy isn’t achieved as a one-off event but is accumulative and the more sex the more likely the woman is to get pregnant and stay pregnant. Both partners climaxing is believed to be necessary and once pregnant, semen continues to sustain the growing baby so it’s worth keeping up sexual activity during pregnancy too.
However, older couples who are too old to have children still have sex and see its frequency as contributing to a good marriage and to show love. It seems like whilst the discourse around sex is that it has a reproductive purpose, in practise it’s also about love and connection and contributes to the overall idea of sex as important ‘work’. For the Aka in particular children are seen as the source of joy and meaning in life so it makes sense to me that frequent sex might then be seen as central to a good marriage as it represents the source of children, whether it literally contributes to having them or not.
This idea of ‘night work’ reflects UK advice I’ve read suggesting that parents should schedule in time for sex. However, unlike the Aka we don’t see this in an entirely positive light. In the West we tend to have an attitude to sex that is built around the idea of spontaneity, freedom, individuality and expression which sometimes makes the reality in a long-term relationship feel a bit disappointing. We feel like good sex shouldn’t be planned but what if we saw sex as work, nice work, fun work but work nonetheless? It might make us feel more at ease about scheduling it in because whether you’re Aka or British a good sex life is key to a good long-term relationship even if it’s not three times a night several times a week!
B Hewlett and B Hewlett – A Biocultural Approach to Sex and Intimacy in Central African Foragers and Farmers (2008)
NHS summary of research data into sexual behaviour in the UK
A nice summary on Foucault and sexuality and his questioning the idea that sex is not an expression of our true selves but a socially mediated activity like any other
 I might be missing something and if so do let me know about the great research out there!