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Reflections of a Sex Therapist - Taking Issue With ‘Sexless Marriages’

I’ve wanted to write a piece on so-called sexless marriages for a while and an unexpected gap in my clinical practice day today has given me that opportunity.

The main thing I have wanted to say out loud – and by out loud I mean LOUDLY! – is that I take issue with the very definition of a ‘sexless marriage’, both the ‘sexless’ and the ‘marriage’ parts. The definition of a sexless marriage is given as ‘a marital union in which little or no sexual activity occurs between the two spouses’ and is often expanded to ‘a sexless marriage is one in which couples have sex no more than 10 times a year’. As an English graduate, I have a problem with a definition of sexless including ‘no more than10 times’. Sex – less means having no sex to me, just like child-less means having no children. I guess we could put my reaction down to pedantry, so let me make a more pertinent point. Anyone living in today’s culture with the demands of work, children, pets, ageing parents, hobbies and fluctuating health, may well be DELIGHTED to have sex ten times a year! Lack of opportunity and privacy is rarely quoted in the headline grabbing news that up to 20% of marriages are ‘sexless’. And why the focus on quantity? I would take 10 gorgeous, transporting, mind altering sexual encounters a year over 100 meaningless, obligatory or painful encounters for sure. And what exactly does this definition define as sex? I have a sneaking suspicion we are back in the age-old territory of ‘sex’ meaning a ‘penis in vagina’, (PIV), penetrative sexual experience. So, if a person has 100 occasions of oral sex, or sexual role play, or hot kissing, or mutual massage, but only 10 PIV’s, their relationship is sexless? How is sexless defined in a lesbian relationship then, where there generally isn’t a penis around to put into a vagina?

Eye gazing, hand and foot massages, non-sexual touch, meaningful conversations and sharing fantasies can be the first gentle steps to re-engaging the accelerator.

Regarding the ‘marriage’ part of this definition, is it true that only married couples experience ‘sexlessness’? This link between the term ‘sexless’ and ‘marriage’ forces an examination of the special qualities or otherwise in a marriage that would contribute to this problem when clinical observation tells me that relationship status is not necessarily a defining factor in the amount of sex being had by a given couple.

Having said all of this, it is true that many relationships suffer from a lack of sex, so much so that couples seek the services of a sex therapist to help them to address it. Once we’ve established that the relationship is not abusive and that both partners would like sex (with one another) there are many ways we can re-establish a sex life. I would explore with a couple which factors in their life and personalities, past or present, activate their sexual accelerator and which jam the sexual breaks on. Eye gazing, hand and foot massages, non-sexual touch, meaningful conversations and sharing fantasies can be the first gentle steps to re-engaging the accelerator. Addressing life stressors, creating privacy, feeling good about your own body, planning contraception and overcoming negative beliefs about sex can help to lift the brakes. Admitting there is an issue and being brave enough to open a conversation about it, with your partner or a professional, is a great place to start.

Interested in training to be a sex and relationship therapist? Read about the Cambridge Institute of Clinical Sexology Diploma in Clinical Sexology here

Considering accessing couple or individual therapy for sex or relationship problems? Contact Local Counselling Centre for a referral to a member of our specialist psychosexual therapy team at hello@localcounsellingcentre.co.uk

Blog Post written by:
Julie Sale
CICS Course Director and Psychosexual Psychotherapist