In fact, the problem may be just as much perception as reality. Because we have the 100-times-a-year myth in our minds, and because there are so many movies and TV shows out there with characters who frequently have better-than-you-get sex, it’s easy to think that everybody else is having more fun. Forget the four hotties on HBO’s “Sex and the City.” Even Ruth Fisher, the frumpy, middle-aged widow on the network’s “Six Feet Under,” gets lucky week after week. Armed with birth-control pills and dog-eared copies of “The Sensuous Woman,” boomers were the front line of the sexual revolution. They practically invented guilt-free, premarital sex, and they know what they’re missing better than any previous generation in history. “Boomers are the first generation to imagine that they can have exciting monogamous sex through old age,” says Marty Klein, a marriage and sex therapist in Palo Alto, Calif. “The collision between that expectation and reality is pretty upsetting for most people.”
And sexlessness has a long and rich tradition. In Aristophanes’ bawdy play “Lysistrata,” written in 411 B.C., Spartan and Athenian women agree to withhold sex from their husbands until the two warring city-states make peace. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was in a sexless marriage; it’s likely Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon, characters in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” were, too. And what about the “frigid” housewives of the 1950s?
Marriage experts say there’s no single reason we’re suddenly so unhappy with our sex lives. Many of us are depressed; last year Americans filled more than 200 million prescriptions for antidepressants. The sexual landscape may have been transformed in the last 40 years by birth control, legalized abortion and a better understanding of women’s sexuality. But women have changed, too. Since they surged into the workplace in the 1970s, their economic power has grown steadily. Women now make up 47 percent of the work force; they’re awarded 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. About 30 percent of working women now earn more than their husbands.
Like never before, women have the financial clout to leave their husbands if they choose. In his new book, “Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men,” sociologist Andrew Hacker says women are less and less inclined to stay married when they’re not emotionally satisfied. Wives say they were the driving force in 56.2 percent of divorces, according to Hacker, while men say they were the ones who wanted out only 23.3 percent of the time. When women have those kinds of choices, marital “duties” become options and the debate over how much, or how little, sex to have is fundamentally altered.
Meanwhile, families have changed. The year after the first child is born has always been a hazardous time for marriages—more divorces happen during those sleepless months than at any other time in a marriage, except for the very first year. But some researchers say parents are now obsessed with their children in a way that can be unhealthy. Kids used to go to dance class or take piano lessons once a week; now parents organize an array of activities—French classes, cello lessons and three different sports—that would make an air-traffic controller dizzy. And do you remember being a child at a restaurant with your parents and having every adult at the table focus on your happiness? No? That’s probably because you weren’t taken along.
Working parents who wish they could spend more time with their kids often compensate by dragging their brood everywhere with them. That means couples are sacrificing sleep and companionship. Parents of infants sometimes stop thinking of themselves as sexual beings altogether. Gottman recalls treating a couple with a 4-month-old; the wife was nursing. One morning the husband reached over and caressed his wife’s breast. The woman sat bolt upright in bed and said, “Those are for Jonathan.” “They laugh about it now,” Gottman says. “But you can understand why a guy might withdraw in that kind of situation.”
There’s another theme winding through popular culture and private conversations. Because let’s face it: no one is really too tired to have sex. Arguing over whether you should have sex can easily take longer than the act itself. For many couples, consciously or not, sex has become a weapon. A lot of women out there are mad. Working mothers, stay-at-home moms, even women without kids. They’re mad that their husband couldn’t find the babysitter’s home number if his life depended on it. Mad that he would