Lily and I have been together for nine years; married for three. We’re best friends, love each other to bits and have a great relationship. There’s just one thing: we have markedly different libidos. I would have sex most days given a crack at it. Lily is more of a lazy Sunday morning kind of woman. And not every Sunday at that.
This sexual inequality was masked in the passionate early days of our relationship when, like most new couples, we did it constantly. But as time went by, the disparity widened to the point of disconnect. At the end of last year, the combination of a few factors – a spate of long nights in the office (me), back-to-back cold sores (her), financial worries (both) – meant we didn’t have sex for 100 days. Not that I was counting . . .
We’d had drought spells before, but this felt like a famine. It really got me down. Lily hardly seemed to notice, or if she did, she wasn’t as bothered. Of course, it’s normal for sexual desire to dwindle in long-term relationships, as has been played for laughs by many an old-school stand-up comic. “My wife and I had a great sex life. Then we got married,” etc. But I didn’t find it funny. The person with the lower libido sets the pace and I didn’t want to feel like I was pressuring Lily into sex out of obligation. I longed for the time when my own libido would slow down, because I hated myself for developing a priapic preoccupation with YouPorn. As Woody Allen once quipped: “Having sex is like playing bridge: if you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.”
The thing is, I do have a good partner. We just didn’t partner up enough, that’s all. We’d fallen out of the habit. And that, if I’m honest, didn’t make me feel great.
At an editorial meeting in late 2011, I brought up the subject in a thinly veiled way. I mentioned a “friend” of mine who loves his wife deeply, but was sat on an imbalanced sexual seesaw and didn’t know how to kickstart it again. One thing led to another and I had volunteered for an MH staff challenge with a difference: 100 Days of Sex.
The first hurdle was that conversational Becher’s Brook – trying to convince Lily. And I’d fallen badly. I left it alone for a while after that. When, tentatively, I broached the subject again a week or so later, it was clear that Lily had been thinking about it.
This time I’d prepared a more impressive sales pitch. A spell of daily sex is supposed to be beneficial for all sorts of reasons: it’s good for your stress levels, immune system, mental wellbeing, sleeping pattern, energy and motivation levels, and, of course, for strengthening your relationship.
As things turned out, I didn’t need to use of any of it. Lily said that if it was important to me, she would give it a go.
What neither of us knew at that point was just how amazing, revelatory and positive a sexperience this would turn out to be on so many levels.
Day 1, 99 to go
Embarking on a project like this feels novel and exciting. We start as we mean to go on: with a bang. Twice. “If every night is as good as that, this will be amazing,” says Lily. We exchange a look that says we know every night will not be as good as that. But still, I like her enthusiasm.
Day 2 Rookie mistakes
Note to self #1: if you want to be on form to have sex every night, eat a small dinner early in the evening. (Bonus MH benefit #1: this is much better for your waistline. Bonus MH benefit #2: according to the sexologist Jaiya Kinzbach, author of Red Hot Touch, the average person burns 600 or more kilojoules while having sex for 30 minutes.) Note to self #2: No average person has sex for 30 minutes . . . do they?
Day 3 Mr & Mrs
Today I set up appointments with several sexperts, so we get the most out of the next 100 days. We’ve got a session with a relationship counsellor called Anna booked in for next week to help us talk about our sex life – something neither of us find comfortable. We filled out lengthy questionnaires separately and sent them to Anna for analysis. It was like a big game of Mr & Mrs, except without the drinking fines. Questions covered everything from family background to money, to religion to domestic arrangements and kids. And, obviously, sex.
Day 4 Initial enthusiasm
This is honestly great. I don’t know if we’ve got 100 days of this in us, but it’s going to be fun trying. I consider tallying the days on the kitchen chalkboard, but decide this might make Lily think it’s a prison sentence. Not sexy <per se>. I’ll just keep a note on my phone instead.
Day 7 Chafing status
Feeling a little sore today after a longer-than-usual session last night. Lily is suffering from cystitis (a common but stinging inflammation of the bladder, often brought on by increased sexual activity, since you ask). Hopefully it clears up quickly or we may have to suspend proceedings. She drinks a lot of water and goes off to see her GP.
Day 8 Sexual inequality
I called Dr Helen Fisher today. She’s a biological anthropologist specialising in the biology of love and attraction at Rutgers University. She was very encouraging about the project, which is reassuring because I’ve been having second thoughts. “There’s just so much good that can come from regular sex with somebody you love, I just can’t see a downside,” she says. I explained that I have a libido; Lily has a libidon’t. “The challenge is how to meet in the middle after this experiment ends,” says Fisher. “If you want it five times a week and Lily wants it once, how about you compromise on two or three times?” I’ve been doing some reading to see how we measure up: apparently one in three couples struggles with low sexual desire and 20 per cent of married couples have sex fewer than 10 times a year.
Day 10 Hormone rush
Lily and I went to see Anna the relationship counsellor today. She gave us some helpful practical tips to implement, such as setting aside a date night each week, going to bed earlier and not turning on the TV as a default. She also explained what happens to us chemically and hormonally when we have sex. When you’re in the throes of passion, the body releases chemicals that make you feel good, such as endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins are nature’s opiates that give you a sense of wellbeing. Oxytocin increases touch-sensitivity and is sometimes referred to as the bonding hormone. In addition to creating this feeling of calmness and connection, oxytocin also triggers orgasm.
Day 11 Time for bed
Usually I stay up later, either working or watching TV and when I get into bed around midnight, Lily is already asleep. So we have made a pact to aim to go to bed together at 10pm on school nights, giving us enough time and energy to have sex before sleep.
Day 12 Offline
I realised today that I haven’t logged on to YouPorn since we started this sexperiment. Partly because I need to save myself, but more so because I don’t have the inclination. Hopefully this experience can wean me off that guilty habit.
Day 16 Flight of fancy
There’s a logistical complication. I’ve found out I have to plan a work trip to Switzerland for two nights in a few weeks. How are we going to manage to keep to our schedule? Can Lily come with me? Can I send someone in my place? Will anyone care if we miss a day or two? I care. In the end, I decide to clip the trip to one night by flying out very early and flying back very late the following day, even though Lily and I are due to go to Seville the day after and it would make more logistical sense for me to meet her in Spain. My travelling companion (the publisher of Men’s Health) asks me why I have done this. “It’s so I can get back in time to have sex with my wife,” I say without further explanation. I am amused; he is bemused. (We’ve not discussed this exchange since.)
Day 17 Monotony
This is a lot tougher than I thought it would be. Not even a fifth of the way through and we have hit a dip. When you only have sex a few times a month, you don’t notice the monotony of the same old routine quite so much. When you know you’re going to get laid every day, there’s little sense of anticipation or spontaneity. Today felt like going through the motions. Perhaps it’s time to get more creative. Change the time of day, change the venue, change the routine.
Day 18 Porn again
I suggest we spice things up by looking at porn together. Many of the blogs and articles I’ve been reading recommend this. Lily smiles weakly and says we should give it a try. I clock that she notices how adept I am at navigating the site, so I pretend not to know what I am looking for. The truth is, I actually don’t – because this doesn’t feel right. It’s excruciating. I close the lid. Afterwards, I reflect on why this didn’t work for us – or more specifically, for me. I feel guilty looking at porn, like I’m being unfaithful. I was brought up to believe porn is wrong, something to be ashamed of. I worry that I am developing a dependence on it and I partly blame Lily for this. Looking at porn with her feels like bringing a third party into the room. I want to be rid of this guilt.
Day 19 Going to bed on an argument
It feels like I am doing all the running here. I say as much to Lily. I can tell she is tiring too: the novelty has worn off. We have an argument about the whole idea and discuss giving up. “What’s the point if it’s causing more problems than it solves?” she says, then goes to bed in a huff. Problem: we still need to have sex. Fortunately, I can give a very persuasive massage. Plus, I promise to take her away for the weekend, which may have clinched it. We log on to accommodation site Mr & Mrs Smith (mrandmrssmith.com/au/) together. Hotel porn.
Day 21 Definition of sex
I went to see consultant psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist Judi Keshet-Orr today. I told her about our sex-a-thon. She looked doubtful. She asked me to define what I meant by “sex”. I said I meant penetrative sex to orgasm. She said it didn’t need to mean that, but that it could just mean moments of intimacy. I said that when most people think of having sex, they mean penetration. But still, it makes me think. Does it only qualify as sex if I come? What about for Lily? Judi says I should be less focused on the physical act and pay more attention to the bigger picture – our long-term sex life. “Work on sensuality and intimacy, and if you get that right, sex is going to follow,” she says.
Day 23 Toy story
Lily has a suggestion that surprises me. “What about sex toys?” After complaining that she wasn’t making enough effort, this is an olive branch – albeit rubberised and battery-operated. As it happens, Judi had mentioned a shop that sells female-focused sex toys. The array of options is eye-opening/watering. We’re clearly not an especially kinky couple, so settle on the most vanilla item on the site: a Discretion Mini Vibe (maxxxblack.com.au; $20).
Day 26 Sleep pattern
We’ve settled into a pattern of having sex in the evening on weeknights. This means that I need to get home at a decent time, which means that I have been leaving the office at a reasonable time and going to fewer events after work. The end result is that I’m striking a better work-life balance and feel less stressed. Apparently the act of kissing not only raises oxytocin, but actually lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, too. As we are now going to bed earlier, I am getting more sleep – an extra hour if not two per night – and drifting off more quickly, within minutes after sex. And it feels like better quality sleep because I am not mulling over work. Sleep is great. In other news, our cleaner has been today and I see she has placed The Sex-Starved Marriage next to my laptop on the dining table. I must have left it out. Lily is mortified.
Day 27 Caught by the buzz
Got a parcel this morning. It was so subtly packaged, I forgot what it was at first. I text Lily to let her know the dildo has landed. She texts back: “Why don’t you display it artfully on the dining table?” As I compose my witty reply she follows up with, “Shall we try it out tonight!?” We’ve used a dildo before, a long time ago. We must have hidden the old one so well we’ve forgotten where it is. Quite excited! This has built a sense of anticipation that we haven’t had thus far.
Day 29 Chore wars
I’ve been thinking about the connection between housework and sex. I like to think of myself as a well-adjusted modern man. I used to do most of the cooking. But because Lily gets home from work earlier than I do, she invariably ends up putting the dinner on. And doing the laundry. And emptying the dishwasher. I’m not pulling my weight, and this, says Weiner-Davis, is a major reason why Lily’s libido is lower than mine. “Nothing turns a woman off so much as the feeling that she is doing most of the work at home,” she says. “When a low-desire woman feels burned out, the first thing to go on her to-do list is sex.” I resolve to pull my finger out. This doesn’t mean I’m not man enough to wear the trousers any more – it just means I’m prepared to wash them, too. No time like the present. I run Lily a bath, pour her a glass of wine and tell her that I’ll be making dinner tonight.
Day 30 Date night
In idle moments I now find myself thinking of new ways to surprise Lily. We’ve hardly been out since this project began, because we need to be at home to get on with the job. Tonight is date night. The Natural History Museum is open until 10.30pm, so we go and check out the Dinosaur Gallery. (Well, it’s more inventive than the cinema.) Then we go home and do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel.
Day 36 Family planning
We head up north to stay with Lily’s mum for the weekend. It’s quite exciting having silent sex; like being a teenager again.
Day 38 just do it
I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment. Work is really busy and I’m struggling to hit my deadlines before we go away on holiday next week. Plus, money is tight. Neither of us feels particularly up for it tonight. But we keep the Nike slogan in mind: Just Do It. “Sex is a little bit like exercise,” explains Fisher. “You won’t always be in the mood, but you get it done and you feel better for it afterwards.” It’s true.
Day 42 The big turn-off
The sex therapist said we should talk about what turns us on and what turns us off so that we pursue the former and try to cut out the latter. So I ask Lily if there is anything about me that turns her off. She says something but I’m not really listening because Joey Barton is having an amusing spat with Piers Morgan on Twitter. She says it again. “You’re always checking Twitter or Facebook or email – it drives me up the wall.” So we agree: no more playing on my iPhone when we’re together. Later, Barton announces that he, too, is taking a break from Twitter. I’ve a hunch the two things are connected. Lily’s point is that she wants me to pay attention. Sex starts outside the bedroom, with emotional intimacy before the physical, and too often I just go through the motions.
Day 43 A night apart
I’m going to Switzerland for that work trip today. I did float the idea of a 4am fumble, but Lily opted for a stroke-of-midnight quickie instead so she could sleep through. I leave her a little note next to her phone that says I will miss her. “Written words of affirmation have the benefit of being read over and over again,” says Dr Gary Chapman in his high-selling book The Five Love Languages. Tonight will be the first night we have spent apart since the Sex Factor began. I feel anxious about this.
Day 50 Watershed moment
Today was an important day. Not just because we’re halfway there, but because we had a life-changing talk over dinner. We’ve decided we’re ready to start trying for children. Lily throws away her pill packet. This is an exciting decision we have taken together. Suddenly this project has much more meaning and significance.
Day 51 Planning
We spend much of today talking about our future together, planning ahead, discussing our dreams. We’ve always got on well, but there is no doubt that we have become closer over the last two months. We’re getting on brilliantly, scarcely a cross word in weeks and weeks
Day 64 Couples retreat
One slight downside: it’s now been about three weeks since either of us has been out with any of our friends. We’ve become very insular while conducting this experiment and that worries me a bit. I suggest Lily spends some time with the girls this coming Saturday and I arrange a boys’ night out.
Day 70 Natural high
I feel really happy at the moment. This is worth noting. Before Christmas, I was as down as I have ever been – so much so, that I asked Lily to come with me to our GP to talk it over. But I’ve noticed that my mood has lifted of late. I mention this to Fisher. “Feelings of romantic love give you the optimism, the energy, the focus, the motivation, even elation that things are going well,” she says. “You’re getting that daily dose of oxytocin, which is calming, and also testosterone, which gives men a sense of wellbeing. And certainly, if you’re driving up the dopamine because of the excitement, that is giving you greater energy. These are all better than an antidepressant.”
Day 83 Immunity
There is a creeping cough going around my office at the moment. So far, I’ve avoided it. “You’re building up your immune system through sharing your saliva and touching each other every day, as well as getting more sleep and being less stressed,” says Fisher. I am Strong Like Bull.
Day 93 Struck down
That’ll learn me, being so smug. Resistance is futile and I come down with the office man-flu. I feel like death – with a very rattly chest. I certainly don’t feel like having sex and Lily clearly doesn’t fancy being mounted by Darth Vadar. But we’re so close to the finish line now, we can’t give up. One more week. We have sex in the spooning position so I don’t breathe my germs all over her. This one is a real struggle though – joyless and mechanical. Afterwards I feel a bit flat.
Day 95 Home straight
Dr Fisher strongly advises us to evaluate the project. “Now is your time to have the conversations you’re too embarrassed to have normally,” she says. “Ask Lily to write down the five things she liked and the five things she really didn’t like. This has to be a learning process. You’ve had the experience, don’t miss the meaning.” I email Lily a set of questions and I answer them myself, too. We talk over the past weeks. It’s still awkward but we’re much more open than we were at the beginning. Questions include: is there anything I do that you find a particular turn-off? Is there anything I could do that you would find a turn-on? Is there anything you think you could do for me? What have we learned? What do you want to continue?
Day 99 Flake
I’m tired, and Lily is definitely tired. Just one more day to go.
Day 100 Finish line
I’ve never smoked but I feel like having a ceremonial cigarette.
One month later reflection
So are we still having sex every day? No. But we’re now in the habit of having sex and it’s self-perpetuating: we’re happier because we’re having more sex and we’re having more sex because we’re happier. The challenge is to sustain this so it becomes a way of life.
This experience has taken what was a good relationship to another level. I’ve thought long and hard about how to sum it up without sounding cheesy. So I’ll just list – in no particular order – some of the results: I’m happier, Lily is happier. I feel better about myself as a man, stronger as a couple. We watch less TV, I watch less porn. We talk more, we have a laugh – we’ve never got on so well. We tell each other we love each other every day. I pull my weight around the house. I sleep better and for longer and feel less stressed. We’re trying for a child. We’re not pregnant yet, but we’re having fun in the process.