For testosterone-driven City high-fliers, the world has fallen apart, says psychotherapist Lucy Beresford — and one result is a dramatic rise in sexually disturbed behaviour
There’s no doubting the trauma in today’s City: redundancy is rife and those who still have jobs are struggling to cope with an utterly changed financial world. No wonder a spate of banking suicides has made headlines. But stress is also showing itself in a more private way: in the bedroom.
In the past six months, clinicians have seen a dramatic rise in sexually disturbed behaviour, ranging from a 20 per cent rise in sexually transmitted diseases among over-35s, to sex addiction and its flipside, sexual anorexia. Sex addiction refers to those who cannot control their sexual activity, and crave the highs associated with the next sexual encounter. They may have serial affairs, binge on prostitutes, or compulsively surf the net for porn. Sexual anorexia, though not yet an official psychiatric term, refers to people who obsessively avoid (consciously or unconsciously) sexual activity — even if they are in a relationship. Both patterns of behaviour are rooted in a need to control and suppress unwelcome emotions.
City high-fliers often repress emotion. They can be subconsciously driven to succeed in life by childhood hurts. These frequently stem from early attachment difficulties, such as being sent away to boarding school too young. Some endure their childhood as social outsiders, and seek the status and sexual allure that comes with being an ‘alpha male’ in an industry which until recently carried great kudos. For others, the spur to achieve comes from feeling misunderstood, an ‘I’ll show them’ mentality, which derives from a wound to the narcissistic belief that they are omnipotent, or perfect.
But alpha males are also long on testosterone, a hormone linked to high libido, risk-taking, competitiveness and aggression. As Dr Mike McPhillips, medical director of the Causeway Retreat, explains, the unprecedented surge of wealth in the Square Mile over recent years ‘allowed people to act out their fantasies in all kinds of ways, including spending tens of thousands of pounds on drugs, clubs and prostitutes’. Merle Symonds, who is head of Health Advisory at Barts NHS trust, notes also that men whose day jobs involve (or were supposed to involve) hyper-controlled management of financial risk are often chronically incapable of handling risk in their sex lives. ‘A man will stray, and then feel almost compelled to put a spanner in the works of his marriage by confessing.’ His ‘inner child’ longs to run to ‘mummy’ for comfort and forgiveness.
Such egotistical behaviour is common to those who seek to win (in the form of promotion or bonus) parental approbation — even if the parents are long dead. The recognition the high-flier has always craved is like a hole in the psyche, one which will only ever be partially filled by extravagant perks. So if you lose your job, or your Learjet is requisitioned, not only do you lose access to compensatory forms of admiration, but your secretly fragile ego feels exposed and under attack. And when people feel attacked, they feel afraid and angry — which in turn can lead to reckless behaviour. Dr Séan Cummings of the Freedomhealth sexual health clinic has seen a surge in new patients, up by a fifth in the last two quarters. ‘The only let-up was the week Lehman Brothers collapsed. There was a pause, and then the surge continued.’ It’s a variation of anecdotal evidence that after 9/11 and during the Blitz, when people were confronted explicitly with their own mortality, rates of casual sex increased.
But such behaviour comes at a price. Cummings has seen a sharp rise in the number of patients suffering from STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea — even among people in their fifties. Not only their health is at risk: in a climate of job insecurity, anyone who spends their working day accessing porn sites in the office, or planning visits to prostitutes, is also gambling with their career, their personal safety and their existing relationships.
But sexual disturbance can cut both ways. It’s not just the stock market which has crashed: in some cases, so have libidos. Dr Philip Hopley of the Priory Hospital at Roehampton has treated a number of young men recently for erectile dysfunction. ‘None of them had pre-existing psychosexual problems or mental health issues — which therefore raises the question as to whether work-related stress has been a key cause of their problems.’
For other people, the ongoing ‘I’ve got a headache’ can be a punishment directed subconsciously at a specific relationship. Modern-day Lysistratas are punishing husbands for carelessly losing their master-of-the-universe status. More than one female patient has said to me recently that the high-octane lifestyle she enjoyed — and has now seen evaporate — had been merely compensation for giving up her own career, acquiring multiple stretch marks and having a husband infatuated with his BlackBerry. Now it’s payback time.
For others, a rejection of intimacy can be an attack on themselves — classic sexual anorexia territory. As with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, insecurity or a need to be perfect can act as a trigger. As the crunch bites, the loss of savings or threats of bankruptcy can mobilise feelings of annihilation because money equates to our sense of self. In the same way as we plan cuts to household spending, some people reject sex because it represents something they can’t justify, or something they fear might, like spending, spiral out of control. Crucially, sexual anorexics tend to be perfectionists who prefer to be in control. Financial meltdown punctures their delusion that the world can be controlled, so they freeze one of the few things they can control — their sexual activity.
Stress played out in the sexual arena is compulsive, self-destructive, reality-avoiding behaviour. If left untreated, it will have national consequences in matters of public health and psychological functioning. Merle Symonds wonders whether ‘sex venues’ will start to suffer a slowdown as client entertainment and bonuses dry up — but this is about much more than a crash of the lap-dancing market. The casualties of the credit crunch are to be found in the bedroom as well as the boardroom.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 7, 2009