Julie Burchill

The joy of less sex

I used to think nothing would ever be more important. I was wrong

The joy of less sex
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From the age of 13, when the hormones kicked in, till I left my parents home at the age of 17 to become a writer (nearly forty years later, I’m still waiting) I must have been the most sex-mad virgin in Christendom. Nights were spent dressed as a West Country approximation of a transvestite Port Said prostitute, blind with eyeliner and dumb with lipgloss, alternately dancing like the lead in a Tijuana pony-show and hiding in the toilets during the slow numbers, crying repeatedly ‘Why won’t all those men just LEAVE ME ALONE!’ Days were spent in an attempt to evade the attentions of the regiment of leering males while voluntarily rolling up my regulation school skirt so high that it resembled a cummerbund.

Though I thought about sex ceaselessly, I clung on to my virginity as though it was an autographed pair of Marc Bolan’s undercrackers. I read Lolita in the park the summer I turned 13, wearing heart-shaped sunnies and hotpants and sucking on popsicles in a rather sordid example of life imitating art. I shivered at the fate of poor Dolly Schiller dying in childbirth in the town of Grey Star, still a teenager and all played out.

I avoided sex like the plague because I knew I would really, really like it; I suspected that it would exert a massive, non-specific power over me, and that it would conspire with those forces already bent on doing so — i.e. my parents — to keep me exactly where I was. To a kid who slept with a London tube map over her bed, joining the massed ranks of ex-teenage rebels turned harassed young mothers seemed a voyage of the damned indeed. Pushing a pram through a purgatory of pregnancy, lactation and finger-painting was to me as horrific an image as any Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell.

I escaped when I was 17 — but true to type, I married the first man I slept with. I had a lot of sex during my first marriage, a mad amount during my second marriage and (after six months’ lesbian leave for good behaviour) a really quite insane amount during my third, current and hopefully last marriage. It’s fair to say that between the ages of 25 and 45, I was a monogamous sex fiend and when I wasn’t doing it, I was anticipating it, recovering from it or imagining downright rotten variations on it. I was once walking along the esplanade with my husband when a tall, dark and handsome Alsatian passed by. My husband looked hard at me and said ‘Please tell me you didn’t just say “Phwooar!’’’

This being the case, I’d have thought that the gradual decreasing of my sex drive — at 54, I’ve decided that no one needs to have it more than once a day: anything more is just showing off — would have left something of a gap in my life. I’d have predicted that I’d go down gamely gagging for it, as have my contemporaries Cosmo Landesman, 59 — who recently bristled in this very publication: ‘I’m still interested in sex. Is that a problem?’ — or Monica Porter, 61, who publishes her eye-watering memoir My Year Of Dating Dangerously this month. Instead, I react with genuine surprise when my (admittedly much younger) husband suggests a second go in a 24-hour time slot. I mean, yes, I’m up for it — but would I go looking for it? Probably not.

I don’t believe that I will be joining the ranks of so-called ABC sexers anytime soon — those couples who have sex only on anniversaries, birthdays and Christmas. But according to a recent Lancet report, we are as a nation having quite a lot less sex than we did 20 years ago — 40 per cent have sex once a week, 13 per cent once every six months and 17 per cent haven’t done the deed for over six months. It’s a bitter irony that the British finally found themselves promoted to Nympho of the Nations after decades of being considered the Frigid Man of Europe only to drop the baton on the last lap.

Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt? Society is so sex-drenched now that saying, in the manner of Bartleby, ‘I would prefer not to’ can look sort of cool. On the radio the other day, I heard a re-run of The Clitheroe Kid. I originally heard it as a child in the 1960s, and was amazed at how the word ‘elastic’ reduced the audience to screams of pleasurably outraged disbelief. In my lifetime we’ve gone from the public broadcast of the E-word to the C-word; it’s bound to induce collective ennui.

The genuinely fulfilled aged amorists must be few and far between. Recently a friend of my age, also in her mid-fifties, who I hadn’t seen in a while, confided to me ‘I’ve got two on the go.’ She was referring to lovers — one male, one female, both younger than her. But neither seemed to be doing the trick. She communicated the information with all the joie de vivre of a verruca sufferer bringing their chiropodist up to speed.

Let the dirty old men and cougars have their fun, but if I ever had to — perish the thought — choose between a sexless future with my husband or a sex-filled future without him, I’d choose the first. My end-of-life regret won’t be having had too little sex, pace John Betjeman, it’ll be that my third husband wasn’t my only husband, and that I had too little time with him, even if we live to be a hundred. This, I feel, means I have finally, in some way, grown up. And to think, all that time I believed that only sex made us into adults.