Is sexual desire entering a recession?

Work problems may be manifest in the bedroomValentine’s Day, by tradition, is an opportunity for declarations of love and lust. But will 2009 be different?

Given the economic downturn, is passion too in recession? Or will couples fling themselves into each other’s arms to compensate for their inability to spend, spend, spend?

Professor Helen Fisher, of Rutgers University, holds this latter theory.

The sheer stress of money worries in general, and fear of redundancy in particular will, she argues, elevate levels of the chemical dopamine in the brain – and dopamine is associated with romantic love.

“Times of stress can trigger feelings of attraction – quite simply, you’re more susceptible,” she said.

Professor Fisher’s theories are based on a classic 1974 study by Dutton and Aron – in which male subjects walking

across a dangerous-seeming bridge were found to be more likely to fall for an attractive woman researcher.

They are currently being reinforced by a flurry of less academic reports.

Website traffic

Dating websites eHarmony and both report major boosts in traffic of up to 20% over the past few months.

Surely when people need relief from their financial worries they reach for the natural medication created by body contact?

A YouGov survey of 20,144 British adults in November 2008 found sex was the most popular low-cost activity.

Sex toy shops as far apart as Amsterdam, New York and China are anecdotally reporting a boom in sales.

And, according to Ken Herron, chief of marketing at gay dating site Manhunt, the site had its biggest membership sign-up on 29 September, the day the Dow Jones Index crashed.

The logic here rings true, absolutely reflecting what I as an advice columnist am seeing in my postbag.

Surely when people feel alone, they reach out for connection, seek out pleasure in the form of skin-on-skin contact?

Surely when people need relief from their financial worries they reach for the natural medication created by body contact, which releases the feel-good chemical oxytocin?

Negative impact

However, at a certain point, this logic breaks down – and the very opposite appears true.

Relate, the couples counselling organisation, is seeing in established couples a different picture from the sexfest Helen Fisher describes.

Denise Knowles, Relate sex therapist, said: “Economic uncertainties can cause people to become more anxious – with the added dimension of people trying to get another job, or working longer hours to cover for a partner who has lost theirs.

“In the end, they are simply less likely to want sexual activity at the end of a long day.”

In addition, the very anxiety that may be fuelling the initial desire to bond sexually may also sap the ability to experience pleasure.

Self-esteem classically drops during recession, particularly for those who actively lose their jobs.

Equally, respect drops for a partner who is economically less successful.

Then, desire plummets along with the esteem and respect.

And even if desire remains constant, ability to act on that desire may be compromised.

A lack of self-confidence has often been cited as affecting male virility – the classic ‘performance anxiety’ – and a lack of emotional security during lovemaking as affecting female arousal.

Money and satisfaction

It is also arguable that economic reversal is affecting sexual completion too, at least for women.

Maybe economic woes bring us together but then make us unable to enjoy the fruits of that bonding

A recent study by Dr Thomas Pollet, of Newcastle University, suggesting that rich men give their partners more orgasms surely also implies that monetarily challenged men deliver fewer climaxes.

According to Dr Pollet, money is one of the main factors determining female sexual satisfaction.

Are these theories contradictory? Does the recession create lust – or sap it? Does a lack of money lead to a raising of desire – or a lowering of sexual action?

One possible theory to square the circle is – to misquote the famous line from Macbeth – is that recession “provokes the desire but takes away the performance”.

Maybe economic woes bring us together but then make us unable to enjoy the fruits of that bonding.

If so, what to do? Knowles advises clear communication: “If you are too tired for sex, tell your partner why. If you suddenly go off sex or can’t perform, being open is the best policy.”

Communication will not solve everything, however: if the problems continue, it could be you need more specialist help.

It could be then that, instead of roses and chocolates for Valentine’s this year, we ought to be handing our beloved an appointment card for a therapy session. Just a thought.

Susan Quilliam is the author of The New Joy of Sex, and of The Romantic Lover and The Adventurous Lover published by Mitchell Beazley.