Lately there has been a noticeable trickle of books by couples who have revved up their flagging love lives by making a pact to have sex on a regular basis. It all started in the US when Charla Muller gave her husband 365 nights of sex for his 40th birthday. This was soon followed by Douglas Brown’s Just Do It – a more modest 101 consecutive nights. And now, with Betty Herbert’s The 52 Seductions, comes the splendidly British once a week for a year.
If the idea of making a contract to have sex with your partner every night, or even once a week, makes you feel a bit threatened, you’re not alone. The starting point of these books is that sex has become the elephant in the bedroom. When Betty Herbert blogged about each of her 52 seductions, she was surprised to find how many couples in long-term relationships had, like her, virtually given up on sex.
I had got embarrassed about portraying myself as a sexual person. It wasn’t how I saw myself, or how my husband saw me
“The great hidden thing about relationships is that we’re all making out we’re having more sex than we actually are,” she says. “It was great to open that conversation up. It helped me enormously to know that I wasn’t the only one who had completely lost interest.”
But can setting a date for a regular shag really bring couples closer, or does it just pile on the pressure? The Herberts tried most things – bondage, role-play, foot frottage, toys, phone sex – but although it did wonders for their sex life, they wouldn’t recommend it. “We are more relaxed about talking about sex now, and it’s created harmony in other ways,” says the author. “But it took a couple of months for us both to feel easier about expressing desire and it took even longer for that to become embedded and for our bodies to start asking for sex, rather than just thinking, ‘It’s been a week, we’d better do it again’.”
What would surely help most long-term couples is the change of direction that is at the heart of sex pacts. The Herberts were forced to have the kind of difficult conversations about sex that they had avoided for some time. “This was a way of changing our attitude to sex and resetting the rules to say, ‘I’m willing to consider everything anew. And that stuff I might have said no to in the past, or that has fallen out of our repertoire, that is all open-season now.
“In long-term relationships, things get set in place that you’d agreed years ago, but which aren’t necessarily true any more. We started again as different people.”
Many couples will empathise with Betty Herbert’s tale of dwindling desire. It’s hard to be sexy with someone you have a companionable, equal relationship with, who takes out the rubbish while you load the dishwasher. She found she was avoiding her husband’s touch in case it led to something more, and her husband adjusted his desire downwards accordingly.
“I had got embarrassed about portraying myself as a sexual person,” she says. “It wasn’t how I saw myself, or how my husband saw me. I had completely lost the ability to express feeling turned on, to want to try something new. I found it embarrassing and cringe-worthy.”
So what do the experts think of sex pacts? The general view is that anything which inspires couples to see sex as a priority is sound, but that it is courting disappointment to make promises you may not be able to keep – especially if you haven’t had sex for a while.
Relationship counsellor Val Sampson, author of How to Have Great Sex for the Rest of Your Life, advocates a more organic – and let’s face it, less daunting – approach to getting your sex life back. Rather than making sex the starting point, she advises looking at your relationship as a whole.
“People think sex is all about being with someone new, but it’s actually because when you first meet someone you’re doing lots of new interesting things together. The key is to take a long hard look at your relationship and ask yourselves: how much fun do we have together? If life is all DIY and Tesco’s and doing the garden, the chances are there won’t be much sexual spark between you.
“So it’s all about how you reinvent your relationship and keep your lives interesting and exciting, because that is the basis of a sexual relationship. Once the relationship becomes more fun and more interesting, the sex comes back.”
But what matters most, whatever approach you go for, is to make a start on making sex a priority again. And better late than never. As Betty Herbert says: “We didn’t realise how much of a problem it was, and how much we missed sex, until we began to make changes.”
Tips for a better sex life
1. Get over the idea that sex has to be spontaneous.
2. Plan a time to have sex; it gives your brain time to adjust to a different role.
3. Get away from home . Go to a hotel, go away for the weekend, or go to a festival together.
4. Your 50s are marked by a liberation from domesticity (which can smother sex drive), so make the most of it. This is the time to rediscover a great sex life.
The 52 Seductions by Betty Herbert is published by Headline, £12.99