In the Media - Laura McNaught

The Guardian Magazine May 2023

Today sees the launch of our new sex column, overleaf, where couples let us in on their bedroom secrets. But, as Coco Khan discovers, many of us still find talking honestly about sex with our partners painfully difficult

For many, sex is something easier done than talked about, especially when it comes to our romantic partners. Guardian researcher Kitty Drake came across this a lot while conducting anonymous interviews for our new column featuring couples opening up about their sex lives: people were more concerned about their partner knowing what they thought about their sex life than they were about their sex life appearing in a national newspaper.

“One woman explained it to me,” says Drake. “I was trying to address her anxiety and said, ‘No one will know it is you.’ And she said: ‘But the only person I really don’t want to know what I think of my husband’s lovemaking skills is my husband. And he’s the only one I won’t be anonymous to.”

But the exact reasons behind our struggle to be honest about sex with our partners – whether it’s saying what feels nice and what you’d like more of, or worries that sex is fading from the relationship – are often complicated, and cannot just be explained away by theories of being too uptight, or too polite (a condition also known as being “too British”).

Such struggles are “very common,” says Silva Neves, a sexologist and counsellor. “People are afraid to be shamed for their turn-ons, and afraid their partner might think they’re weird and leave them.”

Fiona Robertson, who has been married for 15 years, agrees: “I think we’re conditioned not to admit to sexual dissatisfaction as it’s some sort of commentary on our beloved partner.”

For the first years of their marriage, Fiona and her husband Malcolm, both 35, had no problem talking about sex – not least because there was no shortage of it. But over the years, as the honeymoon period faded, discussions became fraught. “An added complication is that I’m bisexual, so I think he always had this sense

that he couldn’t give me everything I needed,” she says. “Yet after we did open up our marriage, it suddenly became super easy to talk about sex again, because the fear that if we spoke we’d uncover something fatal to our marriage was gone.”

This sort of openness is reflected in a 2022 study , which found that the vast majority of British and American couples surveyed were honest about their sexual satisfaction, and would want their partner to be so too (this is especially true of men). But dig a little deeper and the same survey found that 54% of women admit to faking orgasm, while more than a fifth of men were not honest about how many previous sexual partners they’d had.

But it’s not so simple to say honesty is always the best policy. A 2014 study found that some “pro-social” lies, such as saying you like a gift you actually don’t, may help strengthen bonds.

That said, communication about turn-ons and turn-offs can improve people’s pleasure in the bedroom, and better sex makes for happier couples. In short: it’s about better rather than more communication. So what do we need to talk about? “Low libido in women is commonly presented as a problem in need of a solution, when in fact fluctuations are absolutely normal,” says Laura McNaught, a psychosexual therapist. And desire itself is complicated. “Sexologists used to think that the human arousal cycle started with desire – feeling horny,” says McNaught. “After that comes arousal, then orgasm, then the comedown ‘refractory’ period. “This belief has caused a lot of worry, especially in women, when a few years into the relationship they say their libido has gone. But that kind of desire is what we now call ‘spontaneous desire’, and only some people experience it in long-term relationships.” The other desire, she says, is “responsive desire”. “That’s about having positive intent, so wanting to have sex because it feels good and brings you closer emotionally, and then doing the physical act to bring on arousal. After that comes the desire.”

What about common concerns for men? “Many men get their sense of self-worth from being competent, so hearing that they aren’t ‘competent’ in bed can feel like a dagger to the heart,” she says.

Neves agrees: “Men struggle with the myth of masculinity, which says they have to be good lovers at all times, and have to take charge in the bedroom. Unreliable erections equates to weakness.”