What if he has lost that lovin' feeling?
One-in-five irish men in relationships have low interest in sex -- and don't admit it. But the first step to virility is to open up, says expert David Kavanagh
Did you hear the one about the guy who walked into a bar and said to his mate: "I don't really want to have sex with my wife.
What's that all about?" "Men don't have those conversations," says systemic family therapist David Kavanagh. He says one-in-five Irish men have a very low interest in sex, but it's not something they feel comfortable talking about with the lads over a beer. Or at any time.
"We're led to believe, from a very early stage, that men are supposed to be virile and powerful," he says. "The desire society has for men to show sexual performance leaves them thinking that it's not okay to own up to loss of libido; to say that they're worried about something not working down there. We worry that we're going to be laughed at or judged by our friends. We hide from the fact ourselves and turn away from our partners."
In his professional capacity, Kavanagh is seeing more and more men with libido loss, and he puts this down squarely to the economic problems Ireland is facing.
"The recession is having a huge impact on men," he says. "No matter how much Irish society has evolved, men still see their role as the provider, especially if they have children. So when a man has lost his job or his business, he has lost a huge part of this identity in the context of his family.
"It's a crisis we urgently need to address -- this idea that men have nothing to give unless they are providers for their families. We need to start valuing men as nurturing, kind, loving fathers and husbands in every other respect of those words."
Paul, who was interviewed for sex therapist Bettina Arndt's book What Men Want -- in Bed, says: "When I began to lose erections, I was utterly devastated and broken hearted. It is one thing to lose a lover, but it seemed to me that I had lost me. It was as if the most important part of me had died."
Looking back, Paul now realises that although he felt that he and his wife were close and got on well, they actually had no communication about sex. "I needed to explain my predicament to her, to tell her that I loved her, that I wanted to continue being a lover to her, but that part of our communication was lacking," he says. "I withdrew from my wife. I wanted to make love to her, but I couldn't, so I put up an emotional wall."
Kavanagh says that talking about sex is a big problem in the libido stakes. "Any healthy sexual relationship is about give and take, and about communication, but talking about sex can be embarrassing or even seem dangerous to the relationship, so people go for years sometimes without saying anything at all," he explains. "No wonder their sex lives are negatively affected."
Another huge development affecting the modern male libido is the internet revolution, which has made pornography accessible in a way that it never was before. Of the 150 men interviewed for What Men Want -- in Bed, the vast majority secretly looked at pornography on their computers. "What most men want to watch is willing women, easy women eager to respond to man's every whim," says Arndt. "An erotic world just as fantastic and unrealistic as the suave heroes from women's bodice-ripping romances."
However, as Kavanagh has seen, consistent immersion in the fantasy world of internet porn has a detrimental effect on real sex. "I had a couple who had two children come to see me. The man wanted his wife to look like the women he was seeing in the pornographic movies he was watching online and there was unbelievable pressure put on her to perform and be like those women. She had a bit of a belly she hadn't been able to get rid off since having her second child and she said her husband just couldn't understand why.
"The use of pornography and the portrayal of women in those situations is having a conditioning effect on men in terms of their sexuality. It's very difficult for a man to turn to his wife and say: 'I don't find you attractive enough to want to make love to you.'"
A better sex life, Kavanagh believes, comes through understanding the connections between the minds, the body and the emotions. "We need to be attentive to what we are feeling, why we are feeling that way and how those feelings are manifesting themselves in our bodies before we can have healthy, meaningful sex with our partners."
While loss of libido may have its roots in complicated psychology for some men, for others it's simply hormonal. "Testosterone is the hormone that fuels our sex drive and it decreases in our bodies as we get older," says Kavanagh. "If men are less fit and less agile, they are not as keen to have as much sex as they did when they were younger."
Exercise and a healthy diet help keep testosterone levels up, but with the advent of a little blue pill called Viagra, many men are choosing the easier option. But there are unseen side-effects.
"I see Viagra as being the easy option for the male," says one of the few female contributors to Arndt's book. "A hard, chemically induced penis is not my idea of pleasure. It makes me feel used. It's a real turn-off."
Kavanagh adds: "The trouble is that we don't understand the mechanics of sex. When Viagra comes into the mix, everyone is happy because it sorts those problems out, but what might be happening is that people are disengaging from the emotional aspects of their bodies, tuning out so they can make the mechanics of sex work.
"People should understand that there's more to sex than simply taking a pill. There's compassion and understanding and respect, which are all part of the act that no pill can work with."
So, there are no easy answers to the problem. Taking good care of your body and mental health might be a start, but if your, or your partner's, libido is low, the first difficult step is talking about it openly and honestly, either together or with a professional.
"Sex is about a reciprocal relationship," states Kavanagh. "It's only when we realise this and confront it, taking all the prejudices that society has about men and sex out of the mix, that we can go forward."