Jenny Shepherd discusses intimacy and infertility – are you having enough sex?
So far in this series we have been humbled by the statistics that suggest that infertility may be experienced by as many as 1 in 6 couples, and we have considered the transformation in the relationship that an individual may have with themselves both physically and emotionally. In this piece I will draw attention to the impact that infertility may have on our intimate relationships, both in and out of the bedroom.
Are you having enough sex?
OK, sex is a no-brainer for getting pregnant. So why is it that so many couples that I work with seem to be having sex less frequently? ‘Are you having enough sex?’ seems like a ridiculous question to ask a couple who are desperate for a child, yet common responses are ‘Only when we have to,’ ‘Only at exactly the right time,’ ‘He cannot perform when he needs to,’ and even ‘Well we try to get round to it, it’s just that…’
It is never a congruent and impassioned response of ‘Yes, and lots of it!’ How incredibly sad, that what has the potential to be the most intimate connection that we have with our partners, one of the most powerful tonics to stress, and one of the most pleasurable activities that we as humans uniquely get to enjoy (aside from dolphins apparently!) becomes a chore, a pressure, a clinical task, and the most unsexy of activities that we engage in.
If you are reading this and you are not trying for a baby then you might be thinking ‘I am bored of sex too, who isn’t?’ But we are not talking about bedroom boredom here; we are talking about a demand and expectation so great that the pleasure is experienced as nothing but pressure. That is an entirely different and yet common experience unique to couples in the vortex of infertility, and if we break down the impact of this stress on a couple we should hardly be surprised. Whilst research suggests that sexual dysfunction is the primary cause of infertility for only 5% of couples, it is believed that it can lead to sexual or marital problems in as much as 50% of couples(1). Sometimes the pressure of infertility can be a catalyst for existing underlying problems, and sometimes the stress and the pain that infertility itself brings can create the problems.
What does it mean to be ‘sexy’?
This idea is so widely influenced by today’s media and the internet that I’m not sure I even know anymore! Conforming to stereotypes, the answer would have to be: gorgeous, slim, perfect, wearing not much more than an eye patch for a pair of knickers and performing like a double-jointed model from a modern pop video. As for the men, we’ll go for: masculine, strong, with well-oiled and super-toned abdominals, being able to expertly keep up with our Strictly Come Dancing moves around the bedroom…
I am not sure that this is anyone’s reality, and it is certainly not the stuff that really makes the earth move. However, it can inform our beliefs and our expectations of our sexual selves, and that in itself is a profound part of who we are. Experiencing infertility can really challenge the beliefs that we hold about ourselves. Many women may share that they have ‘failed as a woman’, and this can lead to a much lowered self esteem and a sense of being less desirable.
This, quite understandably, results in a loss of appetite for sex – it becomes a clinical process necessary for the desperate need to conceive. Instances of anxiety and depression are known to be higher for women experiencing infertility, and this impact on emotional wellbeing can decrease a woman’s enjoyment of sex – another factor making it all rather clinical and mechanical. Women are incredibly responsive to their circumstance and environment, more so than men when it comes to feeling aroused, and for those undergoing IVF the intrusive, painful and depersonalisation of the experience just compounds the problem.
However, it isn’t just the women who suffer – we have all heard of the term ‘firing blanks’. Being unable to create a child, to do the very thing that defines manhood, can lead to deep feelings of sexual failure. The pressure for guys is enormous, particularly as they watch the suffering of their partner, as they only have to do one tiny but ESSENTIAL thing for conception. That’s it – just one thing! Just deliver the damn sperm to the eagerly awaiting and expectant egg. I mean, she has just one egg a month and he has millions of sperm available all the time…
So when the little buggers lose their way, or don’t swim far or fast enough, the disappointed for the man is enormous. And, believe it or not, they will hide this very well from their partner, saying ‘How can I complain? Look at what she is going through! I have to be the strong one.’ Quite understandably again, this bottled up disappointment and the pressure that this brings can very commonly result in practical problems in the bedroom, thus many men may be caught in a downward spiral of fearing failure and performance pressure.
How to keep infertility from affecting intimacy
The good news: ladies, as far as research tells us, a female orgasm is not necessary for conception and guys, as long as the sperm is actually deposited somehow, be it too quickly or slowly, then that is all that is required. So, what can be done realistically to minimise the impact of infertility on intimacy? It may be too much to expect to be swinging from the chandeliers, but for many couples it becomes a taboo, and this is where relationships can suffer.
The most important thing is to acknowledge that this sexual response to infertility is very normal indeed, and that it affects both partners. Acknowledgment, acceptance and openness are essential to maintaining the strength in the relationship, not hot pants or Olympic performances. Don’t be disappointed in how it is – feel wholesome, real and embrace yourselves and each other for how well you continue on your journey, despite the hijack of this pleasure from pressure.
Next time I will be looking at the thorny issue of age and infertility, and I will be challenging perceptions of age and the impact that this has on our self beliefs and our experience. What can we really make of the age statistics?
(1) Read, J. 2011. ‘Sexual Problems and Infertility’, BICA Publications.