During two strange days in New York last winter, three married people—one after another—confessed to me either that they had stopped having sex or that they knew a married person who had stopped having sex. Like a sensible person, I booked an early flight home and chalked the whole thing up to the magic and mystery that is New York. But no sooner had I put my coat on the peg than it started up again. A number of the mothers in my set began making sardonic comments along similar lines. The daytime talk shows to which I am mildly and happily addicted worried the subject to death, revived it, and worried it some more. Dr. Phil—who, like his mentor Oprah Winfrey, has an uncannily precise sense of what American women in the aggregate are thinking about—noted on his Web site that "sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic." Mass-circulation magazines aimed at married women rarely go to press these days without an earnest review of some new sexual technique or gadget, the information always presented in the context of how to relight a long-doused fire. (And I must say that an article in Redbook that warns desperate couples away from a product called Good Head Oral Delight Gel—"the consistency is like congealed turkey fat"—deserves some kind of award for service journalism.) Patricia Heaton, a star of Everybody Loves Raymond, has published a memoir called Motherhood and Hollywood, in which she observes, "Sex? Forget about it. I mean that literally." Books with titles such as Okay, So I Don't Have a Headache and I'm Not in the Mood have become immediate hits, and another popular book, For Women Only, lists various techniques that married women use to avoid sex, from the age-old strategy of feigning sleep to the quite modern practice of taking on household night-owl projects. And Allison Pearson's much loved novel about a busy working mother, I Don't Know How She Does It (which opens with the main character engaged in just such a late-night project), features a woman so tired that she's frantic to escape sex with her husband, prompting Margaret Carlson, of Time magazine, to observe, "Sleep is the new sex." It has become impossible not to suspect that a large number of relatively young and otherwise healthy married people are forgoing sex for long periods of time and that many have given it up altogether.
And so we turn our curious attention to the marital therapist Michele Weiner Davis, whose new book, The Sex-Starved Marriage, is so well timed and so aptly titled that it is primed to become a cultural sensation. Davis is not particularly interested in the cause of this strange turn of events, though she tosses around the expected observations about the exhaustion that dogs contemporary working parents and the reduction in lust that has always gone along with marriage. Hers is not a deep-thinking, reflective kind of book but, rather, a get-cracking-and-solve-the-problem kind of book. Solutions? She's armed to the teeth with them. She has created a "passion-building toolkit" filled with "field-tested" techniques—none of them bad. Although I found Part IV ("Doing It Together") far more appealing than a scary mini-chapter called "The Do-It-Yourself Solution," her notions about how to jump-start the old hanky-panky seem eminently reasonable. Make "romantic overtures," she counsels. A wife might buy some new lingerie; a husband might wear flattering clothes. Most important, though, is a recommendation based on exciting new "research" revealing that for many people, waiting for the urge to strike is pointless; better to bash ahead and hope for the best. Davis asks, "Have you ever noticed that although you might not have been thinking sexual thoughts or feeling particularly sexy, if you push yourself to 'get started' when your spouse approaches you, it feels good, and you find yourself getting into it?" Many of her clients have received this counsel with enthusiasm. "I really wasn't in the mood for sex at all," reports one of her advisees after just such a night, "but once we got started, it was fun. I really enjoyed it."