Towards the end of secondary school, one of my subjects was taught by a temporary teacher who had been hired to fill an unexpected gap in the staff team.
A world-weary man, he once rested his head on his hands in the middle of a class, and gazed mournfully at us, a group of hormonally-charged adolescents. He then remarked, seemingly apropos of nothing, 'You know, eventually one tires, even, of the sex act.' Sadly I can remember absolutely nothing about the context of his comment, or indeed anything else he ever said – about anything. This perhaps explains why I scored less well in the end-of-year exam than expected.
But maybe he was ahead of his time. According to an article in the current Atlantic magazine, we are facing a 'global sex recession'. In other words, there's less sex happening now than in the past. Reporting on this, The Guardian says that in 1990, the 'average' adult in the US had sex 62 times a year; in 2014, it was 54 times. In the UK, between 2001 and 2012, under-45s went from having sex more than six times a month to fewer than five. What on earth might one say in response to this?
1. In general, be sceptical about sex surveys! I mean, for one thing, who takes part in polls such as this? Have you ever been accosted by someone with a clipboard in the street inquiring how many times a month you have sex? Or completed an online survey? And even if given the chance, would you say? Nope, me neither – on all counts. I suspect that some (if not all) of these surveys may attract those who are anxious about sex in some way to begin with.
2. But listen to the underlying trends. Notwithstanding the need to be naturally sceptical, what is striking about the Atlantic article (which is lengthy and thoughtful) is the seemingly international basis for the assertion made that people are having less sex than in the past. In other words, the statistics from different countries are all saying the same thing.
So what might the underlying reason be? According to The Atlantic, a key factor is that young people are far more likely to be single than in the past. It's not only marriage which has declined – relationships in general have. Thus, for example, 'about 60 per cent of adults under age 35 [in the US] now live without a spouse or a partner'.
And why in turn might that be? Factors suggested include the 'hook-up culture', economic pressures, anxiety, anti-depressants, TV, environmental oestrogens leaked by plastics, falling testosterone levels, digital porn, dating apps, careerism, smartphones, information overload, sleep deprivation and obesity. The article then explores some hypotheses in more detail. And it's well worth reading, because for me one underlying message is clear. Western societies are increasingly fragmented, lonely, insecure and adrift. It is heart-breaking. And this impacts everything, including singleness – and indeed married sex.
3. Be confident in a Christian worldview of sex. This is where disciples of Jesus really do have 'a better story' – as Prof Glynn Harrison, a Christian psychiatrist and academic, has put it. While much of the secular world may be 'surprised' (as 1 Peter 4:4 says, somewhat understatedly) that we have a different approach to relationships, sex and morality, we can be confident that there is a better way than that which seems so prevalent in today's western culture.
4. If you're married, get on with it. Yes, really. At least that is very roughly what St Paul says in the first bit of 1 Corinthians 7... Sometimes, to be candid, a husband and wife do just need to get on with sex. The secular writer Caitlin Moran put it amusingly in the Guardian recently when she wrote about the point 'when it's "been a while" – 10 days, two weeks – and neither of you is particularly up for it, but you know that you need to "do a sex" now to keep everything ticking over.' She concludes: 'There is such a thing as Sexual Administration, and you will feel the better for "ticking it off".' Health permitting, she is spot on in biblical terms.
5. If you're single, intimacy is still available. If you are seeking to lead a life of faithful celibacy, please be assured that despite what you may be told in the media, you can lead a fulfilled life without sex – as Jesus did. In a wise and shrewd article, church minister Ed Shaw observes: 'As a single man I might not enjoy sexual intimacy with anyone but I suspect that I often enjoy greater appropriate intimacy with more people than most of my married friends – they are sometimes the people with the greater intimacy deficit.'
Whatever the truth about the 'global sex recession,' both married and single Christians should be blazing a trail for a healthier, happier and more fulfilled way of intimate living. After all, the heart of the gospel is about what is ultimately the most fulfilling and intimate relationship of all – that with God himself. And that, is what everyone, everywhere – whether they have realised it yet or not – is seeking.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A