Wendy, an Upper West Side mother of a 3-year-old, doesn't think that sex on a quasi-regular basis is too much to ask. "If it were up to me, we'd have sex weekly," she says, not unreasonably. Her husband, alas, is not up to the challenge. These days, he's anxious, not least about losing his job in ad sales. Wendy sighs. "Because of him, we do it quarterly. We're like the IBM dividend at this point." Peter isn't against sex. In fact, on the rare occasions the two fulfill their marital obligations, they find the experience extremely pleasant. "It's fun," Wendy attests. "Laughter, joy, tears, whatever. It's never regrettable. And the next morning is filled with 'Why don't we do that more often?'"
Why don't they? There seem to be all sorts of reasons. The kid, the economy, Peter's precarious profession. "We are stressed out emotionally," Wendy admits. "It's almost easier not to engage in an intimate relationship."
It would be depressing to describe Wendy and Peter as typical. But interviews with the brave, the frustrated, with sex therapists, and divorce lawyers, suggest that -- whatever impression you may get to the contrary -- sex among the married classes is not as, well, happening as boomers were once led to believe. The reason is simple -- New York's special level of stress. It's hard to perform, or to persuade your spouse to try, when you're worried about the mortgage, losing your job, or your 401(k).
Back in the eighties and nineties, sex therapists say, the typical patient was someone who felt sexually incompatible with his or her partner. In other words, one of them wanted it too much, too little, or not at all. These days, the big difference is that both partners are still showing up for therapy because they're not having sex, but neither one seems particularly bothered. It's reminiscent of the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb's depiction of a wife staring numbly at a blank TV screen. When her husband suggests she turn it on, she replies, "Why bother?"
Perhaps none of this matters to anyone but the people directly involved. Certainly the world, even the Upper East Side, seems to be procreating at a brisk rate. But we're talking about recreational, not reproductive, sex here. And something far greater may actually be at stake -- New York's bragging rights as the world's sexiest, or at least most sexually obsessed, city. Not to put too fine a point on it, are New Yorkers, once they've acquired financial and social critical mass, now too strung out to compete for the title?
Andrew, a 39-year-old graphic designer, is the first to admit that married people not having sex with their spouses is the oldest joke in the book. But he's not even interested in cheating on his wife. It's not because he's morally opposed to the idea or because he hasn't been attracted to anyone else (the ad agency where he works is filled with fetching young women), but because he feels he can't afford to.
"I don't make enough money to have an affair," he sighs. "The hotel rooms, the dinners, the presents, the covering up, the presents to cover up the other presents. It seems like a very expensive proposition to have sex in the afternoon."
He and his wife rarely make love, he confides, but not because he has trouble performing. Well, actually he does -- but with an explanation. If he wilts in bed, he says, it's because of how disastrously expensive an accident that results in child No. 3 would be. "You think, More tuition fees!, and you feel oppressed and then you feel bad that you think in those terms."
And then there are his existing kids. "Any time you have sex in your own house, there are twelve other things you should be thinking about -- from doing the laundry to If I don't get to sleep soon, I'm going to be wiped out the next day."
Peter Fraenkel, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Time, Work, and the Family at the Ackerman Institute, says the problem isn't sex but carving out the time to have it. "As people are working longer hours and working from home through technology, there's more potential for negative emotional arousal from work."
He recalls one client who worked in tech support and took his beeper to bed. Heading toward a divorce, the guy realized he needed to make some changes. "He understood this had gone too far," Fraenkel says. "He talked with some of his associates about delegating. That allowed him to turn off the beeper some evenings."
Ask couples, wives in particular, what's missing from their marriages, and chances are they won't say sex but romance. They blame it on their husbands, and their husbands, like Andrew, blame it on their kids. For Liz, a stay-at-home mom in her thirties who lives in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, the economy is actually the least of her problems. Her spouse is earning more than he ever did. But he's so beat when he comes home from work that he no longer puts the moves on her the way he did when they were younger.
"Sometimes he falls asleep before me," she says with evident relief. The children are her excuse. "By the end of the day, I'm spent," she adds, as her 5-year-old throws a temper tantrum in the background. "The kids demand so much, and he comes home and is demanding, too."
"If it were up to my husband, we'd do it every night," explains a stay-at-home Upper East Side mother of a toddler and a 5-month-old. "So I end up being the bad guy and saying no. I'm always tired, though we did manage to cram one in while Lily was awake in her crib in the next room."
"The majority of my friends I've discussed sex with all have similar issues," adds Liz. "One of my friends, with a 16-month-old, told me she and her husband used to have a great sex life. Now they barely have sex. She's too tired. "
Liz, who works out three or four times a week and looks like she has a great sex life, admits she fantasizes about another husband in their social circle, but, curiously, her fantasies don't go very far. What she longs for most "is that melting kiss I haven't had since I was younger," she says. "I don't know another married person who has kisses like that. It keeps me in check, that I'm not falling out of love. Everyone I know has the same issues. You realize you're normal." Liz says she only rediscovers her libido when she and her husband go on vacation. Andrew is the same way. "It's such an artificial experience," he sighs. "You have to cram this other life into a weekend. At the same time, you spend a couple of thousand bucks to go to some overpriced hotel and feel like an idiot for not leaving your hotel room."
While liz blames her depressed sexual drive on her kids, might it not be possible that New York also shares some of the blame? Were she living elsewhere, might she at least feel sexier? The city's cerebral reputation is great if you're looking to blast your career into the stratosphere or join a weekly book group studying James -- Joyce and Henry -- but what if you're just searching for fun?
Dana Tierney, a happily married writer who recently moved to Washington after twenty years in Manhattan, says she can't believe how much more flirtatious the men in D.C. are. In fact, after living here, she's shocked that they flirt at all.
"These men were just adorable,Â” she says, referring to a Chevy Chase Christmas party a couple of weeks ago. "They gaze into your eyes -- I guess they were a little tipsy -- and then they call over their friends and say, 'Just tell me, what color are her eyes?' I batted them, of course.
"And when we sat down to eat, the guy who was gazing into my eyes was also rubbing his knuckles up and down my back. Would this ever happen in New York? In Manhattan, everyone's seething with ambition. Everyone's one-upping everyone else -- who's got the better apartment? Who's got the more glamorous job?"
Sex therapist Miriam Biddelman remembers the Upper East Side couple who solved their sex problems, at least temporarily, by taking their vacation not at Cap Juluca but at Masters and Johnson in St. Louis. "They went through two weeks of sex therapy," she says, "and everything had changed; sex was great. A month later, they're seeing me. He got back to his partnership at the investment bank. She got back to her volunteer job, and life began to resemble what it was before they went away. You have to be making a hell of a lot of money to live in the city," she continues. "The husband was a workaholic, his wife complained she never saw him. He said, 'How can I support you all if I don't work as hard as I'm working?'" Manhattan beat out Masters and Johnson.
At 26, sexy and single, Claire is already making her pact with the devil, or at least the wedding-announcements editor at the New York Times. An assistant editor in publishing, she's having lots of sex, great sex, just not with her fiancé, a bond trader. She may be a member of the Buffy generation, but her attitudes toward romance, or rather the tricks nature plays to thwart it, are the pragmatic, rueful ones of women twice her age.
"The sex has never been great, but everything else is," she explains. "He's very conservative. He doesn't know a woman's body." So she's having a last affair with a neighbor in her apartment building. "I am profoundly attracted to him," she confesses. She doesn't find her plight especially unusual. "My friends are in relationships where the sex is mind-blowing and everything else is lousy. Or it's like, 'My sex life is so-so, but we're planning a trip to Paris and he got a raise and we're looking into apartments in Brooklyn Heights.' Find me the couple that has it all."
But shouldn't one at least enter a marriage under the impression that you can have it all? "When you marry someone, you always know there's going to be temptations," she states carefully. "You're making the commitment. But I think it's something I'll be able to handle." It doesn't sound like much fun. "Someone I know who's 40," Claire admits, "told me, 'Yeah, you're going to marry him, but he's not the last person you're going to fuck.' That was one of the most inspirational conversations."
Rachel, a fortysomething world-class flirt, was having drinks with a girlfriend recently when the friend told her what she actually thought of Rachel's husband, David, a lawyer at a white-shoe law firm. "She thinks he's boring," she says. "She doesn't think he's attractive at all. She said it when she was drunk, so I know it was true. It made me think."
Rachel concluded she hadn't sold out, particularly given the state of world affairs. "I made practical choices. I thought about my well-being and security. I never wanted someone to cheat on me."
She recalls the torture of dating her male-model-handsome old boyfriend, whom she recently ran into. "I was miserable. I remember finding scraps of paper with other girls' phone numbers in his wallet. What I was doing looking in his wallet is another question."
Indeed, she says, her sex life with David has only gotten better over time. "There's a comfort level you need to do certain things," she says discreetly.
Does that mean those wild days are gone, never to return? "You never say never," she admits. "Maybe, if I could get away with it. But I would have to make damn sure there wouldn't be repercussions. That's why you get up and put your makeup on in the morning. You never know who you're going to run into."