For the past four years, Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and author of Anatomy of Love, has been crunching the numbers from a massive sex survey undertaken by the Match.com dating site. (It sampled 20,000 unmarried American men and did not include Match.com clients.) "I was horrified," Fisher says. She found that for men in their sexual prime, or twenties through forties, 20 percent hadn't had sex in the past year and 25 percent reported it happened once a month or less. "It's really a sexual famine for single people in this country."
Mind you, we don't know for sure that men are getting it on with startling infrequency compared with a generation ago. Anthropologists weren't consulting for dating websites 30 years back. But modern life – the brutally competitive job market, the ever-plugged-in digital culture, the ready access to sex-drive-depleting medications (SSRI antidepressants, blood pressure meds) – suggests it. "These guys are coming out of the woodwork," says endocrinologist Florence Comite, a New York City antiaging doctor. "They're feeling overwhelmed, they're juggling a million things, and their libido is down."
Even psychologists agree that the remedy may be to focus on the body before the brain. "The solution to low sex desire has to do with lifestyle change more than some blinding insight about how sex really represents some subconscious thing that you didn't know it represented," says Russell Stambaugh, a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a spokesperson for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. Focus on key physiological factors and your mind follows. The bigger takeaway: Loss of sex drive isn't the inevitable baggage of aging – your sex-life success is in your own hands. So to speak.
Researchers are still choreographing the precise steps in the dance between stress and sex hormones, but these basics are clear: Sleep deprivation pumps up stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, and when your body is producing more of those, it's unable to pump out your usual testosterone. Working too long and hard, overtaxing your adrenal system day after day – same effect. "The animal who is extremely anxious is not going to reproduce anymore," Van Cauter says, "and the stressed person isn't going to have the energy or desire to have much sex."
In the jungle that is competitive urban life, it may be that having a steady mate is the best protection against being unmanned by stress. James Coan, who runs a neuroscience lab at the University of Virginia, says the simple act of holding hands lowers stress and anxiety. Framingham State sociologist Virginia Rutter, coauthor of The Gender of Sexuality, says the reassuring and comforting qualities of a relationship can help you block anxiety and distraction, and focus on what's arousing in the here and now – the secret of a healthy libido. "When people feel safe, they get down to business," she says. Certainly, when it comes to the hydraulics of male physical arousal, relaxation is key. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over, allowing the smooth muscles in the lining of the penis to relax and the penile chambers to fill with blood. In an era when sex and sexual desire seem to be under attack on multiple fronts, it could be the best protection for lust is love.
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