Healthy lives for young people

The Truth about sex and intimacy

We’re surrounded by messages that tell us that sex is essential for a successful relationship. You can see it in most newspaper or magazine problem pages, bestselling sex manuals and websites where it is variously described as ‘vital’, ‘critical’ and ‘a basic human need’. But the Enduring Love? research project showed this simply wasn’t the case.

When the Enduring Love? team asked over 5000 people what they liked most about their relationship, physical affection featured but sex didn’t even appear in the top ten answers. And this is backed up by the UK’s biggest national survey about sex (NATSAL or the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) which showed that the number of times 16-44 year olds have sex each month has gone down from 5 in the early 1990s to 3 in 2013. 

Pause for a moment to think about your own sex life. Are you happy about the amount of sex you have, and if you’re in a relationship, is the happiness of your relationship linked to the amount of sex you have?

Of course linked to this is your own sexual desire because when it comes to sex we’re all different. There’s absolutely nothing unhealthy about not wanting sex (and if this describes you, you’re not alone) And there’s nothing wrong with wanting lots of it. Sexual desire is on a spectrum like lots of other things about us humans, such as height, hair colour or musical ability. 

Now pause for a moment to think about whether your own level of sexual attraction and desire. Do you think it’s generally high or low? Can you accept it for what it is rather than wishing it was different? 

When we hear and see so much about sex, and feel so much pressure to be having lots of it, this can actually be quite difficult. Just remember that the findings of Enduring Love? tell us that that sex is neither a fundamental human need or essential to relationships, and lots of the so-called advice we read and hear is a load of rubbish!

The real truth about sex

Sex is often very important at the start of a relationship. But for the thousands of people in long-term relationships who took part in the Enduring Love? research project, sex tended to be just one thing among lots of other things they considered important in their relationship. 

Cups of tea featured more prominently (as examples of acts of kindness) as demonstrated in this quote from a couple who took part in Enduring Love?:

“Affection can be having a cup of tea together, making a pot for two, that’s nice.”  

Brendan, Enduring Love interviewee 

“Or sitting and reading, you don’t have to…make an effort to talk to each other.”

 Josh, Enduring Love interviewee 

What people definitely did think was important in relationships was having some kind of physical intimacy. But this didn’t necessarily have to be sexual. Even the people who did think sex was important really valued other kinds of physical affection and closeness in their relationship. 

Here’s a great example of this from a real couple, interviewed as part of Enduring Love:

Alun: Intimacy. We’re quite tactile, aren’t we? We’re quite huggy, kissy and touchy and feely.

Eleri: … Yeah I was thinking that sometimes … we hold hands brushing our teeth! I hadn’t noticed it before and I was just, like, this is ridiculous. Holding hands! It’s impractical, we’ve got a tiny bathroom and we have to shove each other out the way to spit when we are brushing our teeth.”

You might like to think about what kinds of physical affection are important to you. Do you like touching or being touched – and if so, in what ways? Which acts of physical affection could you live without and which feel important to you?

Personal preferences

The kinds of physical affection people prefer are unique to them. For example, having your arm stroked could be unbearably tickly for one person. Another person may find it soothing while another person finds it erotic. 

It’s important to know where your partner is coming from. For example, if your partner doesn’t want to give you a foot rub, you may feel they just can’t be bothered. But they may be thinking that they don’t have a clue how to do it and feel clumsy and stupid when they try.

It may also depend on what you’ve been used to growing up, as this quote shows:

We both come from families where you express affection, physically, by, you know, big hugs and holding hands and stuff like that, yeah.”

Rodney, Enduring Love interviewee 

This also brings us onto the subject of PDAs (public displays of affection). While some people are totally comfortable, others find it very uncomfortable. This is another example of how what we like is unique to us. There’s no such thing as ‘normal.’

Here are some of the different kinds of physical intimacy, taken from Enduring Love?. You may find it helpful to go through and tick the ones that are important to you and put a cross next to the ones that you really don’t like. You could ask your partner to try it as well (feel free to add your own ideas too).

CuddlesHolding handsBondageA quick hug
Kissing in publicCurling up by the TVSnogging or smoochingHair-stroking
Oral sexTicklingSleeping togetherManual sex
Back massageSpankingLight kissesHand-holding at home
Arm strokingBack scratchingFoot rubLove bites
Sensual massageUsing sex toysKnee/leg strokingSnuggling up asleep
Kissing all overShowering togetherEarlobe nibblingShoulder rub
Sexy role playmasturbating togetherFood-sex playHead massage
Bear hugsBathing togetherStroking chest/breastsDry humping

When privacy is an issue

Whatever form sex and intimacy takes in your relationship, privacy may also be an issue, especially if you don’t live together. If you live with housemates then it can be harder to find time alone together without being disturbed. And if one or both of you lives at home with your family, this can really reduce your opportunities to be intimate together.

It really depends on your family and their attitudes to your relationship. They might be relaxed about you spending time together alone, in which case, it may be less of a big deal. But if they’re not so comfortable with it, then this can make things more complicated.

The first thing to say is that it’s probably wise to respect your family’s rules. Getting caught breaking them will probably result in a combination of extreme embarrassment – and more rules. Try to talk them about it if you can, to see if you can negotiate a middle ground. This is a better way to demonstrate that your maturity and to earn their respect.

In many parts of the world where living at home until marriage is common, young people will check in to ‘Love Hotels’ for a couple of hours, which have sprung up to serve exactly this need. But this is unlikely to be a solution for many of us! So it probably comes down to being creative about how and where you spend time together.

Just remember – intimacy doesn’t always have to mean sex. As the Enduring Love? research shows, many people can feel close to their partner by just hanging out and doing everyday things together.


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