Radio 4’s No Sex Please: the Japanese have ‘grown tired of sex’ – and they’re not the only ones

The Guardian's advice columnist Annalisa Barbieri wonders whether a new BBC Radio 4 documentary about sex lives in Japan could be a sign of where we're all heading

A customer checks computer game software, much of it based on "manga" comics, at a software shop in Tokyo on May 8, 2009. A Japanese computer game maker dismissed a protest by US rights campaigners against the game "RapeLay", which lets players simulate sexual violence against females. New York-based Equality Now launched a campaign this week "against rape simulator games and the normalisation of sexual violence in Japan".    AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

Some years ago, I wrote an article about sex for a newspaper. A reader, a clergyman if that matters, wrote in to say I hadn’t mentioned love and that my description of sex sounded like my partner and I were going at it like “dogs on heat in the street”.

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I wrote to thank him, and still have that letter as a glorious reminder of my past. I feel lucky to have lived at a time when my 20s – the prime shagging years – coincided with so much. It was pre-mobile phones, pre-webcams, pre-social media and pre-online porn. And it was post-widely available contraception and economic independence for women.

It was also back when sex was something people still did. But that’s all in the past now. No Sex Please, on Radio 4 this Friday, looks at the startling lack of heterosexual sex going on in Japan, a country that also has a rapidly declining birth rate, and more older people than any other industrialised nation.

Ruth Evans, one of the No Sex Please presenters who, along with Chie Kobayashi, went to Tokyo to investigate what’s happening, says it’s like “an upsidedown pyramid”. And we all know how unstable they are. And the situation, Evans is keen to stress, is by no means unique to Japan; they’re just ahead of a curve.

Official Japanese government statistics show that 42 per cent of single men aged 18–34 have never had sex, and 44 per cent of women in the same age group haven’t either. Take a moment to digest those figures and not skim over them, like I usually do with numbers. And even when people have lost their virginity, had a relationship and got married, the sex then seems to stop: sexless marriages are also on the rise. One of the women from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, which conducted this research, said that “people aren’t getting married, they’re not having sex, they’re not having babies”.

What are they doing? If they’re men, generally they’re working too hard; masturbating to online porn; having sex virtually with large VR visors strapped to their eyes; too scared to talk to women who are seen as too feisty by far these days; and visiting Idol Shows, where it’s all about the kawaii (cute), with girls wearing school uniforms and singing. And the more men do this, the less they are able to communicate with real, adult women, even if they wanted to.

For women, the reasons are slightly different. They also tend to be working too hard, but are also too tired for sex, too disappointed in men to want to have sex with them, and too busy looking after elderly relatives, which is like reverse-Viagra. Plus, educated women with a job don’t want to give that up, they don’t want to get married.

Evans also explains that, with this obsession with all things kawaii, “There’s a disconnect between what men see as sexy; by the time a woman is mature she’s ‘past it’ in men’s eyes.”

You really don’t need to look far to find similarly alarming sex-decline statistics in industrialised countries. Last year an American study showed that there had been a 15 per cent drop in the number of times Americans had sex in just over a decade. In 2013 the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) found that, in Britain, people between 16 and 44 were having sex just under five times a month, which was a drop from the previous survey published in 2000. Five times a month! Tell that to the Japanese. There’s a similar decline in Australia.

The reasons there’s so little sex happening is complex and layered – it’s not just because of the reasons stated above. It is more of an issue in industrialised nations. But, also, men don’t seem to know what their role is any more; they fear rejection so they stay with what they know: the cute, the accepting, the virtual. Women no longer need men for financial stability. In Japan women are talked of as “carnivores” and men as [emasculated] “herbivores”.

In my day job as advice columnist for The Guardian, I get a lot of letters from people who aren’t having sex. Every sex therapist I speak to, and I speak to a lot, says this isn’t a problem as long as both parts of the couple agree on how much or how little sex they are having. The issue is, of course, when one part of the couple isn’t happy, and increasingly (although anecdotally) it’s the woman who laments the lack of sex.

It could be that more women write to me, but in the ten years I’ve been doing the job, the number of these letters has increased. The other gem I’ve learnt is that it’s the person with the low sex drive in the relationship who actually has the power and the control. I look at “my husband has a low libido” letters differently now. There also appears to be more understanding of, ergo more visibility in, asexuality. That is, people who are interested in romantic love, but not sex.

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After listening to this programme I admit I was perturbed. I wondered if we were on the edge of something, and it didn’t seem to be an orgasm. Rather, the end of a world where people have sex. Which would, literally, be the end of the world. There’s a moment when the programme speculates whether marriage and relationships could become something only for the few – an elite. A bit like property ownership now is. One of the men interviewed in No Sex Please said we needed a “sexual revolution”. And I thought that happened 50 years ago.

No Sex Please airs on Friday 13th July at 11.00am on BBC Radio 4