Terence Blacker: Sorry darling, I'm feeling sexually reluctant again

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It is probably not a good moment to discuss the hot new topic of the moment, the politics of intimacy – habituation, sexual reluctance, the whole troublesome marriage/bedroom thing. There will be time enough when the world awakes in a month or so and the little crocuses start pushing up through the earth in that hopeful, suggestive way of theirs.

On the other hand, perhaps this moment of natural repose is as good as any time to address what, according to a new book, is a growing crisis in our personal lives, and one that has been scandalously ignored until now. "There is some indication that sex in marriage is so moribund that the reluctance to study it is almost as pronounced as the reluctance to engage in it in," writes Susan Maushart in Wifework.

Maushart's argument will be familiar to bloodstock breeders. In the breeding business, it is known that, while stallions may have problems of fertility, it is broodmares who frequently go into what is technically known as "sexual slumber". However spirited the efforts of the "teaser", which performs a thankless warm-act for the stallion, some mares remain sullenly uninterested in the whole business.

Apparently, a similar process (usually without the teaser) takes place in many marriages, and Susan Maushart has the evidence to prove it. A "massive study" in America revealed that three-quarters of all women would happily give up sexual intercourse for a little tenderness. A "growing number of scholarly observers" have reached the conclusion that "for many married women, sex is another form of wifework – another way in which women routinely service the physical and emotional needs of their male partners at expense of their own".

There will, I suppose, be some wives who will be clenching their poor, put-upon fists and punching the air at these findings. They will sigh in sympathy at the various bedroom horror stories recounted in Wifework: the wife who slept separately from her husband but allowed him sex when she wanted a new dress, or the woman who rewarded her husband with a quickie if he put the rubbish outside.

For a man – and, on this occasion, I write as a man – these insights into the female character are, if they are true, profoundly dispiriting. Without going into unnecessary technical detail, some might ask who, in the average act of marital intimacy, is likely to be doing the most work. The idea of wives sullenly succumbing to sex with the distracted, pissed-off air of someone left to do the washing-up, of giving their husbands a "routine service", seems insulting not to men, who at least are trying, in their innocent, clumsy way, to keep the show on the road, but to women.

As for those who sell their favours in return for a dress or to avoid doing rubbish duty, there is a term for that – and that is not "the politics of intimacy".

All of which assumes that Maushart, her polls and her growing number of scholarly observers, have got it right. Personally, I suspect that they have fallen for a familiar, comfortable myth. While women are quite happy to own up to a loss of libido, men prefer to keep up appearances – they lie about their virility, in other words.

Away from pollsters and academics, in the places where people are more honest about these things – late at night, talking with friends over a few drinks – the complaints invariably come not from husbands, but from wives. More often that not, it appears, it is men who slip wearily into "sexual reluctance", leaving their women restlessly staring into the darkness, thinking of better, busier times.

If this, rather than the Wifework argument, is true, it contains its own problem. For here, in the realm of sexual slumber, is yet another way in which men are letting women down.