By day, Ian, a 59-year-old Vancouver businessman, met tight dead lines, soothed upset customers and managed a tough work crew in the high-pressure construction industry. But what made him
most anxious was his inability to perform at night—in bed. Not long after he became impotent five years ago, Ian sought the help of a sex therapist. The diagnosis—stress—has become a familiar one to sex experts. While no statistics are available, sex therapists say that in the past five years, they have seen a significant increase in the number of clients like Ian who are experiencing sexual difficulties as a result of chronic stress. Many are two-income couples in their 30s and 40s, often with young children, but stress is also affecting singles and twentysomethings. “These are very normal individuals,” says Saskatoon sex therapist Carolyn Chernenkoff. “Everything had been working fine before they came under so much pressure—but sex and stress are not good bed partners.”
In times of stress, the body produces fewer sex hormones—testosterone in men; progesterone in women. That reaction once served a useful purpose by restricting population growth during times of crisis, such as famine and drought, explains Dr. Peter Hanson, Denver-based author of The Joy of Stress. “Way back when, it was a good thing that the sex drive went down,” says Hanson. “The modern reality, of course, is that it creates a whole host of new anxieties in the human race.” The most common sign that stress is affecting sexual activity is a lack of desire. But stress may also lead to such physical symptoms as impotence in males or an inability to reach orgasm in females. “The distress affects the overall relationship and the enjoyment of the sexual function within that relationship,” says Dr. William Chernenkoff, who works as a co-therapist with his wife, Carolyn. And because many people do not realize that stress is dampening their relationship, some—both men and women—seek an outlet in extramarital affairs. “They find that they have lost interest in their partner or their partner’s response has decreased,” explains William Chernenkoff. “So they check themselves out in a new relationship.”
The Chernenkoffs maintain that communication—the word behind the title of their new book, Sex Is a 13-Letter Word—can help diffuse the pressure for stressed-out couples. They and other specialists advise couples suffering from work overload to schedule time for intimate moments together—even if that means spending a night in a motel. They also recommend that couples learn relaxation techniques. “People live at such a fast pace,” says Vancouver sex therapist Blenda Steward. “They don’t know how to slow down when they move into the bedroom.”
Ian, who now enjoys a satisfying sexual relationship with his wife, says that he uses breathing exercises and reading to take his mind off the pressures of work before heading into the bedroom. “When you have a high stress level,” he says, “the first thing to go is your sexual ability."
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