Photo: Toru Hanai via Reuters
“My boyfriend offered me sex yesterday. He was in the mood and my reaction was just dread,” wrote Reddit user Saralyn during a particularly lonely day in lockdown.
“When we first got together, the sex was bad,” she tells VICE. “I was much more experienced than him and through thick rose-coloured glasses and love for him, I thought the problem would fix itself.” After six months of dating, they decided to move in together. “After about a year, we made plans to get engaged. COVID put those plans on halt for a while, and in hindsight, it’s been a blessing in disguise.”
On the rare occasions Saralyn and her fiancé do have sex, she regrets it. “There is no emotional connection for me. It feels like he is masturbating using my body because there is no attention given to my needs or pleasure,” she says. “It’s just extremely lonely to have a partner that doesn’t attend to your physical or emotional needs.”
The subreddit r/DeadBedrooms was set up in 2013 as a judgement-free support group for people in sexually unfulfilled relationships, or as its followers would diagnose, a “DB” (dead bedroom). To them, a DB is “technically” 10 times a year or less, although many are keen to stress that there is no “normal” – it’s just about compatibility, and nobody owes anybody else sex. If one partner comes out as asexual, for instance, it’s ultimately about working out how both partners can be happy.
Plenty of subreddits have seen a revival during the pandemic, but the pressures placed on couples during lockdown have created an especially thriving community on r/DeadBedrooms, with over 70,000 new members joining since March 2020. Over 300,000 people are currently following the thread; an average day sees over 700 comments.
Like all niche corners of Reddit, the thread has its own terminology: “HL” for higher libidio, “LL” for lower libido and “LL4U” meaning lower libido for the partner (but not everyone). “Sexual Aversion Disorder” is a commonly discussed diagnosis, with members often bestowing this label on themselves or off-stage partners. Because of the sensitive subject matter, page rules are strict: no flirting or “redpilling.” Moderators are also quick to warn that advice should be given cautiously: “Don’t be surprised if we’ve heard it all.”
Despite what you might assume, there is no average r/DeadBedrooms user. At a glance, the age range of contributors spans from 18 to those in their 60s, with an equal amount of men and women of various sexual orientations, with some non-binary people posting too. While the majority of posters are HL, there are plenty of LL users who feel frustrated about their sex drive or, more commonly, the lack of understanding from their partner.
It is shame that unites them: “There are so many of us in DBs because sex and physical intimacy is an integral part of relationships but nobody ever talks about it,” says Saralyn. “I was raised conservative Christian… You don’t talk about it.”
“It can be incredibly difficult to discuss it with people you know in real life. I can’t talk to any of my friends about this, it’s far too embarrassing,” says Dawn, 28, from Louisiana. “There is such a stigma around sexless relationships. Particularly when it is the man that is not wanting to have sex, as is the case in my marriage.”
Dawn has been an active member of r/DeadBedrooms for three years. A year into her marriage, her husband became uninterested in sex. “There was an instance, several years ago, when I climbed on top of him on the couch after our child had gone to bed. This was back when I was still initiating boldly, before I was worn down by embarrassment and rejection,” she says.
“The television was on in the background. I looked down at him and saw that he was craning his neck around me to watch the TV. That’s how uninterested he was in me riding him. I had never felt so ugly in my entire life. I cried in the bathroom afterward, mortified that I had pushed myself on him like that.” This rejection was a turning point in Dawn’s relationship. Lonely and isolated, she turned to Reddit for help.
“With my husband, our conversations about it are cyclical,” she says. But on r/DeadBedrooms, Dawn feels heard. “I feel like the community has helped immensely in reminding me that I am not alone,” she says. “Getting feedback here, even if it is a bit of an echo chamber, is like a pressure release valve. It allows people with a deep, aching hurt to let off steam in a way that doesn’t leave them mortified at what they’ve just admitted.”
In general, sexual incompatibility isn’t at all rare. “Unequal sex drives are one of the most common reasons for problems in a relationship”, says Relate sex therapist Peter Saddington. In recent years, he’s noticed, a lot of men have struggled with sexual intimacy: “I think there’s a growing trend of more men experiencing a loss of libido or a lack of interest in sex, which goes against what’s perceived out there; that men always want to have sex,” he says. The causes for this loss in libidio are varied: a national rise in porn addiction (a very common feature on the subreddit), longer working hours or worsening mental health.
These aren’t the only reasons, of course. For all genders, past sexual trauma can have an impact on sex in relationships, as can wider problems within the relationship, body hang-ups or unpleasurable sex. But there also doesn’t have to be a reason at all: Sex drives ebb and flow and they differ among us. There is no “correct” libido.
“It’s great to have forums to discuss these problems, it can make people feel like it isn’t just them in the world,” says Saddington. But he advises active users to be cautious: “For some people, being in an echo chamber; hearing back the same sorts of things all the time can just make you feel worse.”
Richard, 37, found the subreddit too much. “Much of this content is based on the original posters’ feelings or experience, hoping to glean some advice and wisdom from the crowd,” he says. “The problem is the crowd is extremely biased.”
Richard has been a silent member of the group for over a year, only posting once. “I don’t find it generally helpful because people can have an axe to grind. One can generally tell when it’s a woman defending the plight of another woman. I find it difficult for men who come there to vent and explain their issues to maintain a civil discourse without being attacked.”
Still, for the hundreds of people that post on to r/DeadBedrooms everyday, there is short-term relief in knowing your pain is heard. Saralyn admits that the community will never solve the sexual problems in her relationship, but that isn’t really the point.
“Being here doesn’t make me any less stressed but it does help me feel less alone,” she says. “So for now, I’m staying in the DB sub.”