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When the only connections in bed are wireless

We have been struck by a small spate of recent news items and research reports that, if taken together, could indicate that we are spending big money to kill off our sex lives.
Image: Technology in the bedroom
Man, Woman, Bedroom, technology, laptop, argue, disagreement, marriage, loneliness, distraction, computer, msnbc stock photographyPatrick Sheandell O'carroll / Getty Images stock
/ Source: contributor

We here at Sexploration have been struck by a small spate of recent news items and research reports that, if taken together, could indicate that we are spending big money to kill off our sex lives.

I am referring to our pricey technology, the kind of thing you are using right now to read these words. (If you are going to panic over this, kindly do so after finishing the column, please.)

This month, Solutions Research Group, an organization that provides data to high-tech companies and also conducts surveys of our technology habits, published a report called “Age of Disconnect Anxiety.”

It found that 25 million Americans now use a so-called smartphone like a BlackBerry or Treo, and that 63 percent of you smartphoniacs have used the thing while you are in the bathroom.

But as disturbing as the previous image may be, here’s the one that ought to make you worry: Thirty-seven percent of laptop owners say they “frequently” use the computer in the bedroom. In all, 68 percent of Americans say they feel a sense of anxiety when they are not jacked into the global mind grid of the Net. This anxiety was defined as “feelings of disorientation and nervousness experienced when a person is deprived of Internet or wireless access for a period of time.”

It’s tough to look forward to, or enjoy, sex if you are anxious, but here’s something to make cell phone addicts even more anxious. In the January issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility, a group of researchers from the Cleveland Clinic reported that “use of cell phones decrease the semen quality in men.” Men using a fertility clinic were divided into four groups, ranging from no cell phone use to using the things more than four hours per day. The longer the men used the cell phones, the less he-man their semen. Sperm count, motility (how well our boys swim), viability (how alive they are) and normal morphology (how handsome they are) were all compromised.

A year ago, a team at the Medical College of Wisconsin exposed rats to six hours of cell phone emissions for 18 weeks and found that the rats’ own emissions went haywire. Specifically, their sperm “exhibited a significantly higher incidence of sperm cell death than control group rats.” Alarmingly, “abnormal clumping of sperm cells was present in rats exposed to cellular phone emissions and was not present in control group rats.”

Abnormal clumping? The authors offered sage advice: “These results suggest that carrying cell phones near reproductive organs could negatively affect male fertility.” While it may be good advice to avoid carrying your cell phone in the pouch of your jock strap, it is also good advice not to use the thing for six hours a day, especially if you’re a rat.

The whole issue of electromagnetic fields and their effects on health is controversial, to say the least. Web sites can be found blaming them for everything from leukemia to autism, yet there is very little scientific evidence for most of the claims of harm. Still, abnormal clumping?

There are signs, though, that even if cell phone use were proven to cause some harm, we wouldn’t give them up. We like our technology too much. Some of us like our technology more than sex.

You've got mail — in bed
Also this month, a British study sponsored by the Sleep Council, the United Kingdom’s bed industry group, declared “Brits Swap Sex Drives for Hard Drives.” Eight of 10 people, it said, boot up a variety of high-tech gadgets before bedtime. Almost one-quarter of respondents said they left their cell phones or smartphones on — using them as alarm clocks. One in three sends or receives text messages or e-mails while in bed. Not surprisingly, the Sleep Council’s spokeswoman, Jessica Alexander (no relation that I know of) managed to connect tech addiction — and all that extra time in the sack e-mailing — to the need to buy expensive beds that are “regularly replaced.”

So why not replace it with the Starry Night bed? Starting in 2009, Leggett and Platt, a manufacturing company based in Carthage, Mo., will sell you the Starry Night equipped with 1.5 terabytes of hard drive storage (in case you really want to listen to 400,000 songs or watch 2,000 hours of video), a headboard with a 1080p projector, Internet connectivity and an RF remote linked to a Microsoft Media Center for the low, low price of $20,000 to $50,000. If the thought having sex in a Space Shuttle cockpit turns you on, you ought to be good to go.

On the other hand, if you think the Starry Night could be an example of misplaced priorities, you won’t get an argument from Marta Meana, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She studies sexual desire and also sees patients with low or no desire, including couples in “sexless” marriages.

“There are reasons to believe there is a link” to omnipresent technology, Meana says. “If we are feeling like we are multi-tasking a lot, and our attention is divided many ways, that is getting in the way of making quiet time to have sex and really focus on another human being … Unfortunately, we do not privilege sensuous activity and sexuality the way we should in our marriages.”

Plasma TVs more desirable than sex
Another survey was released recently by a UK electronics retailer that showed nearly half of British men would happily give up sex for six months in exchange for a free 50-inch plasma TV. Only about one-quarter of all respondents — men and women — said they would be willing to give up chocolate.

Let me repeat: About 25 percent said they would give up chocolate, meaning, presumably, that 75 percent would rather not miss out on a beloved Cadbury for six months than be given a 50-inch TV. But half of men said they’d willingly give up sex to get the TV.

It turns out, say some therapists, that TV watching itself dampens our sex lives. A couple of years ago, an Italian sexologist named Serenella Salomoni issued a report, based on the habits of 523 couples, stating that having a TV in the bedroom cut the rate of intercourse in half.

In another report, a year ago, Salomoni and other Italian experts studying 250 couples were alarmed to find that many Italians were watching nearly as much TV as Americans, the world’s TV-watching champions, and that all this viewing was driving a wedge between couples.

Last year, Japanese sleep scientists studied the influence of electronic media, including TV, computers and PDAs on more than 5,800 Japanese people. About half said they thought they were not getting enough sleep because they were up using the Internet or watching TV. As it turned out, the actual amount of sleep between users and non-users did not vary much, but users perceived a lack of sleep quality and sleep amount. This perception was aggravated on nights before work days.

If you think you’re tired and stressed, sex is not going to be a must-do item.

All this news may lead you to think that we are too busy, too tired, too distracted and too desirous of flat-screen TVs to have sex, and that even if we are having sex there’s an outside chance our gonads are so fried by our constant connectedness they’re making sperm look more like the Hunchback of Notre Dame than sleek cruise missiles.

Seeking distraction?
Not so fast, says sexologist Bob Berkowitz, a co-author of the new book “He’s Just Not Up for It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex, and What You Can Do About It.”

It is not so much that we are victims of the machines as it is that we often “allow ourselves to be distracted by technology. Whether it is computers or BlackBerries or TVs in the bedroom, sometimes I think we are choosing to be distracted. It’s almost like ‘Let’s watch TV so we do not have to talk.’”

Technology, Berkowitz points out, is neither good nor bad. As Sexploration has stated before, as in a recent column about connection in virtual worlds, there are ways technology can positively influence sex. “If you are connecting with a significant other via a cell pone or BlackBerry or laptop, that could be a good thing to do,” Berkowitz says.

True, we can be distracted by any number of things, like reading a book. There’s the old cliché of the man reading the sports page over breakfast and ignoring his wife. Plug “PDA” into that scenario and it doesn’t sound much different.

Yet we often feel beholden to our technology. This month’s Solutions Research Group survey found that 63 percent of Americans agree with the statement “I’m the kind of person who likes to be in touch all the time.”

One person quoted in the study’s summary told this story:

“A couple of years ago I was in Asia traveling around and my wife and I went to Cambodia and the area that we were in [had] NO ACCESS. So we went for four days and that was tough and when we got back to Hong Kong my wife knew I needed to sync up with my BlackBerry. So I am sitting on the train from the airport headed back to the city ... and I’ve got a flood, a flood of e-mails. And it’s just you are used to a certain type of access and efficiency so you can run your lifestyle the way you want to, then all of a sudden it’s been taken away — like someone taking away your driver's license.”

Wife. Exotic vacation. E-mail? This is why every gadget comes with an “off” button.

Brian Alexander is the author of the new book