When it comes to sex, we’re quick to gobble up statistics that tell us how much the average person has. Since it’s too taboo to ask anyone in real life, this is the next best way to find out: How does my sex life stack up against everyone else’s?
But these statistics paint a crude picture at best, obscuring much of what’s going on below the surface. If couples have sex an average of twice a week, some are dragging down the average with chastity while others are pumping it up with daily shagging. In addition, the averages tell you nothing about quality, or causality, pointing to a chicken-and-egg problem: Does positive feeling lead to more and better sex, or does the influence go the other way?
As much as the general public is obsessed with sex and what constitutes enough of it, researchers, too, are actively exploring these areas. They, however, are not shy—and they’ll ask anyone and everyone how often they’re doing it, where, and in what positions.
The upshot of their findings? There’s no question that what happens in the bedroom is intimately linked to a couple’s happiness. But our obsession with quantity might get in the way of the things that really matter—how issues around affection, unhappiness, and communication can drive our desire for more sex. Understanding where our desire (or lack thereof) comes from is the first step toward a better sex life for everyone involved.
Who has more sex?
If you aspire to a more active sex life, you probably have a vision of something steamier, more intimate, or otherwise just better than the status quo. But how does that vision line up with the research?
A February 2017 study, for example, surveyed more than 100 young couples several times during their first 15 years of marriage. On a given day, the more husbands engaged in positive behaviors—saying “I love you,” offering compliments, being affectionate—the more likely the couple was to have sex.
“Husbands may engage in more affectionate or positive behaviors to ‘earn’ sexual access to their wives,” the researchers speculate. Wives don’t tend to do this, it seems—wives’ positive behaviors didn’t predict the likelihood of sex that day.
But sex isn’t always good—a fact that we perhaps forget when we fantasize of having more. An April 2016 study by Brian Joseph Gillespie of Sonoma State University drove this point home, dividing participants into four groups: a group with high-frequency and high-satisfaction sex (35 percent), high frequency and low satisfaction (10 percent), low frequency and high satisfaction (12 percent), and low frequency and low satisfaction (44 percent). (In this case, low frequency meant less than “once or twice a week.”) Among the more than 9,000 older adults surveyed (ages 50-85), in other words, there was a sizable group who had lots of sex but didn’t particularly enjoy it.
Respondents with active and satisfying sex lives did exhibit certain patterns, though. They tended to be in sync with their partners (in how lustful they were and what kinds of activities they wanted to do) and had more variety in the bedroom—everything from going on romantic getaways and giving massages to using sex toys and talking about fantasies.
Participants in Gillespie’s study had the opportunity to free-write about their sex life, and what they shared was revealing. In the high frequency-high satisfaction group, people had similar attitudes toward sex as their partners: They agreed that sex should be prioritized, takes work and negotiation, and benefits from an atmosphere of love and affection. Such partners communicated well around sex, expressing their desires and needs.
“I love our sex life. We are able to be open about preferences and new things. We are able to say what makes us uncomfortable. We are able to say what we like,” said one woman. “At this stage in our life, we are able to have quick sex or long, passionate sex with love, kindness, and no hurt feelings.”
Meanwhile, the high-frequency-low satisfaction group had sex often, but found it boring and routine, lacking in intimacy and romance. Often one partner didn’t seem to be interested in sex, but the couple didn’t communicate to resolve these issues.
“My wife and I are 180 degrees out of phase when it comes to sex,” one man said. “Our sex life is very basic and not spontaneous. It lacks variety.”
These couples had all been together for more than one year, offering a snapshot that may not reflect all stages of a relationship. While couples do tend to have less sex the longer they’re together, there are conflicting findings about whether sexual satisfaction tends to improve or decline over time—and little to suggest that there’s some “ideal frequency” of sex at any given age.
Let’s say you do decide to have sex more regularly, hoping to end up in the high frequency-high satisfaction group. What kind of benefits can you expect from all that extra lovin’?
What happens when you have more sex?
It turns out that this question is difficult to answer, simply because few experiments actually ask participants to have sex more regularly and then report back. In one such study, couples actually doubled their lovemaking over three months but decreased in happiness and sexual enjoyment. That same study also found no improvements in marital quality.
Several other studies have echoed this finding, debunking the commonplace notion that frequent sex will make your marriage better. In a January 2016 study, researchers followed over 200 couples—mostly white, mid-20s partners in Ohio and Tennessee—during the first five years of their marriage. About every six months, the couples answered survey questions about their marital satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and number of times they had sex in the past half-year, so researchers could observe changes over time.
According to their analysis, couples who had more sex tended to be more satisfied with the sex a half-year later. (Practice makes perfect?) But they didn’t become more satisfied with their marriages. And another February 2017 study found that more frequent canoodlers only had happier marriages when they were also more satisfied with the sex. When sex isn’t satisfying, unsurprisingly, more of it doesn’t really benefit the relationship as a whole.
“Good sex appears to outshine plentiful sex,” the researchers conclude.
Another April 2016 study complicates this story a bit. Here, researchers followed 56 newlywed couples (again, mostly white and mid-20s) over three years. Their goal was to see whether having more sex might predict a different measure of marital satisfaction—a more implicit one, outside of couples’ conscious awareness.
“Some individuals may desire to believe, and thus conclude, that their relationship is healthy despite infrequent sex,” the researchers write, which might explain why frequent sex doesn’t seem to make marriages more satisfying. But deep down, couples might actually feel differently, given how primal sexual desire is and how adaptive it would be (reproductively speaking) to want lots of sex.
At the beginning and end of the study period, the couples answered questions about their marriage and came into the lab for a computerized test. The researchers flashed a photo of their partner on the screen before displaying words (e.g., vacation, poison), which the participants had to classify as positive or negative. The photo essentially primes the brain for a certain response, so the faster participants were in identifying positive words (and the slower for negative words), the more positive they implicitly felt about their partners.
In the end, couples who had more sex at the beginning of the study didn’t ultimately report higher marital satisfaction in surveys, but they did score higher on the “automatic partner evaluation” task. In other words, frequent intimate relations seemed to influence their unconscious attitudes about their partner—and unconscious attitudes can “leak out” when we don’t have the cognitive energy to override them, explains lead author Lindsey Hicks.
“If one spouse is stressed, tired, overworked, or distracted, [they] may be unable to act in ways that are consistent with their positive relationship beliefs/ideals, making them more likely to behave in negative ways…being rude to the partner, losing their temper,” she says.
Obviously, science doesn’t have a perfect idea of what happens when you have more sex. All of these studies mainly focused on opposite-sex couples in committed partnerships, which leaves out quite a few people whose experiences might help shape the big picture, from singles to same-sex couples to those in polyamorous relationships. There’s some evidence to suggest that more sex might make you feel better about your sex life, though not necessarily your relationship, but even those patterns aren’t totally consistent.
So what’s the bottom line?
Should you have more sex?
To figure out how much sex is enough for you, the best you can do, perhaps, is combine the scattered research with a bit of self-awareness.
First of all, do you actually want more sex? The helpful four-part framework above revealed that about 10 percent of older adults don’t have sex very frequently, but are quite satisfied with the sex itself. Their busy schedules sometimes get in the way of more action, but overall the sexual encounters they manage to have are fulfilling.
“We may not have the same quantity of sex as we used to, but the quality is so much more!” wrote one woman in the survey.
However, some members of this group did report that they are hesitant to initiate sex with their partners, who they fear are uninterested—which of course contributes to a less active sex life. “[Some] men and women reported that poor communication about sexual desire indirectly influenced the frequency of their sexual activity but not the quality,” the researchers explain. Working on communication could allow such couples to have their high-quality sex more often.
Thus, if you aren’t having a lot of sex (or as much as you want), it’s helpful to explore why.
In that January 2016 study, where researchers followed up with newlyweds every half year, frequent sex seemed to be a consequence of certain factors: being very satisfied with your sex life or, counterintuitively, being in an unhappy marriage. Their interpretation? Sometimes we’re driven to get naked because we enjoy it a lot; other times, couples turn to sex to fix their issues. If you’re having less sex, then, it could be because it’s unfulfilling—or simply because you’re content with your current relationship. The trick is to understand which condition best describes you.
There’s no sense having more sex if it isn’t going to be enjoyable, though, so quality might be the issue to address before quantity. The research above offers some tips for doing that.
- Focus on your relationship: In one study, couples who had higher marital satisfaction were more satisfied with sex down the road. “Sexual and relationship satisfaction are intricately intertwined,” the researchers write. If the sex isn’t great but you’re not sure what to do about it, turning your attention to the non-sexual aspects of your relationship could help.
- Increase your positivity ratio: One way to work on your marriage is to create more positive interactions—physical affection, compliments, saying “I love you”—and fewer negative ones—anger, impatience, pushing buttons. Another study found that when one spouse is more positive, the other is more satisfied with sex; but in a negative environment, everyone’s enjoyment of sex is dampened.
- Set the mood: Gillespie’s study found that the high-satisfaction groups (whether they had sex frequently or not) were more likely to report setting the mood for sex, e.g., lighting candles, putting on background music.
- Aim for variety: Gillespie also linked satisfaction to a greater variety of sexual behaviors, such as gentle and deep kissing mixed with manual stimulation.
- Make it good for your partner: When wives are more satisfied with sex, husbands end up more satisfied down the road—plus, sex happens more often, one study found.
- Foster emotional agility: Another study revealed that the more prone to negative emotions you are, the less you enjoy sex (perhaps unsurprisingly). Cultivating a more positive and resilient mental state will benefit your sex life, too.
Once the quality is good, then you might still decide to increase the quantity—and be more confident that you’ll reap rewards.
“The frequency [of] sexual intercourse and the extent to which sex is gratifying are believed to reflect the depth of a couple’s entire physical and emotional bond,” researchers observe. Rather than looking outward to compare ourselves to an average, we’d probably find more fulfillment looking inward to our own needs and desires, and our partner’s.