Read enough sexual advice in places like women’s magazines and it’s easy to get the idea that while you’re stuck in traffic, eating breakfast, changing diapers or working overtime, everyone else is having steamy sex.
But the real picture is a little different, studies show. Most Americans are content with their frequency of sex. And you may be surprised to know that the ones getting lucky most often are committed couples.
“No group in society, we find, has anything more than modest amounts of sex with a partner. And the group that has the most sex is not the young and the footloose, but the married,” say the authors of Sex in America: A Definitive Survey.
That survey, published in the mid-nineties, found that about a third of Americans have sex with a partner at least twice a week, a third have sex with a partner a few times a month, and the rest have sex with a partner a few times a year or have no sexual partners at all. Frequency and type of sex were the same across racial, religious, educational and socio-economic lines; the variables that mattered most were age, marital (or co-habiting) status and how long a couple had been together. The youngest and oldest Americans have the least amount of sex; long-married couples have the most.
A recent study published in Modern Maturity magazine found that older, widowed women have the least amount of sex, probably due to personal beliefs about sex outside of marriage.
The physical limitations
Patients often ask Beth Braun, N.P., a women’s health care practitioner at an urban family planning clinic, if it’s possible to have too much sex. “The short answer,” says Braun, author of the pamphlet “Good Sex in Three Easy Steps,” “is that, as long as you’re physically comfortable and your partner is physically comfortable, you can pretty much have as much sex as you want.”
Still, Braun does discuss some physical limitations as well as possible physical and emotional effects of very frequent sex. For example, it’s normal for men to have a refractory period after ejaculation, when they can’t get an erection for a while. Some women get a stomachache after a lot of sex. And then there’s “honeymoon cystitis,” a term referring to bladder infections some women get after prolonged sex.
“Then there’s the emotional aspect,” Braun says. “Are you enjoying all this activity? Is this something you’re doing against your will? You know, in the beginning there’s the honeymoon phase. People are loving all the sex and you kind of have free reign. As a relationship goes on, however, you usually find a happy medium. It can be hard to do that because you’re dealing with someone other than yourself. For some, that’s where masturbation can fit in.”
Defining the happy medium
When a couple finds that their notions of “happy medium” differ, however, it can cause anxiety and tension.
“‘Too much sex’ happens when there’s a discrepancy in sexual desire; if one partner is simply wanting more than the other,” says Gina Ogden, Ph.D., a sex therapist and author of Women Who Love Sex. “Another type of ‘too much sex’ is the kind of sex they may be having.”
Putting aside clinical problems of sexual addiction or sexual compulsiveness, Ogden says the optimal frequency of sex is defined by each couple, not by sex therapists or the media. Problems can arise if there is poor communication. For example, if a man wakes up ready for sex but his partner isn’t a “morning person,” sex can become a source of tension and a turn-off at any time of day. Or one partner may be unsatisfied with sex because she needs more caressing and foreplay. In these cases, people must communicate their needs, or sexual encounters can become dreadful.
Ogden also believes that sex in our culture is too narrowly defined and that people sometimes listen too closely to the media’s presentation of optimal amounts of sex. She says couples often come to her worried that their sex life doesn’t meet society’s definition of “enough,” not paying attention to the fact that their own definition suits them just fine.
“They’ll say, yeah, we’re really turned on, we take baths together, we kiss in the park, but we only have intercourse once a month,” Ogden says. “I would try and help them broaden their definition of sex and probably send them out of the office like really happy campers, feeling like they’ve been given a gift.”
The media and society
“Too much? There’s too much indeed when the public gets tired of it,” says Jack Hafferkamp, Ph.D., an erotologist (someone who studies the sexually charged material in cultural media) and co-editor of the erotica magazine Libido. “There were some 10,000 porn titles produced in Hollywood last year but a lot of that is pretty awful.”
Hafferkamp believes our culture often mirrors the “potential unhappy domestic situation,” where there’s a lack of communication and an over-dependence on meaningless sex. Still, he thinks there’s increasingly room for more sophisticated sexual content, and that different people do find their cultural match.
“We’re always going to end up with a Cincinnati and a San Francisco, and the people who live in those places are going to be comfortable with different types and amounts of sexual material,” he says. “People who want what those cities have to offer tend to gravitate there.”
Ogden believes that what’s good for society is good for couples, too: more communication and more meaning to sexuality. “What’s left out of the equation is the whole notion of spiritual sex,” Ogden says. “If your sexual relationship is holistic, if you’re emotionally tuned into one another, if your hearts are in it as well as your bodies, and if you’re communicating, then there’s no such thing as too much or too little. Because you’re in balance.”