There’s no “right” amount of sex. Whether in the context of a relationship or not, people’s needs and preferences vary massively, but it’s still easy to wonder whether other people are doing it more often than we are. Coming straight out and asking them, however, is unlikely to get you invited back for dinner any time soon. Luckily for us, scientists have more socially acceptable ways of asking the awkward questions, and have done some research that might just prove surprising.
How much sex are we having?
In 2017, a study was published in Archives of Sexual Behavior that heralded a change in the sex lives of American adults: namely, they were having less of it. “American adults had sex about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the late 1990s,” opened the study authors, citing data from the now-biennial General Social Survey.
The researchers found that sexual frequency decreased among those in relationships (married or cohabiting), but not among single people. If you’re thinking that’s an immediate win for the singletons, not so fast: unpartnered people tended to have less sex on average anyway, but the sharp decline in sexual activity among couples did mean that by 2014 – the most recent data the authors had access to – their frequency had dropped below that of the singles.
As reported by the Washington Post at the time, married people were now doing the deed 55 times per year on average, compared with 59 times per year for unmarried people. So, it wasn’t so much that singletons were having more sex, just that couples were doing it less.
More recent data, from a report by advocacy group the Center for Researching and Understanding Sexual Health (CRUSH) in 2021, found no difference between single and married people when it came to sex frequency.
It’s important to note that this is just one survey, which was done online and thus would have excluded people who don’t have regular internet access, and – like most data in this field – it relied on self-reporting, which is prone to bias, but it does still hold some interesting insights.
Overall, the majority of participants in the research were having sex at least once per month, with fewer than 6 percent engaging once a day. Amongst the married people, 35 percent reported sex one to three times per month, and 36 percent one to three times per week. These were very similar to the stats for single people, at 36 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
However, people who described themselves as actively “dating” were more sexually active, with 44 percent reporting having sex one to three times per week.
Two major factors that emerged from the data were age and sexuality. Those aged between 25 and 34 were having the most sex, and bisexual and homosexual people were also getting on it more frequently than their straight counterparts.
What makes a “good” sex life?
Having lots of sex is only one piece of the puzzle. What matters more is whether the level of sexual activity – and the quality of the sex you’re having – is meeting yours and your partner’s needs. As actress Miriam Margolyes once said in response to being asked if she’d prefer sex or a radish: “If it was bad sex… I’d rather have a radish.”
Leaving root vegetables to one side for a moment, a 2015 study backed this up by demonstrating that, while frequent sex was associated with greater well-being, the benefits peaked at one sexual encounter per week for those in relationships.
Let’s also come back to the question of age. According to the CRUSH report, while there was little difference between single and married people, older adults were having less sex, and there are a few reasons why that might be.
Sexual desire can decline with age, although one study found that this was much more common among women than men – you can see how this could work to decrease sexual satisfaction over time, especially if one partner already had a much lower libido to begin with. Sexual health problems, like erectile dysfunction and vaginal pain and dryness, also become more likely as we age and can interfere with sex between older adults.
Despite this, though, the CRUSH report also found that divorced people – whom we might surmise are likely to be older than those who have never been married – were having more sex than married people.
There's also other research showing that older people could actually be having better sex, thanks to all the skills and experience they've acquired – what one set of study authors poetically called "sexual wisdom".
Many causes of sexual dysfunction, like mental health problems, don’t discriminate based on age. The daily stresses of things like parenthood can take a toll on a happy sex life, things that may be more of a factor for people in relationships as opposed to single people.
Speaking to the Washington Post in the wake of the 2017 Archives of Sexual Behavior paper, sociology professor Pepper Schwartz opined, “I would say the number one cause for a lack of sex is fatigue. [...] People’s minds are occupied with things other than the physical connection, and that has increased in modern life, and especially from the ’80s and ’90s and forward.”
But overall, the news for the quality of the goings-on in American bedrooms is positive: 81 percent of participants in the CRUSH report described their most recent sexual encounter as “good”.
So, are singles really having all the fun?
The short answer is, no. There are lots of elements that contribute to a satisfying sex life, but most of the research seems to show that being single or in a relationship is among the least important.
Even if some people in long-term relationships fantasize about a hypothetical carefree, unattached, fun sex life, it's most likely that they’re simply harking back to their younger years, rather than specifically to the single life.
Equally, as CRUSH report author Dr La Keita D. Carter pointed out for Psychology Today, “[W]e hear single people opine about wanting the stability of having a partner who knows what you want and is available to you when you are in the mood.”
“If it’s true that comparison is the thief of joy, it may be helpful for us to stop thinking about what’s happening in other people’s bedrooms,” Dr Carter continued. “Instead, focus on doing what works for your intimacy needs.”
[H/T: Psychology Today]