I spoke to 20 couples, and here’s what I discovered…
Somewhere, within our understanding of human sexuality within relationships, a little voice found its way into our brain with an opinion on how often we “do it.” Suspiciously, particularly after the first few years of a relationship, that opinion is often “not enough” — especially when we measure our sex lives against that of a friend, or a fictional character, or a celebrity — and it’s usually followed by an, “Oh my god. What does that mean? Are we normal? Doomed? Dead??”
So, I turned to Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., sex educator and The New York Times best-selling author of Come As You Are, about how couples can assess the health of their sexual relationships. She has a rhyme to answer that very question: “Pleasure is the measure…of sexual well-being.”
In other words, she says that your sexual well-being has nothing to do with how often you do it, or who you do it with, or what room you do it in. (“It,” by the way, means whatever you and your partner mean when you think about sex.) “The key is whether or not you like the sex you’re having,” says Emily.
I spoke with 20 different people* in long-term relationships. Every person said they’re having less sex than they did in the beginning; some felt like they should be having more; and some were comfortable with where they were. Of those people who were having less sex than they thought they “should” be, to Emily’s point, quite a few were satisfied with the sex they were having.
Take Lauren, a 44-year-old woman from Las Vegas, who has sex with her partner of 10 years once every few weeks. Though their frequency began to dwindle about three years into the relationship, she says, “we have a deeper bond from being together for so long. When we do have sex, it is better than it’s ever been.”
Lynette and her partner have been married for five years, and for their entire relationship, including early on, they’ve had sex about once a month. “We’re totally fine with it, and we’re affectionate day to day,” she says. “I know our number might be low compared to others, but we’re satisfied.”
Jada and her wife have been together a total of 10 years, and had sex once a day for the first year. Now they have sex once or twice a week. They also keep up what Jada calls a “lifeline”: They talk about “sexy things,” and make it a point to tell each other that they’re into one another.
A couple’s sexual frequency can also ebb and flow. Amy, a mother of two in Ohio, who has been married for 10 years, said their sex life is sometimes “hot and heavy.” Then there are “periods of energy shifts” where she and her husband focus more on their careers, home or children.
Either because it can take multiple tries to get a piano in the doorway, or because it’s a message worth repeating (both, probably), Emily Nagoski offered variations on “quality over quantity” throughout the course of our conversation. But how does a couple keep that quality sex going? Especially when you have three seasons of your new favorite show to catch up on, and you’re tired from work, and your kids seem to pick up sharp objects then head directly for the sharpest counter corners they can find the moment you close the door?
“When you look at the research on couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over multiple decades,” Emily told me, “they have two characteristics in common. First, they’re friends. And two, they prioritize sex. They decide that it matters for their relationship. They cordon off time. They let their skin touch the other person’s skin and enjoy sharing that time together.”
I spoke with a few couples who made sex a priority by scheduling it in their calendars, which Emily was all for. “People sometimes hear that as, ‘Oh, there’s no spontaneity.’ But think about all the other important things that you put on your calendar.”
What if you’re not in the mood on the scheduled date? Emily offered up a metaphor from her mentor, Dr. Christine Hyde, a New Jersey-based sex therapist: “Imagine that your best friend invites you to a party. You say yes, but then as the date approaches, you start to worry: Will there be heavy traffic? We have to find child care. Do I really want to put on my party clothes on a Friday night after a long week? But you know what? The date arrives, and you get the child care, and you put on your party clothes, and you show up to the party. What happens? You have a good time at the party. If you’re having fun at the party, you’re doing it right.”
You don’t have to be literal about circling every fourth day of the week underneath a photo of galloping horses, either. My friend Billy and his husband have an unspoken once-a-week pact. They’ve been together for 13 years and have two kids, responsibilities, and a New York City apartment with New York City-thin walls; and their unspoken agreement feels fun and easier for the two of them.
“When it comes to sex frequency, nothing is shocking,” says clinical psychologist Lina Perl, Ph.D. “I’ve had couples tell me they have to have sex every night. I’ve had married people who report that they haven’t had sex for several years and aren’t concerned about it. It’s only problematic when the person has a problem with it. Frequency is meaningless unless it’s bothering you for some reason.”
Declining sex, lack of sex or loss of interest in sex can be an early indicator that a couple needs to check in with one another — but that depends on the couple, agrees Emily. You can have incredibly intense sex and be in a toxic relationship, just as you can experience a “dry spell” within a happy relationship.
After nine months of pregnancy, hazy new baby days, and postpartum depression, Padma, 32, realized it had been a full year since she and her husband had had sex. “My brakes had slammed on,” she said, “There was no way I could have had sex during that time.” But they slowly found their physical groove again with trust and patience. “It was a chapter in our lives,” she says. “Now we’re back in our rhythm.”
And couples can embrace other forms of intimacy, as well. Andrea, 29, has been with her husband for four years, and their current average is about once a week. But four to five nights a week, she says, “we spend deeply affectionate time together in bed, cuddling, talking and laughing.”
Basically, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to sexuality.
“When you see a number about how often American couples have sex on average; that’s a description of the population,” says Emily. “But do any of those people’s sex lives have anything to do with you and your relationship, and your sexuality? Do those people come to bed with you and check to make sure you’re doing it right? They have no place there.”
Emily says that the goal is to “assess our own sexuality on its own terms, based on our personal and relational experience, without reference to anything that’s happening outside of our bodies and relationships.” In fact, Emily told me that a common phrase among sex educators is, “Stop should-ing on yourself.” “There is no ‘should,’ she says. “Should is not a word that belongs in sex positivity.”
As we wrapped, I told Emily that even though I went into this story with the assumption that every couple is different when it comes to sex, I was still struck by the variations. You know what Emily said?
“Exactly. And they’re all normal. They’re all doing it right.”
Amelia Diamond is a writer and creative consultant. In December 2018, she left Man Repeller after five years to pursue the strange world of fiction (along with other freelance creative endeavors). She’s also a New York Magazine alum who lives in New York, was raised in San Francisco, and is very much still working on her bio. Follow her on Instagram, @amilli0naire.
(Illustration by Nina Cosford for Cup of Jo.)
*Names have been changed.