Maybe you've skipped dinner and gone straight for dessert, but if you’re skipping all of your meals (and other vital to-dos) to have sex instead, you might be having too much of it.
While science suggests sex can improve mood and decrease anxiety by reducing stress signals in the brain, it’s possible doing the deed can interfere with leading a healthy life. In the mood for love or vice versa? Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women. Burleson MH, Trevathan WR, Todd M. Archives of sexual behavior, 2007, Nov.;36(3):0004-0002. Don’t get us wrong: Sex is a normal, healthy, fun part of adult life. In fact, Ian Kerner, Ph.D., a sex therapist, says sexual attraction and sexual compatibility are the basis of many successful relationships. Thinking with our nether regions may be natural, but continually acting on those thoughts while the laundry piles up may be the sign of a dilemma. So how much sex is ideal, and how much is too much?
What's the Deal?
According to the Kinsey Institute, 18- to 29-year-olds have sex an average of 112 times per year, while 30- to 39-year-olds do the deed on average 86 times per year. So if that's average, what’s healthy?
Kerner says most couples in a relationship should be having sex at least once per week. Couples therapist Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., agrees that once or twice a week makes for a healthy sex life. During the infatuation stage (a.k.a. the honeymoon stage, when two people can't stop thinking about each other) couples often have sex every time they’re together, Kerner says. And when couples first move in together, the frequency of sex increases, but only temporarily. The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Rhoades GK, Stanley SM, Markman HJ. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 2012, Apr.;26(3):1939-1293.
But with all that rubbing, sex can get a bit uncomfortable. After all, women's bodies don't stay lubricated eternally. If there's pain or numbness, it's smart to slow down or call it quits for the night. Using lubricant can also make for more pleasurable sex by cutting down on painful friction, and can actually help ensure safe sex because it makes condoms less likely to break.
Get It On
If sex gets in the way of leading a healthy life, it may be part of a more serious issue. If your sexual impulses feel out of control, or you're having sex to avoid feeling lonely or depressed, or you're having sex despite risky consequences (like contracting an STI or losing a partner), this might be the sign of a problem.
Sex obsession—sometimes called hypersexuality, compulsive sexual behavior, sex addiction—is a subject still up for debate. Sexual addiction, sexual compulsivity, sexual impulsivity, or what? Toward a theoretical model. Bancroft J, Vukadinovic Z. Journal of sex research, 2004, Nov.;41(3):0022-4499. While many sources maintain that sex addiction is a psychiatric disorder, a study published in 2013 suggests that much of the time, hypersexuality is really just high desire and not necessarily a medical issue. Regardless, if sex is being used as a substitute for dealing with a real issue, it's best to consult a doctor or therapist.
At the end of the day, it comes down to quality over quantity. Having sex daily doesn't mean it's too much, so long as both partners enjoy it, Kerner says. But if partners are regularly having sex and one person feels more satisfied than the other (read: is having more orgasms), sex can start to feel like a chore for the less-satisfied party.
Of course, there's no right way to go about sex, and the preferred amount varies from person to person. For a fulfilling sex life that's just right, it's helpful to be honest and open with your partner(s) about how frequently you’d like to be intimate. And that doesn't mean it needs to be a boring discussion. Telling your partner about your desires—in specific terms—can be highly erotic. In fact, one study found that couples who communicate about sex, especially during the act, are more sexually satisfied. Simply put: There should be mutual enjoyment, whether that means giving or getting.
And remember that compromise is key: Instead of singling out one person for his or her sex drive, research suggests it can be helpful to assess the couple's collective desires and meet in the middle. Gender differences in desire discrepancy as a predictor of sexual and relationship satisfaction in a college sample of heterosexual romantic relationships. Mark KP, Murray SH. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 2012, Jul.;38(2):1521-0715. As funny and un-sexy as it sounds, it may even be smart to schedule sex so the lower libido partner doesn't feel pressured, and the higher libido partner doesn't feel rejected. Libido: the biologic scenario. Graziottin A. Maturitas, 2000, Apr.;34 Suppl 1():0378-5122. That said, if you ever feel overwhelmed (either physically or emotionally) by the kind or amount of sex you're having, let your partner know you need a break. Sex can be dangerous if there's any sort of pressure or force to do something with which either party isn't comfortable.
Having sex on the regular is part of a healthy, normal adult life. But when sex gets in the way of your day-to-day, it might be time to seek professional help from a doctor or therapist. Our appetites for sex grow and shrink, and successful couples need to manage those ups and downs. Sometimes libidos will match up, but when they don't, Kerner says we need to take responsibility for our sexuality by enjoying ourselves by ourselves.
“Masturbation is an important aspect to a healthy life. If you have a higher libido, masturbate more,” he says. The answer to our sexual inconsistencies may lie in our very own hands.
Originally published July 2013. Updated October 2015.