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Picture this: You’re at brunch with your squad after weeks of trying to get everyone together. The mimosas start flowing, the gossip gets thrilling, and inevitably the conversation takes a very *ahem* personal turn.
Before you know it, everyone is spilling the tea about their sex lives in the middle of the restaurant, Sex and the City style.
One confident pal claims that she and her girlfriend do it “every single day, sometimes twice,” while another admits that having kids has put a damper on her horizontal time with her hubby. “It’s been months,” she says, resignedly. “But I feel like that’s to be expected, right?”
As everyone goes around the table swapping stories, you’re sitting there wondering, uhh, what should I say about myself?! Should you inflate the number of times you typically get it on, or downplay your average? What’s “normal” here — and are your friends even telling the full story of their sex lives?
The truth is, there’s no “right way” to have a pleasurable sex life. Every couple has different preferences, and the most important thing is that both people feel happy with their physical intimacy.
If you really want to talk numbers, the research provides a bit of insight here. A 2017 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that American adults in their 20s had sex around 80 times per year, while people in their 60s got it on closer to 20 times annually.
A 2015 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that having sex more than once per week did not necessarily lead to an increase in a couple’s overall happiness and contentment in their sex lives (i.e. more sex isn’t always better, but a minimum of once per week seems to be the sweet spot).
But that doesn’t mean this number works for everyone. “When it comes to sex, there is such a large spectrum and so much variation that no real ‘normal’ exists,” says Andrew Aaron, LICSW, sex and relationship therapist and marriage counselor.
He explains that communication between partners is key to establishing a frequency of sex that works for both people. “Some couples are sexual daily and neither is it out of the norm nor is it unhealthy,” he notes. “Other couples are sexual once every other month. If both partners are satisfied, then this infrequent frequency is also within the norm and is healthy.”
As noted in the Archives of Sexual Behavior research, age can play a role in determining the frequency of sex — but the key word here is can.
A 2018 Journal of Sex Research study of middle-aged participants found that the older someone felt and the less positively they viewed aging, the less likely they were to enjoy sex. A lot of what creates healthy libido is simply how you feel about yourself and your partner.
That said, certain physical effects of aging can affect sex drive as well. “Varying levels of estrogen and testosterone can affect libido,” says Tristan Bickman, MD, OB/GYN and author of Whoa, Baby!
She explains that men and women might peak at different times of life in terms of hormones and libido. “Males reach peak sex drive in their teenage years,” she says. “Females have their peak in their 30s.”
On the other hand, research also suggests that men and women actually hit their sexual peaks when they are most comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality — which could, in theory, be at any time.
Stress, hormones, and lifestyle can all play a role in determining how often someone desires sex, and these factors can ebb and flow throughout your life.
“Anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, sexual performance concerns, body image issues, and mental health problems can all eliminate sexual desire,” Aaron says. When you’re in a low-stress period of life, you may find yourself desiring sex more often.
We’ve all heard of the “honeymoon stage” in the first 2 years of a relationship where both partners want sex all the freaking time. But once that’s over, what changes?
“When couples are together a long time, and if they have stressors like kids, or really stressful jobs, it’s very easy for them to fall off,” explains Mary Jo Rapini, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in intimacy and sex.
“They’ll go a month without even thinking about sex, because they’re so tired, they’re so overstressed, they’ve got so many other things going on.”
She says having children can really change the amount that couples are having sex — mainly because becoming a parent totally changes your life and routine.
Bickman agrees that time can change a couple’s sex life. “It has been established that as the length of marriage increased, the sexual desire and frequency of sex decreases,” she explains.
“It has also been established that this decrease occurs within the first 2 years of marriage.” But this doesn’t mean you can’t beat the odds! If your sex life is still bangin’ after 2 decades, keep doing your thing.
And if your relationship isn’t as easy as it used to be, don’t fret — this can actually be a positive thing. Aaron notes that big events like marriage and children can challenge a couple and force them to grow together.
“These milestone events accelerate the forward movement toward the work phase of the relationship, which is most of the duration of the relationship in which partners intentionally or not experience and address personality problems and limitations,” he says.
“The work phase is not sexy. It can be challenged with tension, conflict, and adversity, all of which has a strong and negative impact on the level of sex drive.”
But this can also be the time where you learn to work through your differences as a team. Physical intimacy may not always be the top of your priority list, but that can change if you both commit to working on your sex life together.
- Quantity is everything. This should go without saying, but the quality of sex matters way more than the frequency at which you’re having it. If your pal who says she has sex daily is treating it like a to-do list item, is she really having a “better” sex life than you? We think not.
- Masturbation decreases your sex drive. This couldn’t be further from the truth — actually, regular masturbation can increase your sex drive and teach you what feels good for your body, which makes for a better partnered sexual experience, too.
- A dry spell means you’re doomed. Everyone goes through periods where they desire sex less often. This doesn’t mean you’re broken or that nothing will ever change. If you’re concerned about low libido, talk to your doctor to figure out what might be going on and how to change it.
- Certain sexual preferences are “bad” or unacceptable. Enjoy kinkier sex? Good for you! As long as you’re experimenting in a safe environment and practicing enthusiastic consent with your partner, you should have whatever type of sex you damn well please.
Decreased sex drive doesn’t necessarily doom a relationship. It’s all about whether both partners are communicating about their needs and working through their emotional hang-ups as well as their physical ones.
Rapini says she typically considers 1 full year without having sex as grounds for concern in a relationship. “If it’s been a year, it’s diagnosable as not being healthy,” she explains. “Especially if one of them really wants sex more.”
If this happens, a medical professional or sex therapist can work with a couple to understand the roots of this low libido, and figure out a plan for increasing sex drive and frequency.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to start having more satisfying sex at a rate that makes both partners happy. Here are some concrete strategies for how to make that happen.
- Incorporate de-stressors into your life. “Exercise, yoga, having fun, [and] achieving relaxation can all contribute to increased sexual desire,” Aaron explains. He suggests “escaping stressful routines by doing something spontaneous and different, especially with the sexual partner.” Have you heard the saying that vacation sex is some of the best sex you’ll have? That’s because it gets you out of your regular environment, which can feel sexy and exciting. Try adding some spontaneity and fun to your life to relieve stress and help you feel connected to your partner.
- Connect with your partner emotionally. Sex is way more than just a physical thing. “Sex is really wholistic,” Aaron explains. “Every part of being and our experience contributes and influences our sexuality. Sex is chosen to build connection and to express an already built loving connection, for pleasure, entertainment, stress relief, and innumerable other reasons.” The more you’re jiving in all areas of life, the more likely you are to want sex with your partner.
- Consume erotic media together. Whether it’s reading a steamy book or watching porn as a couple, this can inspire you to shake things up in the bedroom. Rapini suggests doing this together and talking about it (rather than one partner watching porn in secret, which can sometimes create shame around the issue, and feelings of betrayal).
- Get your hormones checked out. If you’re worried that your hormones are out of whack, give your doctor a call. “Avoid some medications that can decrease libido if possible,” Bickman suggests. “Check your hormones to confirm normal levels if you find that there is a significant decrease in libido.” It could be that by making a change to your regular medications, your libido goes up significantly.
- Kick shame to the curb. There’s nothing that kills sex drive like feeling ashamed or embarrassed of your body or your desires. “Our sense of ourselves, including our feelings about our bodies, have a huge impact,” Aaron says. “Self-esteem is important. Past sexual impressions can play a role.” He explains that when we feel confident and in control of our sexuality, we’re way more likely to crave sex. “Feeling powerful is an aphrodisiac,” he notes, describing power as “the ability to make our lives the way we want [them] to be.” When you feel worthy of great sex, you’re more likely to seek it out more often.
If you’re still struggling to get your sex life to a place that makes you happy, consider working with a couples’ therapist who specializes in sex and physical intimacy. A professional can help you understand the root of your concerns and rethink what a “normal” sex life looks like.
Forget what your friends say — it’s all about what makes you and bae feel satisfied and happy. When the topic comes up at brunch, you can just wink and flash a coy smile. They’ll get the picture.