There’s dissension among some of my friends about whether single people have more sex than married people. I say married people, but one of my friends says it’s single people and wants me to come up with a sex survey to prove my point. Is there one, to your knowledge? Who’s right?
I can’t point you to onesex survey, because there are many. But there’s so much data fonal Health & Social Life Survey (NHSLS), by Edward O. Laumann—the full results appear in a book. Since every American adult had an equal chance of being asked to take that survey, it accurately represented Americans in the 1990s. More recent research indicates it still does.
So who’s right? And wrong? Well, of course, every sort of relationship you can think of exists, and every permutation of sexuality along with it—you can look at the detailed results of the LoveScience Quality/Quantity Sex survey (at the end of today’s article) and see for yourself.
But when you look at The Big Picture across many people, there are some consistent and surprising answers. And they depend, in part, on how you define ‘single’. Let’s look at it the way scientists do: Singletons are currently unmarried— including never-married, separated, divorced, or widowed— but not living with someone in a sexual relationship (cohabiting).
Who’s getting it most?
Your friend might be stunned to see that on average, married folks have more sex than anyone but cohabiters. And in some studies, once you account for the length of the relationship, it’s a shagadellic tie between marrieds and cohabs—both of whom leave the singles in the sexual dust.
For instance, in the NHSLS,
—55% of cohabiting men have sex at least twice a week, compared to 43% of married men and 26% of single men.
—60% of never-wed cohabiting women, 51% of formerly married cohabiting women, and 39% of married women have sex at least that much; but only 20% of single women concur.
Who’s getting none at all?
Celibacy is research-defined as having sex less than once a year. And as Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher point out, “Staying single dramatically increases the chance that you won’t have any sex at all.” Ten to 20 times, to be precise. In the NHSLS,
—1% of married men were celibate, while 20 to 25% of the unwed/divorced men said they hadn’t gotten any at all in the past year.
—3% of married women, compared to 30% of never-married and 34% of previously-married women, were celibate.
—0% of cohabiters were sexless. Actually, without sex, cohabiters aren’t cohabiters; they’re called roommates.
In a nutshell? Contrary to stereotypes, celibate marriage is very unusual—after all, 99% of married men and 97% of married women are getting some at least sometimes. And media norms of swingin’ single sex notwithstanding, the *least* active sex lives on average, by far, are reported among…the single.
Kim, who among your friends initiated The Quantity Question? I’d lay money it’s a man. Because men, more often than women, tend to tie quality directly to quantity.
Yet both sexes want great sex, not just abundant laymeness, and sexual satisfaction is more influenced by relationship quality than sexual quantity. To wit, a few men in our own survey reported having sex four or more times a week, yet being dissatisfied with it.
Who can’t get no satisfaction?
You might think physical and emotional satisfaction would go hand-in-hand, but scientists ask people to think of them separately, as our own Wise Readers were asked to do in our Survey. Looked at that way, in the NHSLS,
—49% of married men, 35% of cohabiting men, and 32% of sexually active single men are ‘extremely emotionally satisfied’ with the sex in their primary relationship.
—52% of married men, 44% of cohabiting men, and 39% of sexually active single men are ‘extremely physically satisfied’.
—44% of cohabiting women, 42% of married women, and 31% of sexually partnered single women say they’re ‘extremely emotionally satisfied’ with the sex in their primary relationship.
—46% of cohabiting women, 41% of married women, and 40% of partnered single women say sex is ‘extremely’ physically satisfying in their current relationship.
What is up with these results?! Aren’t *women* supposedly more turned on by marriage than men are? Doesn’t a wedding ring kill sexual quality? Apparently not! Men seem to be getting more emotional and physical bang in the marriage bed than men in other relationships—and more bang than women overall—whereas among women, it’s the cohabiters who are most satisfied, with sexually active single women falling especially far behind in emotional satisfaction.
Any way you slice it, though, those who are married or cohabiting are happier with the sex than the sexually partnered singles.
Why? Sociologists Kara Joyner and Linda J. Waite think it mainly boils down to one core concept: Commitment. They examined the NHSLS data, and found that men and women alike who value and feel more commitment for their partner—who, for instance, say they would only have sex with someone they love, or that the last time they had sex was for the purpose of expressing love, or that they try to make sure their partner always has an orgasm, or that they expect their relationship to last a lifetime—report that their sex is the best sex. They found that people want sex to have meaning, and meaning is attached to commitment. Although some folks in every category, from married to cohabiting to single, felt great commitment toward their partners, it was women in cohab and marriage relationships, and married men, who felt the most. And had the best sex.
So who was right, Kim? Ultimately you are, because your guess points towards placing a premium on commitment. For men and women alike, sex isn’t just about getting some strange. Strangely enough, it might be more about building a bond.
But maybe there’s a better answer than all of the above. Even though we’re curious about other people’s love lives, maybe what matters, really, is our happiness with our own.
The author wishes to thank the following scientists and sources:
Edward O. Laumann of The National Health & Social Life Survey (NHSLS), the gold standard for American sexuality self-report data. Laumann used best-practice data collection to get a representative sample, meaning that every American adult had an equal shot at being given his survey. He wound up with 3,500 responders in 1992 and this study is foundational for much of what is known about sexual expression, satisfaction, ideals, desires, and fantasies in the United States since Kinsey’s and Masters & Johnson’s time. You can read complete results in the book The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, authored by Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels in 1994. Or you can read excerpts here: http://books.google.com/books?id=3RbyuQAYsdMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Other more recent research underscores that the married and cohabiting are having the most sex, much moreso than other kinds of singletons. Examples would include this chapter by Marion C. Willetts and others (edited book chapter “Overview of Sexual Practices and Attitudes within Relational Contexts”; 2004), and T. W. Smith’s “Sexual Behavior In The United States” (2006).
Scott Stanley & Howard Markman, who interviewed roughly 1,000 American adults about their sexual behavior, satisfaction, violence, and conflict. Like the NHSLS, this research made use of random sampling, so every American adult had an equivalent chance of being surveyed. When they examined length of relationship, the more-sex-among-cohabiters finding disappeared (unlike the finding in the NHSLS). Like the NHSLS data that Waite and Joyner examined, this study showed that the more commitment partners felt, the more physically and emotionally satisfied they were with the sex they were having. Their study was called “Marriage in the 90’s: A nationwide random phone survey” (1997).
Linda J. Waite & Maggie Gallagher, for summarizing the above research and much, much more in their book The Case For Marriage. Waite is a giant in the sociology and marriage-versus-cohabiting field, and she and Kara Joyner conducted their own analyses using the NHSLS data, looking at the relationship between *quality* of sex as a function of the level of commitment. Their in-depth analyses, described in the book and in their research, shows that perceived commitment level plays an enormous role in sexual pleasure, and that the married are usually those who have the highest levels of both.
Cindy Meston & David Buss, for research on why women have sex and why men have sex. Although women are equally likely to give an emotional reason, men, they found, are likelier than women to say they’ve had sex for other (such as physical) reasons.
Want research about men finding that quantity of sex is more important than women think it is? Here’s data from Julia R. Heiman and others, covering five countries (“Sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries”; 2011).
Those wishing to view the myriad studies tying relationship quality to sexual satisfaction (above the impact of mere frequency of sex) can find it in Intimate Relationships, a textbook byThomas Bradbury and Ben Karney. Do better relationships lead to better sex? Does better sex lead to better relationships? In both cases, Yes.
Those wishing to see an excellent table comparing data across six decades of research regarding how often married people have sex, by age, can find it on page 246 of Understanding Human Sexuality, 11th Edition, by Janet Shibley Hyde & John D. Delamater.
The best chart I could find comparing sexual satisfaction by age, gender, marital status, and race/ethnicity is on p. 443 of Human Sexuality In A World Of Diversity, 8th Edition, edited by Spencer A. Rathus, Jeffrey S. Nevid, and Lois Fichner-Rathus. Table 14.8 combines data from two of Laumann’s studies from the NHSLS to give a Big Picture showing that in general, even when singletons are in a sexual relationship, their satisfaction lags behind that of the married and cohabiters. However, married men seemed to be most satisfied sexually, compared to men and women in any other kind of relationship; and cohabiting women appear to be more sexually satisfied than married women.
Sex Survey Results for Folk Wisdom: SEX: Quantity, Quality
Please NOTE: Unlike the NHSLS and other studies cited above, the LoveScience sex survey is not scientific and it possibly or even probably does not represent how most adults feel. Scientific surveys accurately represent the opinions of large groups of people because those surveys give everyone in the population the same odds of being asked to participate; also, they include at least 1,500 respondents. Our survey simply reached a few dozen people who knew about LoveScience and who wanted to contribute. With that said, here are our results, in order of the most-to-least common response.
What is your gender?:
Female = 68.4%
Male = 31.6%
What is your age?:
35 to 44 = 38.6%
25 to 34 = 19.3%
18 to 24 = 17.5%
45 to 54 = 15.8%
55 to 64 = 8.8%
65 to 74 and 75 and up = 0%
What is your relationship status now? Choose the answer that best applies to you.:
Married = 43.9%
Single (including formerly married) and dating one specific person/in a relationship = 24.6%
Single (including formerly married) and not dating any one specific person = 17.5%
Cohabiting but not engaged = 8.8%
Engaged but not cohabiting = 5.3%
Cohabiting and engaged = 0%
Marital level of commitment, but we cannot marry because we are same-sex and same-sex marriage is not legally permitted where we live = 0%
There are many types of relationships. If yours wasn’t in the answer field above, or you want to explain further, please tell me more: 3 responses:
“I’ve been dating my partner for 3 months.” (woman in her 20s or 30s)
“married but in the process of getting divorced… and engaged in a long distance relationship with someone else in a similar situation… someone I see about once a month.” (man in his 30s or 40s)
“I’m sure many “engaged but not cohabitating” people are in a situation similar to mine, but it isn’t expressly noted or implied so I’ll add “but he sure spends a lot of time over here.” 🙂 We maintain separate households in order to accommodate child custody arrangements. But when his children aren’t with him (~60%) he lives here. And, when his kids are with him on a weekend or other non-school day, they’re *all* here. Life is messy. And beautiful. :-)” (woman in her 30s or 40s)
What is your sexual orientation?
How often do you have some form of partnered sex? For our purposes, sex is anything you do with a partner that involves sensual genital contact. Choose the answer that comes closest to your current experience:
Once a week: 28.1%
Four or more times a week: 15.8%
Three times a week: 12.3%
A few times per year: 12.3%
Twice weekly: 8.8%
Twice a month or more: 7%
Less than once a year: 5.3%
If you would like to, please tell me more about your answer: 17 responses:
“When I am dating someone, usually it’s every other day. But I have been single for about two months, so it is less frequent.” (single woman in her 20s to 30s who answered ‘monthly’)
“My partner and I work (and therefore live) in different cities during the week. We see each other on the weekend and partake in “sensual genital contact” one up to multiple times that weekend. So, although we only have “sensual genital contact” about once a week, it occurs every time we see each other.” (single woman in her 20s to 30s who answered ‘weekly’)
“Currently I am single, but when I am with someone, around 3x a week.” (single woman in her teens to 20s who answered ‘3x per week’)
“Partner is in military, at a base far away, in special forces, and a “super special unit”. So I’ll round UP to “monthly”, but it’s closer to 6-8 wks between, with intercourse averaging 2x/daily for 4 days – 2 wks.” (single woman in her 30s to 40s who answered ‘monthly’)
“Would be more except that I am transitioning from female to male and experience significant body dysphoria.” (married man in his 30s to 40s who answered ‘a few times a year’)
“I want to want sex more, but this is on average how often I Want to have sex, so generally I do other things to help please my partner since his desire is higher than mine.” (cohabiting woman in her 20s to 30s who answered ‘weekly’)
“Married twenty years … frequency went from 3/month down to zero in some years. Then was divorced. One year of celibacy, followed by eight straight years of frequent, serially monogamous sex. “Frequent” being approximately weekly. And my current GF wants me more often than that … what a difference.” (single man in his 50s to 60s who answered ‘twice weekly’)
“My boyfriend and I don’t live in the same city. If we did, I believe it would be more often!” (single woman in her teens to 20s who answered ‘three times a week’)
“I’m celibate right now.” (single woman in her 30s to 40s who said ‘less than once a year’)
“We have a toddler.” (married woman in her 30s to 40s who said ‘twice a month or more’)
“There’s been a noticeable decline in the past few years.” (married man in his 40s to 50s who answered ‘monthly’)
“We live in different cities, therefore we don’t meet very often. But when we lived in the same city it was like 3-5 times a week.” (single woman in her teens to 20s who answered ‘twice a month or more’)
“That’s if we’re lucky! Between us both having kids and his schedule as a firefighter, we try to make time for us when we can as often as we can.” (single woman in her 30s to 40s who answered ‘three times a week’)
“I didn’t know how to answer this because I’m in a long-distance relationship and we only see each other once a month —-but when we DO see each other, we have sex multiple times a day. So I chose the answer that best reflects the “average” (8-10x/month, although only spread over the course of 5-6 days in the month).” (engaged woman in her 20s to 30s who answered ‘twice weekly’)
“normally, many times a week. However, I am 1st trimester pregnant right now so it has slowed down considerably. I’m basing my answers on my “non-pregnant” sex life.” (married woman in her 30s to 40s who answered ‘four or more times per week’)
“Sex seems like too much work. Dry vagina for me, some performance troubles for him, and generally too much other stuff to do …. kids, work, etc. I know these things have remedies, but once you’re out of the rhythm of having sex, you’re out. Every once in a while I will feel horny, so I will take care of that by myself. We do have a good, loving marriage, just hardly any sex anymore.” (married woman in her 40s to 50s who answered ‘a few times per year’)
“There is a guy that I like that lives in another state. we see each other a few times a year. We have decided against the long distance relationship, and keep friendly communication.” (single woman in her 20s to 30s who answered ‘a few times per year’)
How *physically* satisfied are you with your partnered sex? If you do not have any form of partnered sex at least once per year, you can select that option below.
I am extremely physically satisfied with the sex with my partner: 36.8%
Very satisfied: 26.3%
Somewhat satisfied: 24.6%
(The rest of the sample, 3.5%, was celibate.)
If you would like to, please tell me more about your answer: 10 responses:
“I would like more floor play leading up to the actual intercourse and kissing” (‘very physically satisfied’ married woman in her 30s to 40s)
“My partner takes medication for depression and anxiety. Sometimes this prevents him from maintaining an erection. This has caused me to be sexually frustrated at times. Also, he has a tough commute (2-3 hr total daily), so he is usually tired on the weekends. He will be tired after one round of sex while I will almost immediately be ready and wanting more. I do wish we could have more sex —and more often! — but I’m not sure how to talk to him about this without offending his masculinity and being insensitive to his condition and medication.” (‘somewhat physically satisfied’ single woman in her 20s to 30s)
“Issues are not with partner but with own disconnect with my body and what I feel like I should be able to do.” (‘somewhat physically satisfied’ married man in his 30s to 40s)
“My menopausal wife isn’t enjoying sex these days due to pain (dryness?)” (‘somewhat physically satisfied’ married man in his 30s to 40s)
“When we do have sex it us always enjoyable, and my partner always makes sure I have an orgasm at some point, even if he ‘finishes’ before me” (‘very physically satisfied’ cohabiting woman in her 20s to 30s)
“I am satisfied most when she is. And she is.” (‘very physically satisfied’ single man in his 50s to 60s)
“I would like a partner, but don’t have one.” (single woman in her 30s to 40s)
“Although I am satisfied, I would like my boyfriend to be more adventurous in bed.” (‘very physically satisfied’ single woman in her teens to 20s)
“I wish my husband would be more assertive. Sometimes a woman is ready, ready, ready, and just wants to be taken. He takes forever to get the condom on, put on some K jelly, put a few drops of water, adjust and smooth it all around … GAWD! just get on with it already! By the time he has everything just exactly so, I am so frustrated at him I lost interest. I want to scream at him to Hurry the f*** up!!!.” (‘somewhat physically satisfied’ married woman in her 40s to 50s)
“It’s amazing.” (‘extremely physically satisfied’ single woman in her 20s to 30s)
How *emotionally* satisfied are you with your partnered sex? If you do not have any form of partnered sex at least once per year, you can select that option below.
I am somewhat emotionally satisfied with the sex with my partner: 36.8%
Extremely satisfied: 31.6%
Very satisfied: 19.3%
(The rest of the sample, 3.5%, was celibate.)
If you would like to, please tell me more about your answer: 13 responses:
“depends on how they treat me, especially afterwards! I’d like to think that i predict well but sometimes they surprise me.” (‘somewhat emotionally satisfied’ single woman in her 20s to 30s)
“My partner makes me feel sexy; during sex, he always compliments me and my bedroom performance. Furthermore, he acts like he wants me around; he cuddles with me after sex (he’s admitted to being a fan of cuddling!) and wants me to hang out with him the next morning.” (‘very emotionally satisfied’ single woman in her 20s to 30s)
“We’re working on some things to increase the “very” to “extremely”. Engaging in intimacy-building “stuff” that increases ability to be vulnerable and trusting of the other’s interest in our satisfaction on all/most levels.” (‘very emotionally satisfied’ single woman in her 30s to 40s)
“I can tell he loves me, which is nice.” (‘very emotionally satisfied’ cohabiting woman in her 20s to 30s)
“Desire intercourse more frequently and no longer feel as desired by partner — too often seems like “duty” sex.” (‘somewhat emotionally satisfied’ married man in his 40s to 50s)
“I learned that sex is good when you like the person you are with, and it is great when you love the person you are with. The physical sensation is an important but not the most important component of my satisfaction. The most important, for me I think, is the feeling of confidence in being desired.” (‘very emotionally satisfied’ single man in his 50s to 60s)
“I would like a partner, but don’t have one.” (single woman in her 30s to 40s)
“We have had some issues. He can be very closed off at times, although he is trying to change by going to therapy and reading self-help books. I want more from him emotionally, but I’m glad he is trying. Before he was making the effort, the sex was not as satisfying or frequent.” (‘somewhat emotionally satisfied’ single woman in her teens to 20s)
“sometimes sex is just like both of us want to be satisfied physically so we just “use” our partner for the gain of an orgasm. Sometimes it’s just like waiting till he finishes.” (‘somewhat emotionally satisfied’ single woman in her teens to 20s; side note is that she was ‘extremely physically satisfied’ with the partner)
“I had a previous marriage. In that marriage, from the very beginning we had a terrible sex life. I know it was actually in the beginning and not just perceived that way (I’ve read you for a long time) 🙂 because I sought counseling for it early on. I tried to get him to go also, but he elected to go to his own counselor and excluded me. (alarm bells anyone?) The reason it was terrible for me was because he perceived every vocalization as a criticism. He was sensitive to criticism in all aspects of life, but especially so in sex. As a result, I couldn’t tell him when something hurt, or when it was merely uncomfortable, or even when he hit upon something good (because his assumption was that it then wasn’t good before). It was exhausting, and became a very one-sided activity. I avoided him sexually, and he only reached out to contact me with touch when he wanted sex. No hand-holding, no hugs — hands off. ARGH!! Anyway, the last time we had sex, I had agreed only because I knew sometimes you have to fake it until you make it. But afterward I simply felt like a prostitute. He got occasional sex, and I got a second income. “Forget it,” I thought. “I won’t be a prostitute, real or perceived.” And life is so much better now. For young men and women — it can’t be said often enough: Listen to your gut reaction, and don’t ignore those little warnings. It is so much easier to find love later on than to make something work now that fundamentally doesn’t.” (‘extremely emotionally satisfied’ engaged woman in her 30s to 40s)
“This is a result of frequency only.” (‘somewhat emotionally satisfied’ married woman in her teens to 20s who reports sex 3x/weekly)
“I do like being close to him and he is attentive just slow, but he is slow with everything in his whole life.” (‘very emotionally satisfied’ married woman in her 40s to 50s)
“The last time we were together it was extremely emotional for me, which is the reason that I have not been able to allow for any other dates with local suitors. If this part had been left out, I would be more inclined to say yes to guys that actually live here. sigh.” (‘extremely emotionally satisfied’ woman in her 20s to 30s who is single and having sex with one particular man a few times a year)
Further analysis: Who in our sample has the most and least frequent sex? And who is most satisfied?
Our sample size is much, much too small and non-representative for finer analyses to make much sense, and our questions are not directly comparable (nor are our methods) to the NHSLS or to Stanley & Markman’s extensive interviews.
But here’s what our sample showed. In our sample, first note that only a small percentage was cobabiting (8.8%) compared to about 4x as many single or married/engaged people. So we’re going to expect far smaller numbers of cohabiters in any subgroup, compared to singles/marrieds/engageds. With that in mind, single men were most likely to be having sex twice a week or more, whereas for women, singles tied with martially-committed for twice-or-more sex weekly. Keep in mind, though, that in the ‘having sex two times a week or more/relationship type’ category, we’re talking about *two* single men, *one* cohabiting man, and *one* married man; and eight single women, one cohabiting woman, and seven maritally committed (four married women, and three engaged) women having sex that often. Even if I gave you percentages here, these numbers are too small for them to be meaningful.
Single women in our sample were also twice as likely as married women to be having no sex at all, but again, we’re basing that off tiny numbers scientists do not and should not take seriously. 100% of the celibate responders were women in their 30st to 40s, but that’s just three women—two of whom were single, and one of whom was married.
Similarly, 100% of the ‘extremely physically satisfied with sex with my partner’ men were married—but that was just three men! And nine single women were ‘extremely physically satisfied’, compared to five maritally committed women (three married women, two engaged women), and two cohabiting women.
When it came to extreme emotional satisfaction, 100% of the satisfied men were married—but it was just three men who were in that group. Among women, the single and martially committed were tied. Seven single women, seven martially committed women (four married women, three engaged women), and two cohabitating women described themselves as extremely emotionally satisfied with sex with their partners.
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and LoveScience Media, 2012.