Why Aren’t Married Americans Having Sex?

Why are married Americans having less sex? According to a new study from psychologists Jean Twenge, Jean M. Ryne Sherman, and Brooke Wells, the percentage of married folks who are doing something between the sheets besides sleeping and checking their phones has declined significantly in the past fifteen years. In 2000, sixty-one percent of wives and sixty-five percent of husbands reported having sex at least once a week. As of last year, those numbers had declined to fifty-two percent and fifty-four percent. Indeed, the average American adult is having sex nine fewer times per year than they were in the 1990s.

Some of that decline, as Nicholas Wolfinger points out in a post at the Institute for Family Studies, is the result of a decline in marriage. Married people have more sex, so it follows that if there are fewer married people, sexual frequency will also decline. But Wolfinger says that two-thirds of the decline is actually among married people. So what’s going on?

Some experts say there is no need to worry about such a decline. In an article on CNN.com, Daniel L. Carlson of the University of Utah and Amanda Jayne Miller of the University of Indianapolis suggest that this trend may not be a problem at all. “It is true that, on average, couples who have sex at least once a week report themselves happiest in their relationships. But having sex more than once a week yields no comparable increase in relationship satisfaction.” (Perhaps only in the context of married heterosexual sex would university professors actually suggest that less is more.)

They also note that “although sex is a way of demonstrating love and affection, it can also be a way of expressing traditional heterosexual notions of masculine domination and feminine compliance, with men deciding when, what, and how sexual acts are performed and the woman expected to satisfy what marriage counselors long considered to be his greater physical need.”

For the rest of us, though, the drop off in sex among married people is cause for concern. What has changed in our relationships in the past fifteen years? Wolfinger’s first hypothesis was pornography, but when he looked at the relationship between porn consumption and spousal sex, he found no correlation. In fact, he writes, “My multivariate analysis adjusted for myriad factors, including race/ethnicity, age, presence of children, religious denomination and participation, employment, urbanicity, education, respondent reports of adultery, and attitudes on gender egalitarianism. None of these factors affected American’s mounting eschewal of their marriage beds.”

What about the amount of time that couples are spending together? People do have to be in the same place at the same time long enough to actually create an opportunity to have sex. Surprisingly, those numbers have changed little in the past few decades. Indeed, the amount of time that spouses spend together alone (that is, without children), has remained about the same since 1965.

What has changed is what they are doing during that time together. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, a quarter of cell phone owners in a marriage or partnership have “felt their spouse or partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together” and “8% of internet users in a committed relationship have had an argument with their spouse or partner about the amount of time one of them was spending online.”

But it’s not just phones. Married couples now regularly sit in the same room as each other watching two different screens. One is looking at Facebook while the other is checking email. One is watching Netflix while the other one is doing work. It is not that couples used to always sit together having a peaceful dinner conversation and then retire to the family room each night to watch Must See TV. But they did it occasionally. And hey, as long as husband and wife were eating the same chicken dinner and laughing at the same sitcom jokes, one thing might lead to another. Now? While you might think it’s harmless to binge-watch Game of Thrones while your spouse answers email, there are consequences: being alone together in this way doesn’t lead to sex.

Image: By Christopher (CC)

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