Sex in (and out of) a "committed" relationship
Remember, we are marrying later. In 1975, 65% of women had married by age 25 and 93% by their early 30's. In 1990, only 40% of women have married by age 25 and only 82% are married by their early 30's. But we aren't postponing sex until marriage. Between 18 and the middle or late 20's, before marriage we are often involved with a series of sexual partners in more prolonged and "committed" relationships. In their lifetime, 55% of men and 30% of women have had 5 or more sex partners (20% of men and 30% of women have had only one partner). The sexually active singles are not unhappy with their lot, only one in three would prefer being married. Indeed, as long as there are no children, these serious premarital relationships are something like the early part of a marriage.
Once started, sex is usually frequent during the first few months of a sexual relationship. After the intensely sexual beginning, intercourse gradually declines over the next 2 to 4 years, so that at age 25 or 30, the average couple, who have been married 5 years or so, make love maybe twice a week, at 40 it's about 1 1/2 times a week. In a recent survey, 45% of married couples said they had sex "a few times a month" and 35% said "2-3 times a week." Yet, the average frequency of 1 to 3 times per week (for 25 to 59-year-olds) hides big differences among us. For example, about 12% have sex only "a few times a year." Even some young couples have sex only once every 2 or 3 weeks. On the other hand, 7% have sex four or more times a week; rarely is it once or twice a day (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann & Kolata, 1994). Whatever pleases each couple is okay. Quality is what counts, not quantity. However, for a variety of reasons, men seem to want it more than women. About 55% of men think about sex every day, only 20% of women do.
Excluding the extremes, frequency of intercourse tends to roughly reflect how satisfied the partners are with their sex life (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983). For example, 89% of couples having sex 3 or more times per week are satisfied with their sex life. Among couples who have sex 1 to 4 times a month, only about 53% are satisfied. Don't conclude, however, that the way to achieve a better sex life is to double or triple the frequency. It's more complicated than that. Overall, about 70% of married couples rate their sex life as being okay (meaning almost 1/3rd are dissatisfied). If your sex life is very good, regardless of frequency, your marriage is more likely to be close. Both men and women occasionally have difficulty coming to a climax, only about 5% to 10% of men but 30% of married women only occasionally or never climax--another 30% of women consistently have orgasms (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann & Kolata, 1994). Women who are very happy with their marriages are much more likely to be orgasmic (but being non-orgasmic doesn't necessarily mean you have a serious, unconscious dissatisfaction with your relationship).
There are remarkable variations in researchers' estimates of how many husbands and wives are unfaithful, ranging from 20% to 70%. Knox (1984) suggested that 50% of men and 20-40% of women have had an affair at some time. A more scientific survey found that 75% of married men and 85% of married women had been faithful (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann & Kolata, 1994) but these surveys include the newly married. In recent years, extramarital sex reportedly occurs about as often among women as men. Working outside the home increases the chances of an affair for women (Levin, 1975), about 50% of these women supposedly have had extramarital sex. Men seek casual sex and have more outside partners; women seek emotional attachment and have fewer outside partners (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983). Some research suggests, as you would expect, that a poor marriage or unsatisfactory sex is often associated with unfaithfulness (Thompson, 1983). According to Grosskopf (1983), from 50% to 70% of unfaithful women said they did it because they were emotionally and sexually dissatisfied with their husbands (35% had found out he had an affair). On the other hand, Blumstein and Schwartz say that many couples who have had an affair are just as happy with their marriages as faithful spouses. They also say having one affair doesn't necessarily lead to another and church goers are just as likely to be unfaithful as non-goers. Unfaithfulness has been discussed above.
Sexual intercourse: making love
Sex, if done well, generates positive feelings towards the partner, i.e. it "makes love." "Making love" is usually a natural, emotional experience, a part of a relationship, rarely just a physiologically pleasurable act. We are ordinarily very careful who we have sex with; it is a consciously planned and orchestrated act. Yet, interestingly enough, human sexual arousal is a primitive physiological response that can't be consciously willed, e.g. men can't just will an immediate erection, women can't will lubrication. One needs to generate sexy thoughts or physical stimulation; one needs to be relaxed and "in the mood," then penises harden and vaginas moisten automatically.
It is tempting to say that making love is just doing what comes naturally, but that isn't at all true either. There are many things about intercourse we don't know automatically. For instance, we don't naturally take lots of time but good sex can't be rushed. We don't know what feels good to our partner, he/she has to tell us. In the beginning of a relationship, the male doesn't know how to locate a particular woman's clitoris or how she likes it to be stimulated. Females often don't know how to hold and stroke a penis. Both sexes have to learn by being shown or told. Every partner is different and even the same partner has different preferences from time to time, so communication is vital. And, open communication about our feelings and sexual needs is hampered by emotional hang-ups we have to learn to overcome.
There are also many other learned sexual inhibitions and negative emotions we need to unlearn, e.g. it may be uncomfortable at first but eventually 90% of married couples have oral-genital sex often or occasionally. We may be embarrassed about moving or thrusting and making noises (expressing our pleasure), but an active, "excited" partner is the sexiest experience we can possibly have. It may be very hard to openly communicate about our bodies and what makes us feel good, but we must if we are going to get maximum pleasure. Sometimes, it is easier and better to show (guide his/her hands) than to try to verbally tell him/her what feels good. Your partner can't read your mind, don't expect it. A section below deals with communication. We may be acutely aware of our ignorance about sex and it may be very difficult to say, "I'm ashamed to admit it but I don't know about ....," but it is important to be realistic and honest.
We must realize that both we and our partner bring a long sexual history into even our first sexual experience. Our histories differ greatly: one partner may have masturbated almost daily since 12 or 13 and had fantasies of having intercourse with thousands of different people; the other partner may have stroked him/herself only a few times ever and had no sexual fantasies. We have all been sexually aroused in our sleep 5 to 7 times every night since childhood; some have enjoyed it, others were mystified and disturbed by their sexual responses during sleep, some denied or tried to ignore it. Your partners' fantasies of foreplay, of the sex acts involved in intercourse, of what he/she might feel, and of what should be done after intercourse may be radically different from your expectations. Each of us has heard different things about sex from friends, movies, parents, teachers, books, and so on. Males and females may bring different instincts into the sexual act. It is important that every lover be aware of and tolerant of the unique differences his/her partner brings to this vital moment. However, that doesn't mean that sex can't be improved over time, providing you receive good instruction.
Most inexperienced males imagine that really good sex consists of getting the woman partly undressed and then shoving an enormous penis in and out of her vagina until they both explode simultaneously with a fantastic orgasm. For men, the fantasy ends there. What terribly misguided notions we have about good sex.
Few women have the same conception of good sex. Instead, she imagines going out to a romantic setting, having a wonderful time, holding hands, talking, laughing, dancing, etc. Later in her fantasy, a nice looking, smooth-talking, confident lover tells her about his feelings for her, their future, her attractiveness, his needs for love, etc. She imagines being held tightly and kissed over and over. Her fantasy may include his slowly and gently touching her breasts and later her sexual parts, eventually undressing her and having intercourse, but this isn't the total focus of her fantasy. After "love making" she imagines being held, comforted, and told that sex has made the closeness and love between them much greater. She wants reassurance that she was an exciting sex partner and that the male wants to do many other things (nonsexual) with her soon.
Early in the love making process, the typical male is worried that he will do something wrong or that she will stop him. He is progressing as rapidly as he can towards intercourse so he won't lose his chance; meanwhile, she is hoping for romantic affection and tries to encourage this by slowing his progress. If she expects and wants to have intercourse, she may realize that time and stroking are needed to start her lubricating. He may have trouble finding her sensitive spot (clitoris) and she hesitates to show him (if she knows). She isn't very turned on by his penis; indeed, she may be scared of touching it or repulsed by it (he thinks it is the most wonderful thing in the world and wishes she would love it as he does). In the end, neither may experience much of what they wanted or imagined it would be like. If they are smart and lucky, both start to realize that this is a complex situation involving actions, emotions, expectations, communication, knowledge, and consideration of others, which will take a long time to truly master.
Good sex involves finding out what the partner wants to happen before, during, and after love making. Then each partner attempts to meet as many of the partner's desires as possible. Compromises will be needed.
There are hundreds of books, some 1000's of years old, about improving sex. I will cite several good ones below, but in my opinion the most important secrets are:
- Love making should focus on loving each other by verbal expression and touching. Consider the orgasm as only the wonderful "climax" of a long love session (if you can afford the time). Certainly give up the foolish notion that both people must come to a climax at the same time (25% of men and 14% of women believe this). A book on sensual massage may give you ideas (Inkeles, 1992). Note: years later in a relationship, less attention may be given to the expressions of love because the goal of both partners may primarily be physical pleasure. Nothing wrong with that.
- Remember the male usually appreciates attention to and stimulation of his penis. Do this often during love making and in other situations as well.
- After lots of skin contact, most women need to have their clitoris stimulated in order to become aroused and lubricated, and to achieve an orgasm. This is why 20% of women prefer oral sex to produce an orgasm. The clitoris is located about an inch in front of the opening to the vagina. Talk to each other about what the clitoris needs to feel good. After some experience, a vibrator frequently provides the best stimulation to the clitoris.
- Remember: love making is not a test or contest, not a time to measure or count any thing. It's a time for care-free play, a focus on love, and a time to have fun.
In long-term relationships, love, liking, and sex are closely tied together. Throbbing sexual arousal isn't likely to occur if the lovers have been bickering all day (although 25% to 35% of couples "make up" by making love). But good sex increases the love ("makes love") and reduces the tension (McCarthy, 1982). In general, couples who have an egalitarian relationship have the best sexual adjustment (Hatfield, et al, 1982). If sexual intercourse is done with tenderness and enthusiasm, if it occurs in a comfortable setting, if both parties are without guilt and concern about pregnancy, it can be one of life's greatest joys, a wondrous event, a cherished memory, a fantastic way to bond with another human being. While all this is true, there are some couples who love each other deeply and enjoy each other's companionship without having much interest in sex.
You mustn't force sex to do the work of love or love to do the work of sex.
Needless to say, if sex is done roughly and selfishly, if one person is deceived or hurt, if it results in an unwanted pregnancy, intercourse can be a horrible experience. Also, like all good experiences, sex can be diminished by expecting too much. Sex with the same person, in time, inevitably loses some of its wild excitement; this should be expected and accepted, not taken as a sign of a loss of love. Intense excitement is replaced by comfort and security. Also, if we get "performance anxiety" and push ourselves to achieve 2 or 3 climaxes or to reach simultaneous orgasms (see Knox, 1984, p. 302), we have to work too hard and set the stage for being disappointed. Once we become a full-time "spectator" observing, coaching, and criticizing our own sexual performance or our partner's, rather than flowing with the feelings, we are in trouble. Worry and anxiety are not a part of good sex.
Books for improving sex
There are many good books for learning about sex. For an excellent, up-to-date, informative general text about sex and love, look up Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny (1994). Although somewhat dated, mental health professionals consider Barbach's (1975, 1980, 1982, 1992) books to be the best guides to female sexuality (Santrock, Minett & Campbell, 1994). The therapists also judged Zilbergeld's (1978, 1992) books to be the best guides to male sexuality, especially the more recent publication is solid, sensitive, comprehensive, and thoughtful. For an explicit "gourmet guide to lovemaking" it would be hard to beat Comfort's books (1972, 1983, 1991) but expect the pictures to be mildly pornographic.
Other books focus on improving sex. Among the best are Stoppard (1992); Belliveau and Richter (1970), Gray (1995), Heiman, LoPiccolo & LoPiccolo (1976, 1987), Kaplan (1975, 1979, 1987), Kelly (1979), Leiblum and Rosen (1989), McCarthy (1977), McCarthy & McCarthy (1993), Morgenstern (1982), Nowinski (1988), Pearsall (1987), Penney (1981), Pietropinto and Simenauer (1990). Dr. Ruth's books are not recommended by mental health professionals; they view her as unnecessarily provocative or earthy and rather superficial or disorganized.
Videotapes are being sold for improving your sex life (call 1-800-367-7765). See the next section for specific information about sexual problems, such as reduced sexual desires, impotence, lack of orgasm, etc.