Marital Sex

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Marital Sex

Marriage is a socially sanctioned long-term mating arrangement that typically involves economic, social, and reproductive cooperation between the partners. Although the norms that govern selection of a marriage partner and the customs surrounding the marriage ceremony vary from culture to culture, all known human societies practice and endorse this type of long-term pairing (Daly and Wilson 1983; Goodwin 1999). Marriage and sexuality share an intimate and universal connection: Across cultures, marriage represents the most socially accepted, legitimate context for sexual intercourse. It is important to recognize that most research on marital (and other types of) sexuality has been conducted with participants from industrialized western European (particularly North American) societies. Very little data are available about the sexuality of men and women in non-Western and/or aboriginal or tribal cultures.

Beliefs about Marital Sexuality

There have been relatively few empirical investigations of marital sexual attitudes. However, several general conclusions can be gleaned from the available literature. First, sexual intercourse is considered part of the marital relationship. Historically, marriage has been defined by secular and nonsecular forces as a socially sanctioned sexual and reproductive relationship. During the seventeenth century, for example, western European church doctrine identified sexual intercourse as a marital duty for both spouses (Leites 1982). Three hundred years later, social scientists continue to employ a similar definition: Noted sexologist Havelock Ellis defined marriage as "a sexual relationship entered into with the intention of making it permanent" ([1933] 1944, p. 256), a notion echoed by other theorists (e.g., Murstein 1974).

Second, whereas some cultures sanction extramarital sex, marital sex is assumed to be exclusive sex. That is, once an individual is married, the general presumption is that his or her sexual activities (if not his or her sexual desires) will be confined to the marital relationship (or, in polygamous mating systems, the marital relationships). Self-report survey and interview data do, however, reveal that marital infidelity actually is quite common. Nonetheless, a majority of individuals disapprove of extramarital sexual activity. Anthropologist Suzanne Frayser (1989) examined sexual behavior and customs in sixty-two different cultures and found that extramarital relationships ranked second after incestuous relationships as the most forbidden type of sexual liaison. Large-scale attitude surveys of adults living in the United States found similar high levels of disapproval with regard to extramarital sex (Greeley 1991; Laumann et al. 1994).

As with most sexual attitudes, men and women differ slightly. Compared to women, men tend to hold more permissive attitudes about extramarital sex and are more likely to express an interest in having an extramarital sexual relationship (Oliver and Hyde 1993). Although men may possess more positive attitudes toward infidelity, they are not necessarily less likely to be punished for such behavior. Frayser's (1989) cross-cultural investigation revealed that 40 percent of societies punish both the husband and the wife about equally for extramarital sexual activity, 35 percent of societies punish the husband more severely than the wife, and 25 percent of societies punish the wife more severely than the husband.

A third belief about marital sexuality concerns the relative power accorded to each sex in the making of sexual and reproductive decisions. Traditionally, choices and decisions about the sexual aspects of married life—including when and how to initiate sexual activity, the amount and type of sex, the timing and number of children, and the use of contraception—were considered the exclusive province of the male partner. The following excerpt is from a popular guide to love, courtship, and marriage published in the United States over a hundred years ago:

Usually marriage is consummated within a day or two after the ceremony, but this is gross injustice to the bride. In most cases she is nervous, timid, and exhausted by the duties of preparation for the wedding, and in no way in a condition, either in body or mind, for the vital change which the married relation brings upon her. . . . This, then, is the time for all approaches by the husband to be of the most delicate . . . Young husband! Prove your manhood, not by yielding to unbridled lust and cruelty, but by the exhibition of true power in self-control and patience with the helpless being confided to your care! ( Jefferis and Nichols 1896, pp. 202–204)

The authors of this advice manual clearly view sexual decisions as the husband's duty and right—he is the one who must guard against yielding to "unbridled lust," determine the appropriate time for sexual initiation, and calmly and patiently guide the couple's first and subsequent physical interactions.

An examination of modern marriage manuals and guides to newlyweds reveals that this particular constellation of beliefs about marital sexuality has changed significantly over time, at least in the United States and western Europe. Martin Weinberg, Rochelle Swensson, and Sue Hammersmith (1983) analyzed forty-nine sex manuals published in the United States between 1950 and 1980. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, writers continued to emphasize differences between male and female sexuality and complementarity in sexual roles (i.e., husband as sexual teacher and wife as sexual learner). By the late 1970s, both sexes were depicted as autonomous sexual beings in control of their own sexuality, capable (and desirous) of sexual pleasure, and equally able to enact the parts of sexual teacher and learner. In many other parts of the world (e.g., Africa, Central America, and India), however, men continue to be expected to make the major sexual and reproductive decisions (Bertrand et al. 1996; Karra, Stark, and Wolf 1997; Renne 1997; Villasmil Prieto 1997).

A fourth general belief relevant to marital sexuality concerns preferences for various partner attributes that are specifically related to sexuality, including a potential spouse's sexual history or level of sexual experience. In general, research indicates that low to moderate levels of sexual experience are considered more desirable than extensive sexual experience. For example, sociologist Susan Sprecher and her colleagues (1997) surveyed over 400 college students living in the United States and found that men and women preferred "chastity" more than "extensive sexual experience" when considering a potential marriage partner. Similarly, social psychologists Pamela Regan and Ellen Berscheid (1997) asked a group of participants to rank a list of characteristics, including several related to sexuality, in terms of their desirability in a long-term, romantic partner: Being sexually available or "easy" was the least desired attribute in a potential spouse.

Some cultures value chastity or sexual inexperience more than others. An international team of researchers led by psychologist David Buss (1989) surveyed over ten thousand men and women from a variety of countries and cultures (including Africa, Asia, eastern Europe, North America, western Europe, and South America) about their preferences in a spouse. The characteristic "chastity" was highly valued in Asian cultures, including Taiwan, China, Indonesia, and India, and more so than in any other cultures. In western European cultures (e.g., France, Sweden, Norway), however, chastity was considered irrelevant (a few respondents even jotted down in the margins of their questionnaires that it was undesirable in a mate). These cultural differences notwithstanding, less rather than more sexual experience seems to be the rule governing marriage partner preferences.

Sexual Frequency

Rates of intercourse appear to have increased among married couples in recent decades. For example, pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues (Kinsey et al. 1953) surveyed over eleven thousand men and women living in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s about a variety of sexual issues, including how often they had sex. The results of these large-scale surveys revealed that young married couples tended to have sex approximately twice weekly. Twenty years later, in 1974, social scientist Morton Hunt reported slightly higher frequencies—on average, young married men and women (ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-four) had sex 3.25 times a week. This seeming rise in sexual frequency may stem from a variety of social changes occurring in the 1960s and 1970s that liberalized marital sexuality, including the advent of sex therapy, the "sexual revolution," the increased availability of erotic or pornographic material, and the introduction of the birth control pill.

More recent data, however, suggest that the amount of sexual activity between spouses has not continued to rise. According to a U.S. national study headed by sociologists Edward Laumann and John Gagnon (Laumann et al. 1994), most married couples have sex an average of seven times a month (this amounts to less than twice a week). Only 7 percent, in fact, of the married respondents in their study reported having sex four or more times each week. Other U.S. national surveys of married couples in the 1990s provided similar results (Call, Sprecher, and Schwartz 1995; Donnelly 1993). In addition, there is tremendous variability in the frequency of sexual intercourse in marital relationships. Some couples are celibate or have sex very infrequently, whereas others engage in intercourse on a daily basis. For example, Cathy Greenblat (1983) interviewed eighty people who had been married five years or less. The number of times spouses reported having had sexual intercourse each month during their first year of marriage ranged from one (or an average of twelve times that year) to forty-five (or 540 times that first year).

Several researchers have explored whether certain long-term couple types have sex more frequently than others. In general, surveys reveal that cohabitation is a "sexier" living arrangement than is marriage. That is, cohabiting heterosexual couples and homosexual male couples tend to have sexual intercourse (defined as genital contact) more frequently than married couples (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Call, Sprecher, and Schwartz 1995; Rao and DeMaris 1995). Homosexual female (lesbian) couples, on the other hand, have sex less frequently than other couple types, although they engage in more nongenital physical contact (e.g., cuddling, hugging). Despite these differences, all forms of long-term, committed partnership—married or cohabiting, heterosexual or homosexual—are associated with greater sexual frequency than is singlehood (Laumann et al. 1994).

The Decline of Sexual Frequency Over Time

The frequency with which couples engage in sex is affected both by the partners' ages and by the duration of their relationship. In general, older couples have sex less frequently than younger couples. For example, sociologist Vaughn Call and colleagues (1995) surveyed over six thousand married people living in the United States and reported that sexual activity was highest among the youngest respondents (those ranging in age from nineteen to twenty-nine, who had sex approximately ten to twelve times per month), became progressively lower in older age groups (e.g., four to seven times a month among forty- and fifty-yearolds), and reached its nadir among respondents in their seventies (who engaged in intercourse with their spouses less than twice a month). The majority of studies also find that the longer couples have been married, the less often they have sex (Rao and DeMaris 1995; Samson et al. 1991). This decline may be greatest during the first year or the first few years of the relationship. For example, William James (1981) analyzed diaries kept by newlywed couples over the course of their first year of marriage. Couples reported having sex on seventeen or more occasions during their first month of married life; however, by the end of the year, their rate of intercourse had declined to approximately eight times a month.

Because these two age-related factors are linked—as a relationship ages, so do the partners—it is difficult to know for certain whether it is chronological age that causes the decline in sexual frequency or habituation from being with the same sex partner year after year. Both factors probably play a role in producing lowered levels of sexual activity. For example, as men and women age, changes in their physical abilities, increased incidence of illness, and negative attitudes about sex in the elderly may contribute to a less active sex life. At the same time, the loss of novelty that results from having sexual intercourse with the same individual may reduce levels of activity.

Various events that occur during the course of a couple's relationship also are associated with changes in sexual frequency, including factors related to birth control and pregnancy (e.g., lack of interest during pregnancy), to children and child care (e.g., lack of privacy, fatigue), and to work (e.g., heavy work schedules, fatigue) (Greenblat 1983). All of these factors may play a role in limiting a couple's desire and opportunity for sex. Of course, some couples return to previous levels of sexual activity once they adjust to their circumstances or after the situation resolves itself. Other couples, however, become comfortable with the lowered levels of intercourse; they may cease to have sex altogether and/or they increasingly may engage in nonsexual forms of affection and contact.

Sexual Practices and Preferences

Married couples in today's society may not be having intercourse any more frequently than those living twenty or thirty years ago. However, they do seem to be engaging in a greater variety of sexual activities. For example, although vaginal inter-course remains the most common form of sexual expression among heterosexual couples (Laumann et al. 1994), a greater proportion report practicing oral-genital sex today than a generation or two ago. Studies indicate that a majority of married and cohabiting couples engage in oral-genital sex at least occasionally (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Gagnon and Simon 1987; Laumann et al. 1994). Anal intercourse, while relatively uncommon, is tried at least once by 8 to 10 percent of heterosexual North American couples (Laumann et al. 1994; Voeller 1991), and many couples report experimenting with new sexual techniques or activities at least some of the time (Greeley 1991). Homosexual couples practice many of the same sexual activities as heterosexual couples, but report higher frequencies of particular behaviors. For example, lesbian couples engage in more kissing, caressing, holding, and breast stimulation during lovemaking than cohabiting or married heterosexual couples; gay male couples, in turn, incorporate more body contact, including nipple stimulation and caressing, into their lovemaking than heterosexual couples (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Masters and Johnson 1979). In addition, oral-genital and anal sex are more commonly used by homosexual than heterosexual couples (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Laumann et al. 1994).

In addition to exploring what people actually do sexually with their partners, some researchers have examined what people say they would like to do—in other words, their sexual preferences. Of all the possible sexual practices on the heterosexual menu, vaginal intercourse possesses the most universal appeal. Laumann and colleagues' (1994) survey revealed that nearly 80 percent of women and close to 85 percent of men prefer this particular sexual activity. Watching the partner undress was a distant second choice, followed by receiving and giving oral sex (with both men and women preferring to receive rather than to give this sexual act).

Sexual Satisfaction

The majority of modern North American couples expect that sexual activity will be pleasurable, and research indicates that most are in fact satisfied with the sexual aspects of their relationship. In a national survey of over 650 married couples, approximately one-third of the husbands and wives reported a "very great deal" of sexual satisfaction, and an additional one-third reported "a great deal" of satisfaction (Greeley 1991). Similarly, the majority (over 80 percent) of married or cohabiting respondents in Laumann and colleagues' (1994) study stated that they were "extremely" or "very" physically and emotionally satisfied by sexual activity with their partner.

Sexual satisfaction is associated with a variety of factors. One of these is sexual frequency. Specifically, couples who have more frequent sex report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than couples who have less frequent sex (Young et al. 1998). The experience of orgasm also is correlated with sexual satisfaction (Perlman and Abramson 1982; Pinney, Gerrard, and Denney 1987; Young et al. 1998). For example, women who experience orgasms before or at the same time as their partner report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than women who have orgasms after their partners do (Darling, Davidson, and Cox 1991). Another predictor of a married couple's degree of sexual satisfaction is the ratio of sexual rewards (aspects of the sexual relationship that are pleasing or gratifying) to sexual costs (aspects of the sexual relationship that require physical or mental effort or that produce pain, anxiety, or embarrassment) that each partner receives from the relationship (Lawrance and Byers 1995). Marital sexual satisfaction generally is greatest when sexual rewards are high, sexual costs are low, sexual rewards exceed sexual costs, the obtained sexual rewards and costs in the relationship compare favorably to the expected sexual rewards and costs, and one partner's sexual rewards and costs do not greatly exceed the other's.

Sexual Communication

Another factor that is closely connected to sexual satisfaction in marital relationships is communication. Effective communication about sex—about expectations, preferences, attitudes, or standards—plays an important role in determining sexual satisfaction. One aspect of sexual communication that has received a great deal of attention from researchers is the initiation and refusal of sexual requests. In the traditional heterosexual "sexual script," men are expected to initiate sexual activity, whereas women are expected to then accept or refuse these sexual requests (Gagnon and Simon 1973; Reiss 1981). Although the majority of couples endorse and demonstrate this interaction pattern (Byers and Heinlein 1989), their communication style may change over the course of the relationship as each partner becomes more comfortable with less traditional roles (Brown and Auerback 1981). What is most important in determining sexual satisfaction is that partners share a sexual script and agree about the balance of sexual initiation in their relationship.

How couples actually talk about sex—the specific words or phrases they use to communicate sexual interest (or disinterest) to each other or to indicate a preference for a particular type of activity—is also associated with their level of sexual satisfaction. Many couples develop their own idiosyncratic phrases, terms, or names for sexual body parts, activities, and preferences. For example, one partner may ask the other if he or she would like to have some "afternoon delight" (as opposed to formally requesting sexual intercourse) or to "go south" (as opposed to requesting oral-genital sex). The development of a special sexual vocabulary and the use of pet names, phrases, and euphemisms may enhance a couple's feelings of satisfaction (Bell, Buerkel-Rothfuss, and Gore 1987; Cornog 1986).

Additional research has revealed that married couples are more often indirect than direct when they communicate about sex. For example, spouses tend to reveal their interest in sexual activity through the use of such indirect, nonverbal strategies as kissing, suggestive glances, and playing music rather than through the use of direct, verbal techniques (Brown and Auerback 1981; Byers and Heinlein 1989). Indirect communication may serve an important function in the relationship. Partners do not always desire sex at the same time—by making a sexual invitation somewhat ambiguous, indirect communication strategies allow a partner who is not in the mood for sex to avoid overtly rejecting the invitation and hurting the initiator.

The Role of Sexuality in Married Life

Frequent, mutually rewarding sex, along with effective communication about sexual desires and preferences, clearly is associated with sexual satisfaction. In addition, all of these aspects of sexuality—frequency, practices and preferences, communication, and satisfaction—are related to nonsexual aspects of a couple's relationship. For example, there is a strong connection between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction; couples who are happy with their sex lives tend to be happy with other areas of their relationship (Christopher and Sprecher 2000). The frequency with which a couple engages in sexual intercourse also is related to dimensions of relationship satisfaction. Specifically, the more often a couple has sex, the more generally satisfied they are with the relationship and their nonsexual interactions, the more they enjoy spending time together and sharing activities and hobbies, and the more equitable and fair they perceive their relationship to be (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Call et al. 1995; Hatfield et al. 1982).

It makes intuitive sense that a good sex life is associated with a good overall relationship. What is less intuitive is the direction of that association. Does unsatisfying sex lead to an unsatisfying relationship, or does a bad relationship lead to bad sex? On the one hand, it is likely that an unhappy, stressed, or conflicted partner—one who is preoccupied, worried, or angry about various (nonsexual) aspects of the relationship—would have difficulty becoming sexually interested in and aroused by the other partner, particularly if that partner is viewed as a source of the conflict or unhappiness. On the other hand, it is equally likely that a person who is not satisfied with either the quantity or the quality of sex with the partner may become dissatisfied with other aspects of the marriage. Whatever the direction of the relationship between sexuality and general satisfaction, most researchers agree that the two are intimately connected.


Across cultures, sexuality plays an important role in marital and other types of long-term, established relationships. The attitudes that partners hold about marital sexuality, the amount of sex that they have, their preferences and the kinds of sexual activities in which they engage, and how they communicate with each other about their needs and desires can have an enormous impact upon their level of sexual satisfaction and on their happiness with the relationship in general. Although there is no "right" amount or type of sex that characterizes healthy relationships, research suggests that partners will be most satisfied—sexually and nonsexually—when they utilize sexual activity to express feelings of love, commitment, and intimacy (rather than to dominate, punish, or harm the partner) and when they agree about the role that sexuality should and does play in their relationship.

See also:Honeymoon; Infidelity; Intimacy; Love; Marital Quality; Marital Typologies; Sexual Communication: Couple Relationships; Sexual Dysfunction; Sexuality; Sexuality in Adulthood; Therapy: Couple Relationships


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