Talk of a sex recession have popped up multiple times in the past few years. Just this past August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of its Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Results from 2019 show 38.4% of high school students in the United States had experienced sexual intercourse. This number is 15.7 points lower than the one reported in 1991, the first year the survey tracked sexual experiences.

And teens aren’t the only ones presumably having less sex. A 2017 paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior also shows a decline in sexual frequency among American adults. Apparently, adults in the 2010s are having sex nine fewer times per year than adults in the late 1990s.

There are multiple theories:
• Shifting priorities
• The effects of financial and housing crises
• The lure of streaming services
• The internet

A 2019 survey on how technology can impact your relationship, both good and bad. Survey respondents reported that sex came in sixth after other activities like watching TV and scrolling through social media feeds. The company claimed we were in the midst of an “intimacy deficit.” Keep in mind, cuddling also made it into the top five.

But is it true? Should we sound the alarm? Are we experiencing an intimacy deficit?

And how often should we be having sex anyway?

Am I Normal?

The aforementioned paper from the Archives of Sexual Behavior shows that the average adult has sex 54 times a year—about once per week. At various times, this has been considered the gold standard in sexual frequency. In fact, a decade ago, I co-wrote an e-book with a sex counselor in which we recommended having sex at least once a week to maintain an intimate connection with your partner.

But a more recent paper published in BMJ claims that fewer than half of the people in Britain between the ages of 16 and 44 are having sex that often.

And, hell, in the decade that’s passed since I wrote that e-book, I have to say that I’m among those men and women who feel that weekly sex can oftentimes be a laughable goal.

But also: What is even considered sex?

How We Define Sex

In 2019, Cosmopolitan released a report showing that reports of a sexual recession were overblown, since those reports don’t consider the ways in which the definition of sex has expanded in recent years. Most surveys and studies that show decreases in sexual frequency tend to focus only on penetrative penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse.

But as I’ve written here again and again, this definition of sex is both heteronormative and ableist. It does not take into account the myriad of other ways people might share intimacy and experience pleasure.

As people begin to play with this expanding definition of sex, it’s only natural that PIV may fall by the wayside… or at least cease to take center stage.

There are the ways our standards and priorities are shifting around sex.

Is the Sex You’re Having Even Worth It?

That same Cosmo survey also found young people are having less PIV sex because they’re prioritizing emotional connection in their sexual relationships. This emotional connection (whether in the context of a long-term relationship or not) can lead to what clinical psychologist Peggy J. Kleinplatz refers to as “optimal sexual experiences.”

So, if you’re having less PIV sex—but the sex you are having is fantastic—is there really a problem?

I’m gonna go with no. 71% of those Cosmo survey respondents agree with me, reporting that they’re personally satisfied with the amount of sex they’re having. In fact, 92% value quality over quantity.

The same holds true with older adults. Those who enjoy the sex they’re having tend to want more of it. When it comes to those who feel they’re struggling with sexual dysfunction around arousal and/or desire, it’s often later discovered that the sex they were having was lackluster.

It makes sense. Who wants to have more sex if there’s no expectation that it will be particularly enjoyable?!

“Sometimes the physical symptoms of sexual dysfunctions originate in the body’s understandable response to sex that is (or was) mechanically functional but otherwise uninspiring,” write Kleinplatz and her co-author, clinical psychologist A. Dana Ménard, in their book “Magnificent Sex.” It’s based on a large, in-depth interview study conducted with people who have experienced extraordinary sex.

“When we asked extraordinary lovers about the consequences of extraordinary sex, they recounted wanting more,” they wrote. “Correspondingly, when clients report, ‘If I never had sex again, I wouldn’t miss it,’ the sex in question wasn’t spectacular.”

Stop Worrying About Quantity
Back in the day (a decade ago, just like that e-book), I wrote a sex advice column for The Frisky, a now-defunct lifestyle website. At the time, I got an amazing variety of questions from readers. Yet, every single question boiled down to the same thing: Am I normal?

When it comes to sexual frequency, we tend to compare ourselves to what we think others are doing. The thing is, because there is so much silence around sexuality, we don’t actually know what other people are doing. Instead, we make faulty assumptions and, as a result, we assume our own sexual experiences are coming up short.

Rather than engaging in these self-defeating mental gymnastics, we should be focusing on what makes us happy. Focus on what it might take to ensure a mutually pleasurable sexual experience for ourselves and our partners.

That has nothing to do with quantity. It does have everything to do with learning what makes us feel good, learning what makes our partner(s) feel good, and communicating that to each other.

Everything else is just gravy.

Stephanie Auteri

Stephanie Auteri

Journalist, author, & sex educator
Steph Auteri has written about sexuality for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE, and other publications, and has collaborated with folks at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), the Center for Sex Education, and Good in Bed. She is the author of A Dirty Word, a reported memoir about how female sexuality is so often treated like a dirty word.