This week, I started teaching an undergraduate-level course on Human Sexuality. At the end of the first day, I asked the students to anonymously write any question they wanted answers to on a slip of paper. I told them that, over the course, of the semester, I would try to answer all their questions.
The first question I answered was “How many times a week is it healthy to have sex?” The answer depends on how one interprets the words “healthy” and “sex.”
By “healthy” did the student mean “normal”? Alternatively, perhaps the question concerned how many times a week one needs to have sex to reap the health benefits. On the flip side, maybe the concern was about how much is too much sex. Is there an unhealthy amount?
And what did the student mean by the term “sex?” In our culture, the term sex is often used synonymously with heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse. A prior blog described the problems with this definition. Likewise, an upcoming lecture in my class deals entirely with the definition of the word sex (and I just might follow this lecture with another blog). To answer this particular question, however, I decided to make the flawed assumption that the writer meant heterosexual intercourse.
So, then, what’s a “normal” amount for a person to be having? We Americans have an obsession with what is normal. In fact, sex educator and columnist Yvonne Fulbright writes, “I’ve been answering people’s questions about sex and relationships for years, with the most popular question, by far: "Am I normal?" Another wise sex educator and therapist, Marty Klein, makes the same observation. In a profound essay, Klein labels this “Normality Anxiety” and tells readers to decide “that ‘normal’ is irrelevant” and to take control by deciding to “accept your sexuality on your own terms”. I thus told my students that I wouldn’t answer the question of how much sex is normal, and instead, I encouraged them to decide what amount is right for them.
Moving on, what if the student wanted to know statistics— the average based on psychological studies and surveys. For this question, the Kinsey Institute provides answers. As just one example, 18-29 year olds have sex an average of 112 times per year, 30-39 year olds an average of 86 times per year, and 40-49 year olds an average of 69 times per year. Still, averages mean that there are some people above and some people below any given number. Averages don’t help decide the question of what is right for an individual person.
Perhaps, however, the student didn’t want to know about the amount of sex that was “normal” or average. Maybe the inquiry pertained to how much sex a person has to have to reap the many health benefits of sex, something I devote an entire chapter to in my book, A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex. An excellent “White Paper” published by Planned Parenthood and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, also summarizes these studies, including one that could shed some light on the student’s potential question. A study of over a hundred college students found that those who had sexual intercourse once or twice a week had 30% higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) than either those who were abstinent or those that had intercourse more often than twice a week. Since IgA is essential to the body’s immune response it seems that, at least according to this one small study, college students who want to reap the immune functioning benefits of intercourse should engage in the act once or twice a week.
But, wait. Maybe the student wanted to know about if a certain amount of sex was dangerous or unhealthy. Again, I told the students that there wasn’t a magic number, but that most therapists would say that if seeking out or having sexual activity starts interfering with daily activities (e.g., missing work, classes) then it’s a problem. I also referred the students to an article by Yvonne Fulbright on the hazards of too much sex, such as rug burn, urinary tract infections, and the like.
I don’t know if I answered this student’s question or not, but I hopefully illustrated the importance of clear language in discussing sexuality.