The famous Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, who died in 1956, once found himself wondering whether bright educated people--especially bright women--had a normal sex life. Dr. Terman was questioning the popular wisdom of the mid-twentieth century, which asserted that bright educated women were too occupied with things intellectual, and so were unable or unwilling to have good, fulfilling sex. So, Terman set out to find the answer, in his studies of over 1,500 bright Californians.
In 1941, while reporting their marital satisfaction, the married participants in Terman's studies revealed their sexual satisfaction and the average number and length of their sexual encounters. Dr. Terman, a very bright and educated man with very bright and educated graduate students, was pleased to find that his very bright participants scored just as highly as less gifted individuals on frequency of intercourse, passion, and on what Dr. Terman called "orgasm adequacy of wives."
As modern researchers would later do, Dr. Terman asked about the women's frequency of orgasm during sex. More than fifty years later, we followed up on the Terman participants and examined how such matters might relate to long life. We wondered, could it be the case that a great marriage in this sexual realm would have significant value for women's health?
For about twenty years now, my colleagues and I have been conducting a study we call The Longevity Project. We have been delving into the lives and deaths of the 672 women and 856 men who were first recruited into Terman's lifelong study in 1921, when they were about ten years old. Twenty years later, in 1941, most were married. Sure enough, a really intriguing finding concerns the women's frequency of orgasm during sex.
One of the women we studied, Patricia, was so sensible and conscientious throughout her life that we nicknamed her Prudent Pat. In 1941, Patricia and the others answered Terman's questions about their sex lives. Patricia might have been prudent but she was not prudish. She was asked, "How well mated are you and your husband, from the strictly sexual point of view?" Responses could range on a scale from "very badly" to "no two could be more perfectly mated sexually." The average here was somewhat above the midpoint, but Patricia's response was that she was extremely well-mated; that is, very high on the scale. She and the other women also reported frequency of orgasm during intercourse, on a scale from "never" to "always." The average was above the midpoint, again revealing a generally good but not outstanding sexual satisfaction. But Patricia was again near the top.
These answers allowed us to create a predictor measuring Dr. Terman's so-called orgasm adequacy. We also spent many years tracking down and gathering the death certificates of the participants, so we would know exactly how long each one lived. Finally, we looked to see if sexual satisfaction would be related to a longer life, even after taking the women's personalities into account. The startling result was very clear: Women who had a higher frequency of achieving orgasm during intercourse tended to live longer than their less fulfilled peers!
Lots of women (and many men) wish we knew precisely why. The limited sexual information available from other studies does suggest an association between sexual activity and health, in both men and women, but the links are hazy. There is a dearth of scientific information available on sexual fulfillment and long-term health, not really so surprising given what it must be like going to a government-funded research agency to ask for money to study orgasms and health. Here's what we do know. Sexual satisfaction tends to play a role in a happier marriage, and happier marriages play a role in greater sexual satisfaction. And we know that people in stable, fulfilling marriages tend to be healthier. What is causing what? We won't know until the completion of other long-term studies of intimacy, personality, behavior, and health. At the moment, we can simply say that a sexually satisfying and happy marriage is a very good predictor of future health and long life.
By the way, someone once asked me whether the men who had orgasms during intercourse also lived longer. Sorry, can't tell. No variance.
So, all in all, should we health professionals be recommending more orgasms in a committed relationship as an effective tool of health promotion? Sort of. We don't know the precise causal connections, but this much we do know: If your route to having better sex is by becoming a better partner, and your route to becoming a better partner is by becoming a more responsible and committed partner, then go for it. If both partners do this, you'll likely have both better sex and better health. Will you live longer? No money-back guarantee here, but possibly yes.
For more information on The Longevity Project see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/
Dr. Howard Friedman's newest book is: The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. (Hudson Street Press, 2011).
Copyright © 2011 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.