Getting Married and Getting Sex (or Not)

Here’s what the research on marital status and sex really does show.

Posted Feb 06, 2010

In a recent post, I argued that a book called The Case for Marriage has perpetrated many of the false claims about the benefits of getting married. It does so by supposedly drawing from the professional research literature. I looked at the claims in the book, and compared them to the published version of the research they cite. The results are not pretty. Here's an example, from a section of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (pp. 52-55).


Getting Married and Getting Sex

I bet you can anticipate the bottom line of Waite and Gallagher's chapter on sex. Married couples have more sex and better sex.

There is only one problem with that conclusion: It is not exactly true. Married people do not have the most sex - cohabiting people do.

If I were in Waite and Gallagher's place and wanted to defend married people's second place finish in the sexual frequency sweepstakes, I'd say that raw frequency means nothing apart from desired frequency. So what if co-habitors are having the most sex if one partner wants even more and the other wishes there were a whole lot less? Maybe married people are more likely to get the amount of sex that they want.

Waite and Gallagher try to shrug off the more active sex lives of co-habitors in a different way. Co-habiting relationships, they say, are more likely than marriages to be "built around sex." In Waite and Gallagher's view, married people who are not having sex still consider themselves to be married, but if co-habiting people are not having sex, then they just consider themselves to be roommates.

Does that sound unconvincing? That's OK. Waite and Gallagher are ready with another way to diminish the people who are having more sex than married people: "They don't seem to enjoy it quite as much." In support of their conclusion that married people have more extremely satisfying sex than other people do, Waite and Gallagher cite a lot of percentages. Those numbers are listed in the first column of data in the table below. In the adjacent column are actual numbers from the original source, The National Sex Survey.

What Percentage of People are Extremely Emotionally Satisfied with their Sex Lives?
Using Waite and Gallagher's Categories

Waite and Gallagher's Numbers (WG)

Actual Numbers from
The National Sex Survey (Actual)

Married men: 48 (WG), 48.9 (Actual)
Co-habiting men: 37 (WG)35.2 for single co-habitors,
                                         52.6 for div / sep co-habitors (actual)

Married women: 42 (WG), 42.1 (Actual)
Single women with sexual partner:  31 (WG) 31.4 for not co-habiting,
                                                                 44.1 for co-habiting (actual)
Divorced with sexual partner: 27 (WG)27.4 for not co-habiting
                                                          36.5 for co-habiting (actual)

Waite and Gallagher were reasonably accurate when they described the satisfaction of married people. When you compare the percentages they report for the married men and married women to the actual percentages from the National Sex Survey, the two sets are similar. But Waite and Gallagher really did a number on everyone else.

Take, for example, this claim: "For men, having a wife beats shacking up by a wide margin: 48 percent of husbands say sex with their partner is extremely satisfying emotionally, compared to just 37 percent of cohabiting men." Now look at the second row of numbers in the table (the one corresponding to the co-habiting men). Yes, 37 percent is close enough to the actual number of single co-habiting men who describe their sex as extremely emotionally satisfying. But Waite and Gallagher do not happen to mention that for divorced men who are co-habiting, the number is 52.6 percent. That amounts to more sexually satisfied co-habiting divorced men than married men. And that is not the case that Waite and Gallagher are trying to make.

To make the married women look good, they take a different tack. They compare the sexual satisfaction of married women to that of the single and divorced women who are not co-habiting. That's convenient, because, as you can see from the table, it is the co-habiting women who usually report the more satisfying sex lives.

The National Sex Survey was full of information about rates of sexual problems. Waite and Gallagher do not have much to say on that topic. Here's some of what they skipped over. With regard to some of the problems men might have, such as an inability to maintain an erection, climaxing too early, or experiencing pain during sex, currently married men have nothing over men who have always been single. When the two groups differ on those measures, it is the married men who are more likely to be having difficulties. Men who have always been single also report fewer sexual problems than divorced men.

Among the women, the group most likely to be problem-free is not the currently married women. Rather, it is the widowed women who are less likely than all of the others (married, divorced, separated, or always single) to complain that they do not find sex pleasurable, that they cannot reach orgasm or they reach it too early, or that they experience anxiety or pain during sex.

Waite and Gallagher wrap up their chapter on the sexual advantages of marriage by describing the results of one last survey. This one, sponsored by the Family Research Council, described all the people who could lay claim to the most satisfying sex. Married people, of course, top the list, but some married people are even better off sexually than others. Among them are: those who attend church weekly, who believe that out-of-wedlock sex is wrong, who have three or more children, who live in one-earner households, and "who see sex as a sacred union, exclusive to marriage." There is an endnote corresponding to the description of these results. It says that the Family Research Council "is an activist not a scholarly organization." Indeed. According to their website, the Council "champions marriage and family as the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society." Also, it "promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society."

In all of the research I described in this section, people were surveyed about their sexual behavior at one point in time. As always, that means that any differences between people may have had nothing whatsoever to do with getting married. The sexual behavior of the married people, for example, may have been the same even before they married. So far as I know, there are no published studies of sex in which the same people are studied over time, as their marital status changes or remains the same.


[Note: All references are in Singled Out. Readers may also be interested in this Living Single post: ASEXUALS: Who are they and why are they important?]