- People tend to have sex less frequently as they age.
- Most people today are having sex less frequently than in previous decades, particularly Millennials and Gen Z.
- When it comes to sexual intimacy, quality is more important than quantity.
As a clinical psychologist, a common question I get is: "Am I having a normal amount of sex?" We're social creatures, so it's normal to want to fit in and "keep up with the Joneses," but sex is one area where comparison isn't that helpful. Unless you're trying to make babies, sex is about pleasure, so "normal" is less important than "normal for you," but that's not what you want to hear. So, let's talk about statistics.
What counts as sex?
Before we jump into numbers, we have to clarify what is considered sex. Definitions of sex vary widely among both individuals and couples. Some consider sex to be vaginal-penile penetration only. The most obvious limitation of this definition is that it excludes same-sex couples. Others consider sex to be any sexual act, such as oral sex or masturbation. Some studies avoid this question by using "sexual activity" instead of "sex," which is more inclusive. Either way, most data come from self-reports, so statistics are based on what individual respondents consider to be sex or sexual activity.
How much sex do people have?
Regarding sexual frequency, there are three main findings from current research:
1. We have sex less frequently as we age.
Age and sex are the two factors that have the strongest effect on sex frequency. Americans in their 20s have sex about 80 times per year (Twenge et al., 2017a), approximately once every four to five days. That number drops to 20 times per year for those in their 60s (Twenge et al., 2017a).
The percentage of Americans who are sexually active also decreases with age. Of those aged 57 to 64, 73 percent are sexually active; by ages 65 to 74, that number drops to 53 percent; and by ages 75 to 85, only 26 percent are sexually active (Lindau et al., 2007). Women are less likely to be sexually active than men at all ages (Lindau et al., 2007).
2. We are having sex less frequently than we were.
However, regardless of age, we are having less sex now than we were before. From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of American men who reported having no sexual activity in the past year increased from 18.9 percent to 30.9 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds and from 7 percent to 14.1 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds (Ueda et al., 2020). This number also increased among women of the same age, but to a lesser degree (Ueda et al., 2020). Income seemed to affect sexual inactivity, as inactivity was greatest among students and men with low income and part-time or no employment (Ueda et al., 2020).
Not only are more people sexually inactive, but those who are sexually active are having sex less frequently. Between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, Americans were having sex an average of nine fewer times per year (Twenge et al., 2017a). Between 2000 and 2018 alone, the number of Americans reporting having sex at least once a week decreased from 51.8 percent to 37.4 percent among men aged 18 to 24, from 65.3 percent to 50.3 percent among men aged 25 to 34, and from 66.4 percent to 54.2 percent among women aged 25 to 34 (Ueda et al., 2020). The decline in sexual frequency remained true across race, religion, gender, education level, and employment status; however, the greatest declines were among those who did not watch pornography, had school-aged children, or were in their 50s (Twenge et al., 2017a).
Usually, marriage has a buffering effect—married people tend to have sex more frequently than nonmarried people—but even married people are having less sex. The percentage of married men who reported having sex at least once a week declined from 71.1 percent to 57.7 percent between 2000 and 2018 (Ueda et al., 2020). The percentage of married women who reported the same also decreased (69.1 percent to 60.9 percent; Ueda et al., 2020).
3. Younger generations have less sex than previous generations.
Despite the media portraying them as the "hookup generation," much current research supports the reality that younger generations (millennials and Gen Z) are having less sex. The generation that had the most sex was the silent generation (those born in the 1930s), and the generations that had the least sex were millennials and Gen Z (those born in the 1990s onward; Twenge et al., 2017a). The number of American adults aged 20 to 24 who reported no sexual partners since age 18 more than doubled between those born in the 1960s (GenX'ers: 6 percent) and those born in the 1990s (millennials: 15 percent; Twenge et al., 2017b). Gen Z is also having less sex than generations prior: In the United States, the percentage of teens in grades 9 to 12 who had had sex dropped from 53 percent in 1994 to 39 percent in 2017 (Twenge, 2020).
Why are we having less sex?
In some ways, it seems like our current culture should result in an increase in sex frequency. Sex before marriage is more acceptable, as is casual, nonmonogamous, and same-sex sexual activity. New technologies like hookup apps, online dating, and medications for birth control and sexual dysfunction make finding and engaging a sexual partner easier. The Internet also provides easily accessible information on sex and sexual pleasure to substitute for any failings in sex education. So, why are we having less sex?
We don't know why there has been such a decline in sex frequency. Plenty of people have speculated that readily available pornography online has replaced or eliminated the need for physical intimacy with another person, but the research doesn't support that. Those who watch pornography actually tend to be more sexually active (Twenge et al., 2017a). Some have guessed that it's because there are more single or unmarried people (Twenge, 2020), but that doesn't explain the decrease in sex frequency among married couples. Maybe it's because we're raising a generation of late bloomers (Twenge, 2020), but that doesn't explain the decrease in sex frequency among older adults.
Perhaps it's because of longer workdays or poorer mental health among the population (Twenge et al., 2017a). Maybe it's because we have more options for pleasurable activities, such as gaming, binge-watching TV, and scrolling through social media (Twenge, 2020). Maybe it's because we're less healthy than before, and unhealthy people are less sexually active and experience more sexual problems (Lindau et al., 2007).
Am I having enough sex?
It's normal to go through periods of low sexual activity. Certain stages in life are even associated with changes in sex frequency, such as after the birth of a child, menopause, and old age.
If you're comparing yourself or your relationship to someone you know is having frequent sex, then remember that frequent doesn't mean good; they could be having frequent but unsatisfactory sex, and you could be having infrequent but satisfying sex.
Whatever the reason, the point is if you are feeling insecure about not having "enough" sex, then don't worry too much because we're all having less sex.
Facebook image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock
Lindau, S. T., Schumm, L. P., Laumann, E. O., Levinson, W., O’Muircheartaigh, C. A., & Waite, L. J. (2007). A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States. The New England Journal of Medicine, 357 (8), 762–774. https://www.doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa067423
Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2017a). Declines in Sexual Frequency among American Adults, 1989–2014. Archives of Sexual Behavior 46(8). https://www.doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-0953-1
Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2017b). Sexual Inactivity During Young Adulthood Is More Common Among U.S. Millennials and iGen: Age, Period, and Cohort Effects on Having No Sexual Partners After Age 18. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 433–440. https://www.doi.org/10.1007/s10508-016-0798-z
Twenge, J. M. (2020). Possible Reasons US Adults Are Not Having Sex as Much as They Used To. JAMA Open Network, 3(6), e203889. https://www.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.3889
Ueda, P., Mercer, C. H., Ghaznavi, C., & Herbenick, D. (2020). Trends in Frequency of Sexual Activity and Number of Sexual Partners Among Adults Aged 18 to 44 Years in the US, 2000-2018. JAMA Open Network, 3(6), e203833. https://www.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.3833