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How Important Is Sex?

This question can be asked for several reasons.

When I was writing my syndicated advice column on sex and relationships at least once a week, I was asked, “How important is sex in a relationship?” The volunteers at San Francisco Sex Information tell me this is one of their most frequent questions as well.

If you immediately answered “very,” I bet I can guess your age.

Actually, that was unfair. Of course, there are more young people who will give that answer than older people, but beyond a very broad generalization like that, there are many variations. The answer to this will be particular to the individual and will vary according to age, current sexual satisfaction or deprivation, and life particulars at the time the question is posed. One quip I’ve heard on the topic is that sex is like air: “Not very important unless you are deprived of it; then it’s crucial!”

So, how important is sex to a relationship? It absolutely depends on its importance to each of the people having the relationship.

More couples than you would guess who appear happy to their friends and relations (and perhaps even are) are in sexless relationships. A sexless relationship is commonly defined as one wherein sex happens less than 10 times a year. That factoid will be interpreted by some people as two people are "supposed to" have sex more than that, no matter their preferences or circumstances.

One of the ambiguities here is my oft-stated truth that sex does not equal penis in vagina intercourse. Is a couple “having sex” if they engage in some other form of intercourse, such as oral or anal? What if they are having some other form of sex, such as rubbing against one another, any part against any part, which is pleasurable and can result in orgasm to either or both? Isn’t that sex too? It is in my book. Perhaps the question might be recast as how important is orgasm, or even how important is pleasurable and intimate touch?

I think often what is being asked when the “how important is sex” question is posed is: “How often should my partner and I have sex in order to be considered normal?” What also might be behind this question is another worry, such as “I’m afraid I can’t perform according to expectations so can I still have a relationship?” or “my partner is complaining about how often we have sex, or what kind of sex we have, so who is right here?”

Since this common question can mask many other concerns, I usually respond, “How important is sex to you?” If the person asking is coupled, I also ask, “Does your partner agree?” Generally not, or the question would not have arisen. Once a year, or once a day, if whatever is happening between them is sufficient sex, there is no problem. Asking for outside validation is irrelevant.

So while the answer is often frustrating to the one who poses it (as sex itself may be), the definitive answer to the question of how important is sex to a relationship has to be: “It depends.”

More from Isadora Alman MFT, CST
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