The Truth About Sex Frequency and How We Know It

Depending on who you consult, people are either having lots of sex (more than you, by the way) or a significant amount less than they report. Which “truth” shall we believe?

A June 11, 2019 Cosmopolitan story tells us Millennials are blessed in this department — “killing it in the bedroom,” reports Julie Vadnal. There are reasons to hesitate before accepting the conclusions in her article, however.

What people say they do and what they do in reality can be different. Furthermore, her definition of sex covers considerable ground, including “non-penetrative sex, vibrators, porn,” etc.

Is masturbation (solo variety) sex?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s (S-D) 2017 book, Everybody Lies, offers an alternative perspective. His inquiry suggests people lie about many things, and physical intimacy is high on the deception list. Moreover, this research analyst mistrusts surveys, the usual authority on what we know about private acts.

A phone voice or in-person interviewer might not elicit secrets you’d shrink from telling your best friend. A promise of anonymity makes little difference in his view, even online.

Instead, S-D mines information drawn from Google search results. He concludes that the respondents to surveys say they are having more romance than they are.

An example illustrates the point:

Based on 2016 data from straight women who took part in the General Social Survey,* the average female adult has sex 55 times a year. Sixteen percent of the time condoms are worn.

Do the math and you get 1.1 billion rubbers put to the rub per annum.

Before you believe those numbers, consider the following.

Figures from heterosexual males reveal 1.6 billion episodes of latex-type prophylactic employment, about 145% more than the ladies who are their partners!

More doubt about the findings comes from Nielsen, a giant tracker of consumer behavior. Fewer than 600 million condoms are purchased each year. Unless the men and women are making their own contraceptive devices in the basement, both are exaggerating the frequency with which they “do it.”

The General Social Survey used by S-D was repeated last year. Suffice to say, even the GSS indicates the passionate part of many of our lives is on a downhill course. To take one illustration, 51% of 18 to 29-year-olds reported having sex once a week or more in 1996. In 2018 the number was 39%.

Commentators speculate as to the reasons for the decline. Causes might include the reduction in the portion of young adults with live-in lovers and a similar diminution of those with a steady romantic companion.

A smaller percentage of young men with a reliable source of income must also be factored in. The lack of career prospects is presumed to reduce a male’s chances of amorous success.

The overall GSS results are also tipped in the “diminishing copulation” direction by an increase in the proportion of those 60 and older in the population, from 18% in 1996 to 26% in 2018. Though seniors often have a satisfying sex life, Viagra doesn’t transform them into the rabbits of their youth.

Take U.S. adults as a whole and nearly one in four were celibate in the year covered by the last study. Let me repeat: no sex at all for almost 25%.

Stephens-Davidowitz states that grown-up Americans are (surprise!) not happy about the situation.

On Google, “The top complaint about a marriage is not having sex. Searches for ‘sexless marriage’ are three and a half times more common than ‘loveless marriage.'”

Stephens-Davidowitz continues, “Even unmarried couples complain somewhat frequently about not having sex. Searches for ‘sexless relationship’ are second only to ‘abusive relationship.'”

The findings, according to Everybody Lies, suggest more anxiety about love-making than many admit. Our body parts and their size, both too much and too little, haunt us. Other troubling matters unsettle us, as well, not least performance.

From my angle, the preoccupations, inhibitions, and prohibitions likely come from several places. Centuries of religious teaching, fear of disease, and a personal history of self-doubt and rejection can interfere with intimacy.

Add emotional attachment or its absence, the chance and import of pregnancy, and comparisons with movie personalities, models, and X-rated stars. All this and more ratchets up the stakes of getting naked.

Surely the unprecedented level of stress found by the American Psychological Association, greatest among Millennials, enhances no one’s sex life. Life complications and frustrations enter the bedroom on tip-toe, unseen and not discussed. If past events join present and future worries, little space for joy remains.

No therapist can alter the backdrop of our fraught social, work, and political life. Climate change troubles those with lots of time ahead, who should be lustful, more than anyone else. But is the separate worry over muscle tone, shapeliness, execution, and ego justified?

Stephens-Davidowitz comments on this question in passing. The researcher believes there is more forgiveness about the short-falls of bodies, shapes, and sizes than people think. Being in love makes us more forgiving creatures.

Yes, sex is in the air, but love tends to bring out our best selves. For a guy who writes about Big Data and impersonal numbers, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz turns out to be a bit of a sweetie-pie.


The first image is Self-Portrait with White Gown by Egon Schiele. Second comes A Portrait of Madame Sohn by the same painter. The photograph following is Egon Schiele by Josef Anton Trčka.

*”The General Social Survey (GSS) is a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, with principal funding from the National Science Foundation.”

You might also want to look at other sources for this essay, including Stress in America — Charted/, Record High in Americans Not Having Sex/, and The Millennial Sex Recession is Bullsh*t/

20 thoughts on “The Truth About Sex Frequency and How We Know It

  1. Interesting analysis of sex-frequency data, Dr. Stein. I have my own measures for determining sex frequency among our male population: The sex life of men in our society is not going well when they have to pass laws for the return of total male control over the body of the female.

    Happy Father’s Day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Rosaliene. If I ever had a day of total control over the body of a female, my memory must be failing me. But the data are interesting, and where heterosexual men are having trouble in the consensual relationship department, it also means women are, too. One more measure suggesting that people are being challenged by the times on lots of fronts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It feels as if society has changed. Young people (I have read) do not interact with one another as frequently or at the same level as we did in our youth. They have pornography on their phones, texting instead of communicating, they are living at home into their 30’s, they are coddled by their parents. I fear for the future and I fear they will not have the skills to be self-sufficient, and this includes sex in a loving adult relationship, instead of the hookups they tend to engage in. (I have read) We all need to get off of our phones and iPads and pay attention to one another….life is wasting away.


    • Though I didn’t mention it, one of the reasons cited by commentators for the “sex recession” among relatively young adults is one you cite: living with parents. As I said to Rosaliene, we are challenged on many fronts. Some of the young, with more time ahead of them, also have a political energy that (one can only hope) will succeed in making political progress to save themselves and the planet. I share some of your concerns, Nancy. Thanks for your comment.


      • I certainly hope so too….I hope our youth will get out and vote, otherwise the trend of older Americans who vote, will continue to drive the future policies of our country.


  3. Another interesting article! Things are likely “worse” than they appear, as 600 million condoms does not mean 600 million were used unless the % of usage has gone up considerably in recent years. The article also neatly alludes to the link between quality and quantity, i.e. fear of the first leads to lack of the second.


    • drgeraldstein

      Good point about those condoms that don’t get used. I had an old time friend who seemed to carry the same one in his wallet for years! I’m sure you are right about the inverse relationship between fear of poor quality and consequent diminished quantity. Hope all is well for you, Steven.


  4. gaylelillianablakely

    Interesting post. I wonder why someone would inflate their sex count on a survey. I wonder if the same phenomena would occur on surveys back in the 1920s to 1950s, not including condoms but only including sex frequency, given that sex is defined the same. And not all sex is pleasurable; some sex is coerced, criminally forced, or painful yet consensual. It appears that sex is defined on consensual and pleasurable bases. Intimacy can occur with or without sex, and perhaps the asexual community, however that is defined (ranging from healthy to pathological), experiences intimacy and physical human contact in pleasurable and fulfilling ways that are both similar to and different from sex. And like you mentioned in terms of whether sex can include masturbation (sex with self), it is also unclear whether or not such preferences are included in asexuality. Sexual trauma in the past impacts the quality of sex and intimacy in the present, and some will go on to be asexual – either by choice or not. Disabled persons and those who are physically compromised may not choose asexuality, but there are many people who do not have sex but want to. Intimacy does not need to include sex, depending on how sex is defined or even interpreted.


    • Much wisdom here. People are not always honest in surveys, it is believed, because they want to be esteemed, might feel ashamed about their celebacy, fear judgement, fear the information will be shared, fear what others will say or think about them, etc. In the past few election cycles, a similar set of concerns make some question the results of political polling.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gaylelillianablakely

        That parallel about political polling makes sense, Dr. S. Honesty comes at a cost or a perceived cost, but so does dishonesty. Maybe people fib on surveys because they are also afraid of or disgusted with themselves, or maybe they are trying too hard to conform because there is this fear of political change. In a psychology of women’s course, I recall learning about the person as politic, but I completely forgot what that truly meant.


  5. The last sentence, in particular, is intriguing. Maybe it will come back to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gaylelillianablakely

      I looked it up online, and found two things – the first being a feminine approach we learned about in the psych course I took, and the second being Aristotle’s assertion that humans are political animals/beings. From what I faintly recall in the class concerning the feminine approach, we individuals make choices based not only on our personal preferences, but also our political ones. In terms of sexuality, which we covered at length in the women’s course, individual sexual choices may be more in line with the politics of the time than what our own bodies and minds are telling us. For instance, a couple of decades ago and prior, some women would claim to be heterosexual on surveys and even when making decisions about who to date, but they may be attracted to women as well or more so than men. Their decision to be heterosexual is more from political pressure to conform and belong than it is a natural inclination. At least that is how I recall interpreting it years ago when I took the course in 2014 or 2015. I have never heard of Aristotle’s stance before this morning, when I Googled “person as politic,” but the same themes of conformity and belongingness apply. Stigma, religious pressures, filial pressures, cultural pressures, brainwashing, trauma and its impact on feeling belonged in a safe environment, and many other pressures can be so strong that individuals may not even be aware of why they feel conflict inside when it comes to sexuality, political sides, and other beliefs and practices that involve society or at least another person. Ethically, should we be true to ourselves before conforming, or should we conform and mold our personal truths to match society? Is conformity a virtue all the time, or can we argue against the status quo and still be virtuous in our own right? If psychology mirrors morals and virtuous behaviors, and if psychology conforms, could that explain why psychology had decided to eliminate homosexuality and drapatomania as pathologies when society became more cognizant about the motives and etiologies for such behaviors, or when society learns to be more rational, in accordance with the modal personality of society that anthropology delineates? An ethical argument concerning cultural norms (conformity as dictating ethics, which looks at the normal statistical curve for scientific and virtuous evidence) versus universal norms (e.g., human behavior as scientific evidence, not necessarily on a normal statistical curve when a culture is “sick”) would exemplify this issue concerning the person as politic, and even the varying ecological systems. Our decisions are not always our own, though we would like to think we have power over influence; sometimes societal influences overpower even the brightest of individuals, as evidenced by the changing laws, cultural mores, psychopathologies, and religious tolerances. That is what I want to think I have learned, but I doubt myself enough to wonder if I learned that correctly, or went off on a tangent… Again… Lol.


  6. drgeraldstein

    I am just beginning a book called, “The Moral of the Story,” which attempts to look at 15 broad issues that involve moral dilemmas. It does so by some limited commentary on each subject, as well as excerpts from literary works illustrating the ethical concerns in question. It is easy to go off on tangents since much of life as a lived experience doesn’t fit in individual boxes of single categories. The authors of this book, however, I believe take the best approach, which is to try as best they can to provide some boundaries for the consideration of each of these 15 areas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gaylelillianablakely

      That sounds like an interesting book! I am glad there is some rationale behind my tangent episodes. LOL. Life is interesting!


  7. My thought throughout this post is “why do people lie about it?” I don’t get what the big deal is and why people have to inflate the truth. It baffles my mind.


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