Many couples seeking to reinforce their relationships may resolve to have more sex in the new year. However, does more sex really make partners happier? Is this belief held up equally among single, gender-fluid, gay, lesbian, and polyamorous folks?
Whose happiness matters during sex?
The assumption behind the oft-made resolution to have more intimate/erotic times with one’s partner assumes that upping sex will make a relationship stronger and bring about more happiness between two partners. While some studies do show a correlation between partners’ sexual habits and their happiness, the nature of these studies’ participants reveals an intrinsic bias. There is bias about what is a working definition of sex for each partner, who experiences pleasure in couples, and whether by “couple” they mean heterosexual couples. Then, the bias continues: which partner’s opinions on pleasure are more readily available through research studies in general?
A November 2015 study from the Social Psychology and Personality Science titled “Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better” points to the idea that more sex for heterosexual married couples tends to lead to more happiness for both people in the relationship. According to a press release from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the subjects “are most representative of married heterosexual couples or those in established relationships.” But does this type of claim take into account the different meanings of happiness for all genders?
In sex therapy, the experience of “happiness” can also have intersectionally different meanings. For a Black woman who may feel less-empowered in her relationship with a Latinx man, happiness may mean that she focuses more on her partner’s pleasure and less on her own, with the thought that this will protect their relationship from a non-consensual hookup or affair. However can she be keyed into her own sexual pleasure within a sexual encounter? For an Indian-American first generation man, penetrative sex in which both he and his wife, who is white & third generation, climax, may have him report feeling “happy” since they both have orgasmed, but may have a meaning that has more to do with his feel masterful and turned on because he’s proven himself “worthy” of her. Whereas his wife senses that he’s not fully present to his own experience and this leaves her feeling like the sex they’re having is more performative. Perhaps she feels like her orgasm is for him and less about what kind of sex she would rather be having.
Sexual Quality over Sexual Quantity
For those in consensually monogamous heterosexual relationships, more sex might be a good resolution; but some studies bring in the variable of affection to see if it changes the happiness quotient. In a March 2017 study published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers asked sixty couples to take notes on their phones about their sexual and non-sexual activities, and when they individually experienced affection.
The study found that sex created feelings of affection not just immediately after the sexual act, but hours later. This suggests that sex can be a means to an affectionate end. A clear takeaway from this study is the idea that sex with affection between sexually-exclusive consensually monogamous couples can be the glue that makes that particular type of relationship stronger.
This may seem like an obvious result. However, what clients report in the therapeutic space is that while some partners want more frequent sexual connection, the quality of the sexual experience helps to make them feel either closer to or more distant from their partner.
In fact, in another study researchers explored the hypothesis that more sex would enhance a couples happiness. They asked one group of heterosexual couples to double the amount of weekly intercourse sessions they normally would have. The findings surprisingly showed that partner did not report feeling happier. I have clinically found through clients’ reports in sex therapy treatment that if partners create more time and relaxation around a sex date they are more likely to feel more intimate. Bringing more intention to their sexual and emotional connection and staying embodied is more likely to be increase pleasure on all body/mind/spirit levels.
Communication and Sex Within the LGBTQ+ Community
There are many assumptions in the aforementioned March 2017 study published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin to the finding of sex as a reinforcer for a happy relationship between a committed couple: one needs to examine the meaning of the terms: “committed,” “happiness,” and “couple.” Largely, these terms belong to the world of consensually monogamous, sexually exclusive, heterosexual relationships. One needs to keep in mind that the sixty couples who were subjects were most likely to be married, heterosexual couples, and not representative of some parts of the population who don’t identify with one or all of these variables.
As a sex therapist who works with many types of couples, including LGBTQ+, consensually non-monogamous, kink-identified, in addition to sexually-exclusive heterosexual couples, I have found that the bonding or glue comes when there are two (or more) partners fully present in a sexual experience. When one partner is not fully present or is going through the motions, the experience of bonding may not be mutually enhancing.
When one partner is continually giving pleasure to another partner, they may not experience feeling as bonded. In addition, if one partner feels it is their duty or responsibility to have penetrative sex, it may actually alienate that partner from their own embodied pleasure. This is why I give many mindfulness-based exercises to clients so that they can check in with themselves to see whether they are turning themselves off, avoiding feeling excited or feeling distracted from the sensations and experience. These sexual encounters don’t always result in happier or more bonded couples.
The queer community might have higher rates of orgasm
A 2017 study from Archives of Sexual Behavior published by the NIH found that in heterosexual relationships, heterosexual men were most likely to say they usually-always orgasmed when sexually intimate (95%), while the women they were sleeping with reported the lowest likelihood, at 66%. The queer community had the higher reporting of orgasm, on average: gay men (89%), bisexual men (88%), lesbian women (86%), and bisexual women (66%).
In the clinical setting, LGBTQ+ clients tend to have a wider menu of sexual activities than heterosexually-identified clients. While it is not a requirement that all partners need to orgasm every time they have a sexual encounter, it is important that partners check in with one another on whether they’re satiated. It is part of my Sex Esteem®️ model as a sex therapist and coach to help clients expand their sexual menu to include many erotic and sexual experiences. Orgasms are an important menu item for all genders.
Another step in the Sex Esteem®️ model allows for each partner to communicate the array of options they would be open to explore with a partner, whether they are a longtime sexually exclusive partner, a longtime consensually non-monogamous partner, or a person they are dating or hooking up with.
For those seeking to make a New Year’s resolution for a current romantic relationship, be aware that the resolution to “have more sex” is riddled with preconceptions about happiness, sex, orientation, relationship status and identity. It would do one well to do a deep dive into how you feel about each of these topics’ meanings for yourself personally before diving under the covers with one’s longtime bae or a new partner. This type of inquiry and practice would be what I call a New Year’s Sexolution and would boost your Sex Esteem®️ intelligence.