The exhausted Ben Affleck meme and the debate over how much sex is too much: Is four times a week normal?

Multiple studies show that the vast majority of couples have sex once a week, but measuring sex by quantity over quality is unhelpful

Comment: Karezza sex, which doesn’t seem to trigger the same cycle of neuroendocrine events as conventional, orgasmic sex, may permit lovers to make love more often without ill effects. Perhaps someday researchers will be able to compare the two.

People have a lot to say about JLo and Ben Affleck’s honeymoon pictures. A photo capturing Affleck’s nap during a cruise on the Seine went viral and became fodder for memes. Social media users, who can be as cruel as they are hilarious, concluded that the actor’s exhaustion could only be caused by one thing: his new wife’s sexual demands. An unconfirmed rumor—which tabloids continue to spread—claims that, in their prenuptial agreement, JLo made Affleck commit to having sex four times a week.

Thus, everyone has returned to asking whether having sex four times a week is normal. Since “normal” only exists from a statistical perspective, we should refer to the available data on the subject. There’s research, such as the study by psychologist Amy Muise, a professor at Canada’s York University, that indicates that it is ideal to have one sexual encounter per week for a happy relationship. Muise found that more frequent sex did not improve the quality of a couple’s relationship. Thus, the key is to have an active and regular sex life to maintain a quality bond, not to do it more or less than the neighbors. In this vein, a 2017 study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior concluded that the average adult has sex 54 times a year, precisely one sexual encounter a week.

However, when one delves into the analysis, the overall figures vary with differences by age and country. In 2012, the global Durex Report conducted by the Harris Interactive consulting firm revealed that 74% of Spaniards had sex at least once a week. Of the 26 countries studied, Spain placed eighth in terms of sexual frequency, tied with Switzerland. Greeks and Brazilians ranked highest at 87% and 82%, respectively. At the other extreme, only one in three Japanese reported having sex in the week prior to the survey, followed by Americans and Nigerians (both at 53%).

Returning to the JLo-Affleck marriage, it is worth noting that Americans’ sexual appetite seems to be fading in the new century. A report published in JAMA Network Open stated that between 2000 and 2018, almost one in three U.S. men aged 18 to 24 reported not engaging in sexual activity within the last year. Perhaps this was why Jennifer Lopez wanted some sexual security.

Pressure detracts from relationships

The problem with these surveys is that they don’t always reflect reality. To begin with, they only measure genital contact, when there’s much more to sexual intercourse. Moreover, consciously or unconsciously, people’s answers reflect the pressure to meet the ideal standards that we all seem to set for ourselves.

“General sex surveys in a country like ours are not very reliable…They tend to have the obvious bias of ‘social desirability,’ in which each person answers what he or she thinks they ‘should’ answer, or what the person asking the question wants to hear, and not the reality,” reflects sexologist Iván Rotella.

The underlying problem is the obsession with mixing numbers and sex by measuring penetrations (using the already-outdated heteronormative model) instead of thinking about the quality of relationships. “There’s no established or regulated frequency. There’s no rule about how our partner has to be. We can choose together what kind of partner we want to be, whether or not it resembles what other people or couples do,” Rotella says.

Sexologist Arola Poch agrees. “Measuring sex tends to be of little use…whether how often or the number of orgasms… it’s important that we are satisfied with our sex life; that usually has more to do with quality than with quantity.”

Planning the frequency of sex for life?

Another question to ask about JLo and Affleck’s case is whether it’s even possible to plan how often we’ll have sex for life, as if we—or life in general—will not change. “Plotting the frequency of sex ahead of time can become an obligation that ‘we must have sex 3 times a week.’ With sex, obligations and responsibilities don’t tend to go well. Setting the goal of not neglecting one’s sex life, giving it the importance it deserves, is something different…That could be interesting if we don’t want other obligations to get in the way,” reflects Poch.

Rotella notes that if measuring sex does not seem conducive to desire, enforcing it goes against having a healthy relationship. “You can’t force sexual relations. Even in the short term, accepting an imposition does not work, it only hurts the person who gives in, and it ends up damaging the relationship, too.”

Although these concepts seem basic, the issue of how often a couple has sex isn’t just a concern for celebrities, but also for the many couples who visit sexologists. As Rotella points out, “there is a perceived social pressure that the amount of intercourse is directly proportional to how well a couple is doing, and that’s not necessarily the case at all. Trying to fit into a single pre-established social model of a couple means having a relationship that doesn’t directly connect to the people [involved].”

That’s why Poch concludes that desire does not respond to contracts. “Sexual desire, a person’s circumstances and those of their partner, responsibilities, having children or not… There are many variables that influence how often [people have sex], and variation over time is normal. The opposite would be unusual.” So, it is natural to have stages of passion and pauses before meeting again in the nocturnal marathons that make us need a nap, even while cruising on the Seine.

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