The newest numbers are in and they’re not pretty. A study on relationships in America finds that one in five married people in America (20%) have not had sex in the last month, 12% in the last three months and 6% have not had sex in more than a year.
On average, married Americans reported having sex 1.2 times per week, or just about five times a month.
The Relationships in America survey by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture interviewed a representative sample of nearly 16,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 60, asking them about a number of attitudes and activities, including their sexual behavior.
The worrisome data, however, are not those showing absolute percentages, but those indicating a consistent negative trend in sexual activity among married people.
In the 20 years from 1994 to 2014, the percentage of married men who reported not having had sex in the last year nearly quadrupled, from 1.3% to 4.9%. Married women also reported a significant increase in sexual inactivity, with 6.5% reporting no sex in a year in 2014, up from 2.6% saying the same in 1994.
The General Social Survey (GSS) has been following sexual activity in America since 1989 and reports a slow but continuous trend towards sexual inactivity among married people. Since 1989, the portion of married people under age 60 who declare having sex less than once a month has increased by nearly half a percent each year, which represents an overall increase of 68% in the last 23 years.
The obvious question becomes: what is causing this increase in sexual inactivity among married people?
According to Denise A. Donnelly, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University and a leading researcher in sexless marriage, the rise may be due in part to greater openness as well as trends in marital stability.
“I suspect that we just hear more about it,” Donnelly said. “Back in the days before reliable birth control, having a sexless marriage was one way of limiting family size… Plus, unhappy couples (who are less likely to have sex) were more likely to stay together because of social expectations, or because they had children they were raising.”
Yet this hardly makes sense, given that the increase in divorce in the last 20 years would suggest that people are leaving sexless marriages, not entering into them.
The study actually showed the opposite. For most marriages there is a brief “honeymoon phase” where sexual activity is higher, followed by a sharp decrease after a few years. But not long afterward, sexual inactivity levels off or even trends downward. As length of marriage increases, the study found, sexual inactivity decreases.
So with the exception of the first few years, the longer a couple is married, the more likely they are to be sexually active, either because sexless marriages end, or because couples settle into a regular pattern of sex, or both.
A more convincing explanation for at least part of the rise in sexual inactivity would seem to be related to sexual behaviors, and in particular, the use of pornography. The report noted that the Journal of Sexual Medicine recently revealed that an increase in erectile dysfunction in younger men may be related to pornography usage.
The General Social Survey also shows a steady increase in the percentage of men in every age bracket who viewed pornography in the past year since the 1970s when the survey began. Though this correlation is not necessarily causal, it may be indicative of some relationship between increased pornography use and sexual inactivity.
Why does this matter?
Regular sexual activity in marriage is correlated to personal satisfaction, and both men and women report higher levels of overall relationship happiness when they have more sex. A 2007 Pew Survey found that a happy sexual relationship was the second most important predictor of marital satisfaction, after fidelity, with 70 percent of adults saying it was “very important” for a successful marriage.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome