Are my pals and I pathetic-or typical? To find out, Health polled readers online to find out just how much sex you're having, what you're doing, and how you feel about it. We also asked: 'Do you think other people are having more sex than you are?'
The responses shocked me. Many were filled with relief (you mean everyone thinks everyone else is having more sex?) or anguish (we used to go at it like crazed weasels; what happened?).
'We do it once a week, tops,' Carolyn says. (All women's names have been changed.) My friend Mae is also a once-a-weeker-so are my pals Isabel
and Bea. And they do indeed fit the statistical average, says Debby Herbenick, PhD, research scientist at Indiana University and author of Because It Feels Good. 'In our research, we've found that people are generally having sex one to two times a week in their 20s and 30s, five to six times a month in their 40s, and three to five times a month in their 50s,' she says. 'But that's an average. It means some people are doing it less than once a month and others do it every day.'
And some aren't doing it at all. 'We don't have sex!' my friend Sarah admits. 'Seriously. I think the last time was five months ago. It's shocking to me, but it's also shocking to me how OK I am about it.' She adds, 'I know we're not alone in this. Whenever I tell someone the truth, that we're practically celibate, I see their whole face light up.'
But does it have to be this way? 'Statistically, you're abnormal if you're having great sex,' says David Schnarch, PhD, author of Intimacy and Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship. 'But the question is: How do you stop being so normal?'
Houston, we may have a problem
'There are natural ebbs and flows to desire,' Herbenick says. 'There are times we want lots of sex and times we don't.' If you and your partner are both in a low phase, and neither of you is bothered by that, there's nothing to worry about. But are you sure the two of you are truly in sync? A disparity in desire levels does seem to be an issue in my friends' marriages. 'I have been known to fake being asleep to get out of sex,' Mae says. Carolyn takes the opposite tack: 'On occasion I've strategized an overlong nighttime beauty routine,' she says, 'hoping my husband will be unconscious by the time I slip under the duvet.'
Mae and Carolyn do still desire their husbands ... just not all the time. (In our Health.com poll, 21 percent of you said low libido was the main reason you don't have more sex.) But feeling no desire at all-for anyone! Not even in your fantasies! Not even for Alexander Skarsgard in True Blood!-could indicate a hormonal issue, depression, or anxiety. If that sounds like you, check in with your health-care provider.
Even if you're both fine with minimal schtupping, consider this: Doing it more could make you even happier. To say nothing of better connected. 'There's a series of hormones that are released during sex that literally, physiologically help bonding and connection,' says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years. 'Not having sex deprives you of that connection, which has evolutionary usefulness. If it didn't have usefulness, we'd be like other mammals and only have sex when we can get pregnant. Humans have sex all life long...and that's not by accident.'
Too tired to tango
Let's assume that you still love your husband, still find him cute, still want to do the deed. So why aren't you? Dollars to donuts you're exhausted. And again, you're hardly alone. The National Sleep Foundation's 2010 'Sleep in America' poll reported that many of us find our intimate or sexual relationships have been affected by our not getting enough sleep. Roughly one in five respondents indicated that sleepiness had a negative impact on their sexy time. And in our Health.com poll, 'too tired' was the number-one reason respondents gave for why they don't have more sex.
One possible factor: Now that so many of us are having children later in life, women in their late 30s and early 40s might just be more sleep-deprived than their counterparts of generations ago. But all is not lost! 'Delayed parenthood does put a damper on sex,' Herbenick says. 'But the upside is that we're also healthier than 40-year-olds of the past. That means we can continue to be sexual for a long time.'
Reassuringly, too, research finds that feelings of closeness can compensate for the lack of boots-knocking. A study of first-time parents found that when partners laughed and listened to each other, that good communication sparked more sensuality (think hugging and caressing), even though their booty-bumping plummeted.
Whether or not you're getting a decent amount of shut-eye, it can be hard to feel sexy if your waking hours are filled with work woes, family pressures, money worries, and a million other sources of stress. So perhaps it's not surprising that in our Health.com poll, 44 percent of you said a great massage would make you happier than great sex.
But rest assured, there are times when it's not only normal but healthy to not want frequent sex. 'If you're sleep-deprived, it's adaptive for your body not to be pursuing sex,' Herbenick says. 'If you or your partner is sick, your resources are better spent on going into the state of caring for yourself.'
The trick, of course, is not getting stuck in the no-sex habit. Once the worst of times has passed, make a concerted effort to reconnect; it can be as easy as making a once-a-week date, no technological devices allowed.
Several of my friends (and a whopping 43 percent of women in the Health.com poll) have gone so far as to put sex on their calendars. Their lives are just too packed for spur-of-the-moment passion, and when sex is right there in ink or pixels, they can be sure to make it happen. 'We look forward to it,' Irene says. 'And since we've made a date, we don't let ourselves get distracted by staring at the computer or TV, or by going to bed separately, which invariably leads to someone falling asleep before anything can happen.'
Too warm to be wild
Being together with a partner for awhile can be divine. You develop private jokes, an awareness of what the other likes, a history. The one thing you cannot have is newness. Without newness...well, I think Bea speaks for a lot of us: 'When we do have sex, it's low-key, comfortable, and comforting,' she says. It's nice. It's sweet. It's like a warm bath. But it is not thrilling.
'Familiarity and passion are opposed to one another,' my friend Carol Gould, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, points out. 'What fuels a good relationship-trust and safety-can douse passion, which thrives on unpredictability, mystery, and a tinge of danger.' Maybe that's why 40 percent of you in the Health.com poll described your current sex lives as 'comfortable.' (Seventeen percent said 'sweet,' and roughly 10 percent said 'boring.')
Even making an effort can seem daunting. Mae used to be a fan of sex toys, but as she and her husband got more and more comfortable with each other, the toys fell by the wayside. These days, anything more than a quickie feels innovative. 'I'm so not motivated to come up with the maid outfit or Ewok suit,' she sighs. (Note: There is no such thing as a woman's Ewok suit. I Googled.)
But again: This is not the end of the world. Schnarch says that it's natural for the rutting-like-bonobos stage we experience early in a relationship to end. We can't sustain that, and we're not designed to. The question is what we replace it with. 'People think good sex is swinging from chandeliers,' he says, 'but one of the most important things in a relationship is to have a sense of peace with each other. That's hard! It's easier to have orgasms!'
Maybe it isn't possible-or even desirable-to recapture the raw excitement of early courtship. That doesn't mean you have to settle for dullsville. There are simple strategies to infuse a sense of newness into your life and make both your relationship and your sex life more fulfilling-no fancy equipment or costumes required.
Too peeved to play pickle-tickle
In the middle of interviewing Schnarch, I found myself kvetching about my husband. He doesn't love to make out! I whined. I want to make out like a teenager! 'But you want him to want to, right?' Schnarch prompted. 'You don't want to feel like he's doing you a favor by kissing you.' Yes! Exactly! (This is why they pay Schnarch the big bucks.)
As it turns out, Schnarch says, a lot of people have submerged anger at their partners. Unequal division of household labor, rudeness to one's mother, too much time with the guys, not enough lip-locking...many of us hold quiet and not-so-quiet resentments. 'We're told our partner is supposed to be our primary source of security,' Schnarch says. 'But your partner is your main source of stress, followed only by your children.'
Schnarch suggests making a conscious effort to stop seething about your partner's motivations. Jonathan's not being malevolent by not making out with me; it's just not something he adores the way I do. So I can hang on to my annoyance, or I can choose to let go. 'You have to control your own anxiety and take care of your own heart,' Schnarch says. 'Self-respect is the best aphrodisiac there is.'
Actually, there is someone who is having way better sex than you
It's my friend Evie. 'We're having so much awesome sex I can't even believe it,' she told me as I willed myself not to pour my coffee in her lap. 'For the first time, my husband and I are being really honest about our fantasies. We've gone from having sex twice a month (and my pretending to be asleep quite often) to four or five times a week.'
Maybe that's the real dirty little secret about the sex we're not having. Maybe the reason we're so tired or stressed or finding an infinite number of other reasons for avoiding sex is that the sex just isn't that satisfying. Here's a thought: What if we put just a little bit of effort into making the sex we're already having better? We might find that we want to do it a little more, and then a little more...
And it's well worth the effort, says Jane Greer, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship: 'Don't think of it as a chore; think of it as something you do for yourself, something that's good for you on many levels,' she says. 'Sex brings you vitality-it makes you feel good about yourself, it strengthens your immune system, it helps you lose weight, and keeps you young.' And it makes you feel closer to your partner to boot. Who wouldn't want some of that?