First we have to understand the terms healthy and sex.
When teach my undergraduate-level course on Human Sexuality, I ask the students to anonymously write any question they want answered on a slip of paper. I tell them that, over the course, of the semester, I will try to answer all their questions.
A common question I receive is: “How many times a week is it healthy to have sex?” The answer depends on how one interprets the words “healthy” and “sex.”
By “healthy”does the person asking the question mean “normal”? Alternatively, perhaps the question concerns how many times a week one needs to have sex to reap the health benefits. On the flip side, maybe the concern underlying the question is how much is too much sex. Is there an unhealthy amount?
And what is meant by the term “sex?” In our culture, the term sex is often used synonymously with heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse, a cultural problem that I do a deep dive into (pun intended) in my new book, Becoming Cliterate—pointing out, for example, how such language privileges both heterosexual sex and male sexual pleasure, and how it both reflects and perpetuates the gendered orgasm gap between women and men.
Nevertheless, to answer this particular question, I tell my class that I am going to make the flawed assumption that the writer is defining sex the way our culture does, as heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse. So, here’s my answer.
First the statistics—the average based on surveys. In 2010, the largest nationally representative study on this (and other sexual topics) ever conducted (National Survey of Health and Health Related Behaviors) reported the following. When asked about the last year, among those in the 18 – 24 year old range:
11.8% of women and 4.2% of men had not had intercourse
14.7% of women and
12.5% of men had intercourse a few times a year to monthly
14.7% of women and 16.7% of men had intercourse a few times each month to weekly
35.3% of women and 45.8% of men had intercourese 2 – 3 times per week
23.5% of women and 20.8% of men has intercourse 4+ times per week
In other age ranges, these numbers were quite different. As just one example, in the 50 – 59 year old range, 1.1% of women and 1.1% of men had intercourse 4+ times per week. As you can see, there is quite a variety in how many times a week people have intercourse, and this varies by age and gender. There is no “normal” amount—just a percentage that gets the highest endorsement by age and gender.
Perhaps, however, the student asking this question didn’t want to know about the amount of intercourse that was “normal” or average. Maybe the inquiry pertained to how much intercourseI (and other sexual activity) a person has to have to reap the many health benefits of sex, something I devote an entire chapter to in my book, A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex. An excellent “White Paper” published by Planned Parenthood and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, also summarizes these studies, including one that could shed some light on this potential question. A study of over a hundred college students found that those who had sexual intercourse once or twice a week had 30% higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) than either those who were abstinent or those that had intercourse more often than twice a week. Since IgA is essential to the body’s immune response it seems that, at least according to this one small study, college students who want to reap the immune functioning benefits of intercourse should engage in the act once or twice a week.
But, wait. Maybe the student wanted to know about if a certain amount of intercourse was dangerous or unhealthy. Again, I told the students that there wasn’t a magic number, but that most therapists would say that if seeking out or having sexual activity starts interfering with daily activities (e.g., missing work, classes) then it’s a problem. Also, as many women know, too much intercourse can also cause soreness or UTIs, and certainly, continuing to engage in intercourse when in pain or when you already have a bladder infection is not a healthy behavior.
Perhaps you, like my students, are noticing that I am not giving a definitive answer—not only because “sex” and “healthy” can have many meanings but because if by healthy one means normal, there’s another problem. That is, we Americans have an obsession with what is normal. In fact, sex educator and columnist Yvonne Fulbright writes, “I’ve been answering people’s questions about sex and relationships for years, with the most popular question, by far: “Am I normal?” Another wise sex educator and therapist, Marty Klein, makes the same observation. In a profound essay, Klein labels this “Normality Anxiety” and tells readers to decide “that ‘normal’ is irrelevant” and to take control by deciding to “accept your sexuality on your own terms.”
So, what’s the most important answer to the common question of “how much sex is normal?” It’s to decide what amount is right for you.