How frequently should couples be having sex? Hint: It’s not the number that counts
Connection, safety, security, and being consciously attentive form the foundation upon which a healthy, pleasurable and satisfying sex life is built for long-lasting couples, says Dr Wasserman.
‘From an evolutionary point of view, people seek connection, we cannot live without connecting to other people, which is why we keep seeking out relationships. Sexuality is one part of a relationship which makes you feel connected; it binds, it makes you feel special, it makes you feel like this is something that ‘only you and I do and makes me feel that we are a partnership, that we’re a couple.’
“There’s an incredible glue that is created through sex. And of course, there are wonderful feelings of health and well-being when one is being regularly sexual; there’s a sense of exploration, pride and ability to just almost be different in the world, because there is a feeling of being desired, admired and acknowledged,” says Dr Marlene Wasserman, an author, clinical sexologist, couples and sex therapist with a doctorate in human sexuality, as well as a trauma therapist specialising in intimacy trauma.
She is also the woman behind Dr Eve, a brand and persona she established nearly three decades ago, which has become familiar to many South Africans through her sexuality focused talk show and weekly radio and television interviews over the past 29 years.
Sex frequency anxiety among couples
“It’s not just about having sex, it’s about having sex that’s satisfactory, consensual and really pleasurable,” says Wasserman. Among the many questions she gets, the frequency of sex in relationships often comes up. “It’s a big thing, always, because as people we tend to want to normalise ourselves, we want to feel that we’re okay; and unfortunately frequency is the barometer society uses to measure satisfying sex.”
She is reluctant to prescribe the amount of sex couples should be having, noting that it would be dependent on a number of variables, including age, health, the state of the relationship, childhood trauma or once-off event traumas such as rape or a car accident, and even other concerns such as financial well-being. She adds that there is also likely to be desire discrepancy, where one person desires sexual intimacy more than the other, and that too might affect frequency. It is also not necessarily consistent – couples could be having sex 10 times in a month, and then go through periods where they are not having sex for weeks. “What is normal is what feels positive and flexible, what makes the couple really happy, as well as the feeling of safety and security.”
Wasserman also notes that as a relationship evolves, frequency is likely to drop in part because of familiarity, as well as additional responsibility: “As people get into their thirties, they have more responsibilities. You might have children, or be really focused on building a career, and a lot of resources go into that.
“There are also big changes that happen as one gets older, our bodies change, be it physical and mobility changes, or chemical and hormonal changes; women go through menopause and some men go through andropause.”
That said, this needn’t result in a permanent reduction in the amount of sex couples enjoy, as it can lead to a different and even more exciting sexual life.
Says Wasserman: “As one gets older, women tend to become more comfortable in their bodies; there can be a greater sense of exploration, and they seek out novelty. Men too. For couples who have grown-up children, they don’t have to take the same amount of full responsibility for them. So it can be an incredibly exciting time for couples to enjoy their sexuality.”
Scheduling time for intimacy
A quick Google search will immediately reveal a lack of consensus around the idea of scheduling times for regular sex, be it once, twice a week or more. Wasserman advises against thinking of a sex schedule as a one-size-fits-all solution for couples looking to maintain an active sex life. It can work for some, but not so well for others, she says.
“Some people like to have schedules, where they know that sex is kind of part of their routine. Some, especially [but not limited to] those who have suffered from abuse, might prefer scheduling, to be able to prepare themselves mentally and physically to get into a sexual space. Meanwhile, other people might feel pressured by scheduling, like, ‘oh my goodness, what happens if I’m not in the mood and now I’ve got this commitment?’ And that can result in very unsatisfying sex, duty sex, because the person isn’t really present, they don’t really want to be there,” says Wasserman.
She emphasises the importance of couples being “connected”, and making sure their relationship is a safe and secure space to be able to negotiate sexuality.
Rather than using terms such as “working” on a relationship, or emphasising the importance of “communication” between couples, she prefers to “refer to it as a conscious relationship, the kind where you really consciously attend to your relationship as a part of your life. It’s conscious attention in a really positive way, where you really spend time prioritising your partner and letting them know that you’re consciously present with each other all the time; and it’s in the small gestures.
“Couples often come into therapy saying that they have a communication problem. And I usually say let’s throw that out the window, because it’s not about communication, people say words all the time. They have a connection problem. So we spend a lot of time in therapy, in silence, using bodies to connect, to be able to let people know that ‘I see you’. Because even if you’re talking to each other, but you’re not looking at each other, or you’ve got your back turned or in different rooms, or you’re looking at your phone; there’s no connection. So it’s about connection and consciously attending to your relationship, and that’s when sexuality also naturally happens. It has enormous benefits.”
Rather than strictly looking to scheduling sex, it is also that connection and conscious attention, she says, which puts couples in a position that is safe and secure enough to allow them to negotiate their sexual experiences and find that rapport.
“One might say to their partner, ‘I really feel like I want to be inside of you tonight’, and their partner might reply: ‘I’m not really up for that, what I could do is lie next to you and masturbate you or watch porn with you while you masturbate’. It’s a negotiation, if a couple feel safe and secure with each other.”
A big part of the work she does, she emphasises, is about getting couples to a place where they feel safe and secure with each other through various means, so that they can get to a place where they feel completely free to say what they want, under any circumstances. “They don’t need me to be sexual. People these days do [all sorts of sexual activities]. They don’t need me for that. They need me to help them to be able to know how to feel safe and secure and connect with each other. If you generally don’t have a voice in your relationship, you’re never going to be able to feel free or comfortable to be in that real intimacy of nakedness and be able to say what you want. So the attention has to be on ‘how do we form a safe and secure relationship?’” she explains, and adds that it is important to note that if there has been childhood trauma, connecting intimately is particularly challenging.
Sex toys, pornography and pushing sexual boundaries
“I don’t like to put pressure on couples to say, this is right, or this is wrong,” says Wasserman. If a couple loves their sexual life and finds it pleasurable and satisfying, “then wonderful.” However, she explains that if a couple wants to, the use of sex toys can bring new exciting experiences.
“It’s a bit like saying, ‘oh we always go to Umhlanga for a holiday, why don’t we try Cape Town this time?’ It’s a similar thing when you introduce a sex toy. It can be incredibly exciting and incredibly scary as well,” she says.
Some partners, especially men in heterosexual relationships, express concerns that their partner might enjoy the sex toy more than sex with them, or have anxiety about penis size in comparison with the sex toy, “‘and now she doesn’t need me because she can have orgasms on her own’. All those myths come in, whereas if you’re going to be using it as a couple, you’re likely to feel proud of yourself that you’re actually [exploring together], and that’s a very wonderful feeling of sharing something together, something that’s ‘always been taboo for us’. And that brings in more intimacy and a sense of pride,” she says.
Wasserman further explains that our brains also seek out novelty, and when couples have been together for a long time, they establish a rhythm: “There’s a familiarity, you keep doing the same thing and it gets predictable, ‘If I touch you there, or if I suck there, I know I’m gonna get a response, and it’s gonna feel nice and it’s good enough’.
“But the minute you introduce a novel and new element, there’s sudden interest, there’s excitement. You’re doing something together; there is a sense of mutual adventure. So it’s a very exciting thing, even if you’re a couple just using lubricant for the first time, or wearing a cockring for the first time. That can be really beautiful and exciting; it’s like expanding your boundaries. And you feel connected. It’s about creating more intimacy and connection, because that is what people really long for, and sex toys definitely do that.”
Here too, when it comes to sex toys or pushing boundaries in other ways, she emphasises the importance of being in a safe and secure relationship.
“The first thing is always about the risk factor, especially in our country. How safe are you in the relationship with this person? Are they going to blackmail or humiliate me or talk about me? Some heterosexual men might worry that they would be undermined if they make a request for anal touching, or anal sex or perhaps they want to be tied up or whipped. It takes a huge amount of courage to be able to really express what one wants sexually. So the first thing I’m always going to want to check out is safety for you to actually express what your true sexual desires are. You cannot just jump into it if you know that you’re in a relationship where there is potential for rage, violence, abuse, humiliation, too much familial involvement, and a number of other factors,” she explains.
The impact of trauma on sexuality
It was well more than two decades into her professional practice that Wasserman began her studies in the field of trauma, and in 2021, completed a post-graduate certificate in trauma stress with the Trauma Research Foundation in the US.
“The reason was that I realised that I was not quite able to really help some of the couples and individuals I was working with, who had incredible intimacy difficulties, sexual difficulties, connection and relationship difficulties, and mostly suffered with infidelity, specifically cyber infidelity.
“Through my work with trauma I began to see and work very differently with people, and know what we do know, which is that the majority of people in our country suffer from what’s called collective trauma, as a result of apartheid, violence and the politics. Many people throughout the world, as well as in our country, also suffer from developmental trauma disorder and childhood traumas, and that impacts significantly on one’s sexuality,” she explains.
Hence, she describes a branch of her practice as intimacy trauma therapy, working directly through a trauma-informed lens. She explains that sometimes patients will come to her with a variety of issues, including but not limited to drug addiction, “what they call porn addiction”, alcoholism, cheating, or incredible conflict in their relationship.
After doing certain tests and exploring their trauma history, she is able to see if their behaviour is due to a particular experience of trauma. Through this form of therapy they are able to understand that their behaviour does not necessarily define them, “and there’s an enormous sense of relief, that actually they’re not a bad person. They’re doing what they’re doing due to trauma,” she explains, adding that trauma is a significant inhibiting factor and an important part people’s sexuality.
“Forty-three percent of women have low sexual desire, for example, and if you’re just going to treat it as a sexual problem, medicalise it and find a pill, you’re never going to really get to the problem. You might find that, actually, she was sexually abused or neglected as a child, or had a lot of violence in her life. The impact of that on her might present as a sexual problem. So one has to really be very serious about sexuality, and how not to judge it, to be able to get people to optimise on what there is. And as I’ve said, as one gets older, there’s this wonderful opportunity, because of the freedom and the comfortability, that one can develop really extraordinary intimacy and attachment to people,” says Wasserman.
Even when trauma is not necessarily rooted in childhood, it is a well-known fact that South Africa has very high levels of gender-based violence, which adds to traumatic experiences women are exposed to.
On her Dr Eve Instagram account, Wasserman is currently running a campaign for August, where women get to anonymously share stories about consent, as well as pleasure. “You read women’s stories of absolute suffering and pain, and pleasure, that happened to them in an intimate space. Be it on my radio show or in therapy, I work with many women who still believe that they have to surrender to sex with their husbands because that’s what wives do. Is that consent? Why should women, or men, surrender to sex that doesn’t satisfy them?” she says. DM/ML
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