Why sex once a week is good enough

·7-min read
Naked back with hands on it
Naked back with hands on it

I have a female friend, who although the soul of tact and kindness in other ways, will persist in telling me she makes love with her husband every day.

Sometimes they’re so frisky, she adds with a misty look in her eyes, they notch up two bouts over 24 hours. The fact they’ve been together for several decades and have a clutch of children makes this news even more galling. It reminds me of the over-achieving classmate who would run up to the invigilator during exams to get extra paper, while I was struggling to fill one sheet.

The intention may not be to make you feel tragic and inadequate, but that’s the inevitable result. Most couples find it hard to maintain the sexual vigour and frequency of the early electric years of passion, so are fascinated, jealous and suspicious of those who proclaim they do.

It’s relatively easy to cope with a neighbour having a flashier car than we do, or even a bigger salary, but somehow intolerable to gather that they’re having far more sex.

So it’s comforting to learn, courtesy of research from the University of Toronto-Mississauga, that the optimum amount of sexual intercourse for true contentment is rather less than the proselytisers for red hot sex (i.e. Cosmo, lads’ mags, Dr Ruth, Russell Brand and the bearded man from the Joy of Sex) would have us believe.

Still from the TV show Sex and the City
Still from the TV show Sex and the City

Indeed, the best evidence seems to suggest the ideal frequency is a relatively modest once a week. This, apparently, holds true, whether you be sixty or twenty-six, gay or straight. The researchers polled 30,000 Americans over more than 30 years before arriving at their conclusion.

The most fascinating part of the study is the finding that if couples make love more than this weekly benchmark, there’s no statistical increase in their measurable levels of happiness. However, if they have sex than once a week they may well find their levels of happiness decrease – and the lower the frequency, the more often they’re likely to feel discontented. This is startlingly akin to the research that says £40,000 is the optimal salary for delivering a sense of wellbeing to your average human being in the Western world.

If a person earns less than that figure they may well feel discontented (or even abjectly miserable), but if they earn more than that sum, there’s no commensurate rise in satisfaction.Interestingly, the two matters – sex and money – appear to be closely related.

When the findings of the last National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle (Natsal) was published in 2013, Professor Kaye Wellings, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the recession may have had an effect on sexual performance: “There’s a strong relationship between unemployment and low sexual function, according to the literature… That is to do with low self-esteem, depression.”All this research makes perfect sense to me, suggesting, as it does, that it’s quality – not quantity – of coitus that is truly important for erotic contentment.

I once worked with a woman who had devised a three-times-a-week sex pact with her long-term boyfriend, only to find it wasn’t compatible with long office hours, an Open University Course, a puppy and an equally stressed partner.

She told me they were “shoe-horning” sex into their weekday schedule, when it would be preferable to spend all of Sunday in bed. And all this angst was before she had a baby. Children, notoriously, wreak even greater havoc with their parents’ romantic lives. If you haven’t got time to brush your hair or wipe banana puree off your jumper, you won’t find much space to canoodle with your baby-daddy.

If, on top of that, you’re given unrealistic targets for connubial intimacy, you will only feel more stressed, less sexy – and more of a failure.Once weekly, by contrast, feels sensible and achievable. It’s like squeezing in a Salsa class, or the Archers’ Sunday omnibus. It doesn’t involve swaggering to the neighbours or your friends about your stamina, nor will it give you a cardiac. The psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose, author of No More Silly Love Songs , says sagely: “When something is in short supply it becomes more precious. Once a week sounds like a halfway point between not enough and too much.

It’s desire-inducingly scarce, without being icy and passionless - or perhaps worse, dully repetitive. It gives you a bit of time to forget in between. Forgetfulness is key to a good relationship!”There was some consternation when the most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal 2010-12) reported that the average sexually active Briton was having rather less coitus than they were the previous decade. At the turn of the Millennium, erotically-inclined Brits aged 16-44 were putting it about around 6.2 times a month, but that then fell over ten years to approximately five times a month.

"It’s when sexual activity declines to once every two or three months that the sexperts agree a true problem has been flagged up"

Cue national fretting about whether we were all taking our iPads to the bedroom, rather than our spouses and lovers. But if you look at the figures in the light of this new research, five amorous bouts a month is near enough the precise figure for widespread wellbeing.When I discuss the “frequency” issue with friends, they tend to feel the social scientists have assessed the matter correctly. One female novelist told me, “Good sex kept me in a bad marriage. And bad sex or infrequent sex have doomed otherwise positive relationships. By infrequent, I mean less than once a week. An absence is unthinkable. That’s not a marriage, that’s a flatmate.”

Sex therapists would generally give the matter a little more leeway. They don’t tend to categorise relationships as sexually dysfunctional until the gaps between lovemaking are considerably bigger. Indeed, couples’ counsellor and author Andrew G Marshall has said, “In my therapy room, I put out the bunting if couples are having sex twice a week, and the once-a-week Saturday night or Sunday morning sex is more common than you’d think.”

It’s when sexual activity declines to once every two or three months that the sexperts agree a true problem has been flagged up – and only then if one, or both, partners find they’re dissatisfied. After all, there are certain times in life when you have to allow some slack - and even flannelette pyamas.

The writer Hilary Freeman, who had her first child earlier this year, speaks for most new mums when she says, “At the moment I am so exhausted that having sex is the last thing on my mind.” She continues about sexual frequency in general: “It depends on so many factors - time, health, mental health, how long you’ve been together. And it varies with different partners too. I guess having sex once a week is enough to keep the chemistry pumping and keep you close, without making too many demands on you. But if you start to routinely have sex once a week, like any routine it becomes unexciting and feels like a chore.

Spontaneity is always better.”Of course, disagreements between husbands and wives about what amount of sex constitutes a healthy love-life are all too common. Woody Allen included the following delicious gag in Annie Hall, when Hall (Diane Keaton) and Alvy Singer (Allen) are seen consulting two separate therapists on a split screen. Singer’s shrink asked, “How often do you sleep together?” and Singer replies, lamenting, “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” Hall’s therapist asks the same question, to which she replies crossly, “Constantly. I’d say three times a week.”

But while one person’s amorous plenty may always be another’s famine, at least most equable souls seem to agree that a weekly dose of sex will keep the wheels of the marital charabanc rolling cheerfully along.