If you ask a random number of people how often couples have sex over the course of a month, you'll likely get different answers from most of them.
Each person's definition of "normal" for sexual frequency depends on several factors, such as their personal preferences for sex, libido, stress or illness, whether they have a regular partner and, most importantly, whether they enjoy sex.
Emme Witt, a sex expert, writer and dominatrix in Los Angeles, explained that when the question of sexual frequency comes up, people expect a specific magic number.
"Sexual desire fluctuates in human beings," she explained. "One couple may feel the need to have sex every night, while another is perfectly fine having sex once a month. There's no right number. There's only the number that's right for you."
If it's so subjective, can research account for how often couples have sex?
The average married American couple has sex about 54 times a year, or about once a week, according to a 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The study looked at survey data gathered from 26,620 people.
However, board-certified clinical sexologist and relationship therapist Debra Laino, Ph.D., clarified that statistics don't account for variables such as hormonal changes, health status, children and stress levels. In this way, research often comes up short.
"There really is no such thing as normal here," said Laino, who practices in Delaware.
She noted that the more important questions to ask include intention and motivation.
"If the reason someone wants more sex is that sex is the only thing that makes them feel better about themself, then there is a problem. Normal couples can have sex every day or once a month. If one partner wants sex more often than the other, there could be some issues there that need to be looked at, such as hormones," Laino said.
In fact, researchers may never find the true average amount of time people spend having sex. Laino named two additional components that statistics don't take into account: psychological and emotional issues around sex and sexual identity. Emotional issues can ebb and flow in a person's life, and sexual frequency is going to be one of the first tendencies affected.
What counts as sex?
In recent years, researchers and experts have put in enormous effort defining sex-related terms, Laino explained. Sex is not "one size fits all," meaning the way one couple explores pleasure may differ tremendously from the ways of other couples. For example, some people define sex as anything that causes sexual excitement, whereas others might be more specific.
"In the sexual and psychological sciences, sex does not have to be just penetration," Laino said. "A sexual experience—more aptly termed now—can be anything that provides sexual pleasure. It could be mutual masturbation, anal sex, oral sex, lying naked with one another and simply touching each other."
Witt agreed, offering multiple ways, such as foot rubs and bathing each other, for partners to explore sex and intimacy without penetration.
Then there are dry spells
There is no normal sexual frequency, but any dry spell that makes you worry about your relationship is cause for concern. It's common for couples to have periods of less sex, but certain cues may sound an alarm.
"A couple should worry about a dry spell when there is no communication about sex, excuses being made about not having sex, discord in the relationship or when one or both partners are under a lot of stress," Laino said.
A dry spell might not be a big deal if a couple can maintain an emotional connection, but "if a couple isn't connecting on that romantic level ever, I think that's a bad sign," Witt said.
Communication is a vital component in reinvigorating a sex life.
"People are often afraid to declare when sex has become stale or to simply acknowledge when it isn't happening," explained Tiffany Jones, L.P.C., a sex and relationships therapist with Thriveworks, based in Virginia.
Unconventional methods to increase sexual frequency
While scheduling sex may seem unsexy, it's a good strategy for couples with busy lives.
"Scheduling sex offers an opportunity to reestablish waning connections between partners during a dry spell and it can deepen a bond between couples who feel the need to liven things up," Jones said. "It can be extremely intoxicating once people recognize the powerful intention to prioritize this need."
It's also possible to make scheduled sex feel like less of a to-do list item.
"I tell my clients to schedule but call it 'scheduled spontaneity,'" Laino said. "For example, couples rotate initiation and they have a two- to three-hour window to plan something with the other. This way, it doesn't feel like it is scheduled."
Witt suggested that if one partner no longer wants sex in their relationship, exploring consensual nonmonogamy or an open relationship could be helpful.
Hearing from friends that they have more sex than you thought possible might spur pangs of panic concerning your own sex life. But experts are quick to emphasize that your own satisfaction and desire are most important.
Plus, having sex often does not equate to sexual satisfaction. A study published in 2016 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior indicated that sexual satisfaction is more about substance than frequency. The study concluded that satisfying sex lives and warm interpersonal climates matter more than a higher incidence of sexual intercourse.
Sexual satisfaction depends on whether you and your partner's desires are met, something that's highly variable from one person to the next and can shift over time.
"As a society, we should work towards letting go of this conceptual ideal of being sexual in a specific way, as it will only lead us to fail," Jones concluded.