Here’s How Much Sex (and What Kind) Everybody Is Having

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Illustration by Jim Cooke

Illustration by Jim Cooke
Illustration: Jim Cooke

Take a minute to think about when you had sex for the first time, how much sex you have, and whether you think other people are doing it more or less than you. If this thought experiment makes you feel embarrassed about how much or how little you’re doing it, relax. Chances are, you’re more normal than you think.

First of all, before you start to feel self conscious, however much sex you have is fine. We’re not here to judge. And to the young folks reading this: You’re not a bad person if you’ve done it already, and you’re not a prude or somehow cursed if you keep your pants on until another stage in your life. We’re about to see that there’s a huge range in what’s normal.

That said, if you’re having a lot of unprotected sex and you’re at risk of STDs or pregnancy, then the issue is the lack of protection, not the amount of sex. And if you’re not happy with the relationship you’re in, the amount of sex you’re having might be a factor, but don’t judge yourself (or your partner) based solely on that one thing. You need to look at that relationship in a big-picture way. Are you happy? Why or why not?

Where does this data come from?

Anyway. Back to comparing ourselves to others. This is tricky to do, because you can ask people in surveys, but how do you know they’re telling the truth? One of our best sources of information is the National Survey of Family Growth, administered by the U.S. government’s National Center for Health Statistics to get a handle on all kinds of issues related to sex and reproductive health. They divide up the country into units based on census blocks, choose households within those blocks, and interview one person from each household (so long as they are between the ages of 15 and 44 and agree to be interviewed), and ask them tons of personal questions.

You can see the questionnaire here. A survey worker comes to the person’s house and asks them questions for the first part of the interview; then they hand over their laptop and leave the room while the respondent answers all the personal questions. Those include when they first started having sex, whether they’ve been raped, how many pregnancies they’ve really had, and more. These answers will never be read by a human; the computer locks them away so the interviewer can’t see. This is where we get the answers to the first few questions we’re asking today.

The most recent data available is from the 2017-2019 version of the survey, which means it hasn’t yet captured the ways our sex lives may have changed during the pandemic—but more on that in a bit.

When do people start having sex?

A previous version of this survey found that about half of us have had sex (penis in vagina sex, specifically) by age 17 or so. The most recent data is consistent with that, but the CDC breaks down the numbers into two groups, 15-to-17-year-olds and 18-to-19-year-olds

Image for article titled Here’s How Much Sex (and What Kind) Everybody Is Having

Screenshot: CDC

In the younger group, 27.6% of girls and 23.3% of boys have had sex. Among 18- and 19-year-olds, those numbers are up to 61.4% and 62.7%. That means if you lost your virginity in your teens, you’re in good company; but if you didn’t, almost 30 percent of Americans are right there with you.

How many sex partners do adults have?

Now let’s look at adults. What’s a normal number of sexual partners to have in your lifetime?

The average number of lifetime opposite-sex partners is 4.3 for women and 6.3 for men, and this question was asked of people aged 25 to 44. Don’t read too much into those exact numbers, though, since most people have slept with more people by age 44 than they had at age 25. With that caveat, here’s the data:

Image for article titled Here’s How Much Sex (and What Kind) Everybody Is Having

Screenshot: CDC

So even though the average number of opposite-sex partners is around four to six, more than a quarter of men have had 15 or more partners, and so have almost 13% of women. Meanwhile, on the other end of the chart, 17.7% of women and 11.2% of men have only had one partner. Also note that this chart doesn’t tell us how many people have never had any sexual partners, since the question was only asked of people with sexual experience.

We have to look back to a previous edition of the survey to get more detailed data. Here are the numbers from the 2013-2015 survey question about how many partners people had in the previous 12 months:

  • No recent sex partners: 7%
  • Any number of same-sex partners: 5% of men, 11% of women
  • One opposite-sex partner (and no same-sex partners): 73%
  • Multiple opposite-sex partners (and no same-sex partners): 14% of men, 6% of women

There wasn’t a direct question for people who had both opposite and same sex partners, but about 2 percent didn’t answer yes to any of the above.

How often do people have sex?

According to another survey, the General Social Survey, there’s no overwhelmingly “normal” amount of sex to have on a regular basis. Here’s the breakdown, as percentages of people who answered the question with a number (leaving off those who didn’t answer or weren’t sure):

  • No sex in the past year: 16%
  • Once a month: 19%
  • Two to three times a month: 23%
  • Once a week: 19%
  • Two to three times a week: 18%
  • More than three times a week: 6%

Frequency of sex changes over a person’s lifetime. As we saw, teenagers and young adults aren’t all having sex, but once they reach their twenties and thirties, they do it plenty.

Despite a lot of buzz about “hookup culture,” young people in 2004-2012 didn’t have any more sex than their counterparts in 1988-1996. They were, however, less likely to be in a steady relationship with the people they slept with.

In old age, people have less sex. Some of this is because older people lose their partners and don’t necessarily start dating again. But being in poor health, or on certain medications, can also make people less interested in sex. Here’s how a Journals of Gerontology study summarized the situation in 2011, using data from two other surveys, the National Health and Social Life Survey and the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project.

Age 44-59:

  • Sexually active: men, 88%; women, 72%.
  • Sex per month (if more than zero): men, 7 times; women, 6.5 times.

Age 57-72:

  • Sexually active: men, 72%; women, 45%.
  • Sex per month (if more than zero): men, 4.3 times; women, 3.8 times.

What kind of sex are people having?

So what are people getting up to when they get together? These numbers are from people aged 15 to 44:

  • Any sex with a same-sex partner: 20.8% of women, 7.3% of men.
  • Oral sex with an opposite-sex partner: 82.2% of women, 82.7% of men.
  • Anal sex with an opposite-sex partner: 5.1% of women, 38.1% of men. However, the 2015-2017 data had women at 32.6%, so I have to wonder if this is an error (I’ve reached out to the CDC to ask, and will update with their reply).

For a different way of looking at the question, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior asked people what sex acts they had done in the past month, past year, and ever in their lifetime. This study was done over the internet, but they selected a sample before approaching anybody with the link to the study. (That makes this different than lazy internet polls where you never know who’s clicking through.) Here’s a summary of the “what did you do in the last 12 months” question, from the 2018 survey. These are adults aged 18 to 49, not separated by gender:

  • Masturbated alone: 72.5%
  • Masturbated with a partner: 33.8%
  • Gave oral: 60.4%
  • Received oral: 62.2%
  • Penile-vaginal intercourse: 71.9%
  • Anal intercourse: 17.8%

For any of these acts, there are plenty of people who do the thing and plenty who don’t do the thing; so no shame in being in either category.

How do we know if people are telling the truth?

You would probably reveal different things about your sexual history to a close friend than a casual one. You might be more willing to be honest on an anonymous web survey—but then again, you might also be more likely to make shit up for fun.

The National Survey of Family Growth is clever with their confidential self-surveying portion, but a British study found that people were more likely to admit to certain things—large numbers of sexual partners, use of drugs—on a web survey than on a survey done privately on an interviewer’s laptop. So we still don’t know what’s most accurate, but if people are lying on these surveys, it’s going to be difficult to find a more accurate source of information.

I ended up searching for a lot of sex-related statistics as I researched this piece, and discovered something unsettling about the results. When I looked for information about how often people have sex, I found plenty of articles assuming I wanted to know how often people should have sex.

You should have sex whenever you please. There’s no shame in doing it a lot or a little! People in unhappy relationships are more likely to have sex less than once a week; but among happy couples, more sex won’t make you happier. And if you’re having sex less often but you’re totally fine with it, that’s between you and your partner(s)—it’s none of anybody else’s business.

How the pandemic has affected our sex lives

The surveys I’ve cited here were all conducted before the pandemic, so they don’t account for any of the ways our lives have changed in the last two years. On the one hand, we have to be more cautious about where and how we find partners; on the other hand, if you already have one, why not stay home and stay in bed?

A survey by the Kinsey Institute, done with the help of Cosmopolitan and Esquire, found that people seem to be less interested in casual hookups these days, yet more interested in expanding their horizons when they do have sex.

So now, we ask you: How has your sex life changed over the past few years? Are you doing it more, less, or differently?

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