How Much Does Sex Matter in a Relationship? We Asked 2 Couples and a Sex Therapist
Your immediate answer to this headlining question is probably “yes, ofc it matters”. But why does it matter so much? What does sex actually mean in a relationship, and why do we put so much pressure on it?
“The education we receive about sex (if we receive it at all) is often reproductive-focused and not pleasure-focused,” says Lovehoney Group Sex and Relationship Expert, Christine Rafe.
“When people use the word ‘sex’ they are often referring to penetrative sex only. It’s important to consider that sex encompasses so much more than just a penis in the vagina, and when I support clients in discovering and fostering sexual intimacy, it includes everything from flirting and discussing sex, sensual but non-genital physical touch, as well as genital sex (penetrative and non-penetrative).”
This speaks to a quite old-fashioned, historic and societal view of sex; that it’s there to serve a function. Back when people got married for mostly financial purposes, an important part of the ‘contract’ was to provide an heir; to carry on the family name. Therefore, sex was known as the function necessary to make that happen and much less about pleasure, that practicality.
Sex in a relationship back then, meant more chance of an heir; which was seen as successful. A lot of pressure was placed on the woman, to conceive a male child, and pleasure wasn’t really part of the conversation. Most of the language around sexual pleasure was found in extra-marital affairs; where sex and intimacy were at the forefront of the relationship. Affairs were for love, marriage was for business.
But it’s 2022, so these ideals really should hold any weight anymore. And although we now (mostly) marry for love and infidelity has kinda gone out of fashion; we still place a pretty huge amount of pressure on sex in a relationship.
“Speaking from a hetero-normative perspective, sex is one of the biggest things that differentiates our romantic relationships from the other relationships in our lives,” says 24-year-old Gen, who has been with her boyfriend for six years; since high school.
“So therefore we look to sex as an indicator of how that relationship’s going.
“At a really simplistic level I think we sometimes think; lots of sex = good romantic relationship, less sex = a bad romantic relationship and perhaps is closer to a friendship. I think this thought pattern is just due to the nature of us being humans who use logic to try to build points of reference in order to figure out where to place ourselves in the world.”
Gen has been with her boyfriend since they were both in year 12, at 17 and 18-years old. They’ve been together for six years, with four of those being long distance; as her boyfriend when to university in the US.
Having been together through some pretty developmental stages in their lives, Gen says that their sex and the way she views sex in a relationship has evolved with time.
“When I was younger and hadn’t been with anyone else, I felt this intense pressure to always look good “for” him during sex. I would take things and was just generally super concern with how I looked and what he was experiencing. None of that came from him, it was all an internal projection of what I felt my duty was in sex in a relationship, and I felt that since he was only in the country for a limited time, that I had to “perform” perfectly.”
Over time, as she started to communicated with her boyfriend more, Gen began to focus less on what she had learned to believe what being “good” at sex meant, and just focused on enjoying it.
“I was way too in my head,” she explains, saying that this mindset definitely played a part in the pressure she felt to having sex that was frequent and always “good”.
24-year-old Sam is currently in her first ever big relationship, her first love; and she echoes a similar sentiment.
“As a young female, I used to never prioritise my own sexual health, if anything, I always felt guilty if I put myself first,” she admits.
But in this relationship, not only has she fallen in love for the first time, but she’s had her first orgasm during sex; which has changed her whole perception of what it’s really like to experience sex both as a woman, and in a relationship.
“I think women put pressure on themselves to be having constant sex in a relationship because it’s been a societal expectation for so long. Men watch porn and consume entertainment which gives a complete false sense of reality, which is then put onto us on how we’re supposed to perform. And, if we don’t, you’re seen as not good in bed.”
But this expectation can change, when it comes to long-term relationships, Sam says. “I remember the turning point, when I told my boyfriend how important it was for me to enjoy sex too, and he completely understood the brief, which it has made our relationship (and sex) so much stronger.”
“We need to stick up for ourselves and define our boundaries, limitations and needs.”
So, When You Take the Pressure Off, Does Sex Matter Less?
“Relationships can be very intimate without sex, as intimacy encompasses more than just physical/sexual closeness,” says Christine Rafe. “In saying this, most people have some desire or interest in sexual intimacy as a component of their relationship.”
Considering there are many relationships where penetrative sex is not often, or ever possible in the traditional sense due to sexual orientation (i.e. there may not be someone in your relationship with a penetrating organ), disability, physical/emotional trauma etc., Rafe says that these relationships can develop in other ways. For example, different types of kissing, non-genital sensual touch, incorporating toys, sexual fantasy, non-penetrative genital activities etc… all count as a form of intimacy or sex.
“Most couples will want some type of sexually intimate relationship, even if infrequent or not including penetrative activities. I have worked with many couples who have developed highly sexually satisfying relationships with flirting, sensual touch, and pleasure-focused as opposed to genital-focused.”
Basically, intimacy can be whatever you want it to be. The actual “act” of sex, doesn’t look the same for everyone and therefore; doesn’t need to be the central focus when craving intimacy with a partner.
For Sam, the strength in her connection with her boyfriend, comes from a mutual understand of each other, their shared beliefs and interets. It’s an emotional connection, more than anything.
“There isn’t so much pressure to have such a strong sexual connection when the emotional one is so overpowering,” she explains. “Although, sometimes I do feel pressure to have to perform better or experiment sexually in my relationship, but I honestly think that is more societal expectations than my partner.”
Gen agrees. Her and her boyfriend are great communicators; “we wouldn’t have survived long distance without it!” She says.
“We both just have a deep desire to understand the other person and how they experience the world. So when it comes to sex, we try to have open conversations about what we need and also give insight as to why, to get that deeper level of understanding.
“Being in a long term relationship you need to navigate the balance of still wanting sex to have that fun, sexy element of mystery and unexpectedness, while also having this really deep connection with someone and sex also being a reflection of that.”
And although she does think that it’s totally normal to have periods of time where you’re having less or more sex, she does believe that overall, sex is important in their relationship; to stay connected.
“Sex provides a level of physical closeness that’s super important for a long-lasting relationship. Showing the person you love how attracted you are to them and having them show that back to you is powerful and vital for a long lasting relationship.”
Is it Normal For Some Couples to Have Less Sex Than Others?
Absolutely! Christine Rafe assures us.
“Every human is unique in all of their needs including social, cultural, relational, health, etc, and sexual intimacy is no different to this. In relationships where there are fewer sexual needs, this usually translates to less frequent and/or deprioritised sexual intimacy.
According to Rafe, the frequency and type of sex you have (whether solo sex or sex in relationships) is never an issue unless it feels like an issue to one or all people in that relationship. Some couples will have sex a few times a year and feel really satisfied and connected to their partner, while others may have sex weekly and feel that their needs are not being met.
“I always like to look at sexual intimacy from a quality-over-quantity approach, although this does go against the more common narrative of ‘how often’ or ‘how much’ sex people have. Sexual satisfaction is linked more to enjoying the sex that you are having, rather than how often you’re having any type of sex.”
It also depends on what sex means for you, both on a personal, individual level; and within your relationship with your partner.
In Sam’s relationship, sex means strong emotional connection and an expression of gratefulness.
“My boyfriend and I both have busy lives,” she says, “and sex is the time when we’re together with no distractions, just the two of us focused on each other. I definitely feel a big sense of connection to him after sex and, at-risk of sounding a bit cheesy — I do often catch myself feeling lucky for that time together.”
What About If You Want to Have More Sex?
Rafe’s overall key message, is that no matter how much or how little you want to have sex, you are okay! You are somewhere on the spectrum of desire, willingness, and interest in sex, and you have your own unique motivations for engaging in sexual intimacy (with yourself or others).
“I always get curious about the motivations for sex in relationships, and I do often hear people describe that they are motivated to have more sex because they believe the frequency of sex is linked to the health of the relationship, which is not the case.
“If sex matters to you in a relationship, it’s important to communicate this with your partner and focus on why it feels important to you, so you can use this as a framework for what you might be able to do to prioritise sexual intimacy.”
If one person’s interest in sex is misaligned with their partner, this can lead to relational concerns and is known as desire discrepancy. If this is the case in your relationship and it is impacting you and/or your partner, it would be worth seeking help from a professional who can support you in understanding your own, and your partner’s desires, motivations, and needs, and identifying ways you can work through it together.
*Due to the intimate of this topic the interviewees have requested to speak under pseudonyms, however they are known to POPSUGAR Australia.