women who are desperately seeking desire. Not that the problem is confined to New Agers: former U.S. Labor secretary Robert Reich jokes about the pressure couples are under in speeches he gives on overworked Americans. Have you heard of DINS? he asks his audience. It stands for dual income, no sex.
Marriage counselors can’t tell you how much sex you should be having, but most agree that you should be having some. Sex is only a small part of a good union, but happy marriages usually include it. Frequency of sex may be a measure of a marriage’s long-term health; if it suddenly starts to decline, it can be a leading indicator of deeper problems, just like “those delicate green frogs that let us know when we’re destroying the environment,” says psychologist John Gottman, who runs the Family Research Lab (dubbed the Love Lab) at the University of Washington. Marriage pros say intimacy is often the glue that holds a couple together over time. If either member of a couple is miserable with the amount of sex in a marriage, it can cause devastating problems—and, in some cases, divorce. It can affect moods and spill over into all aspects of life—relationships with other family members, even performance in the office.
Best-selling novels and prime-time sit—coms only reinforce the idea that we’re not having sex. In the opening pages of Allison Pearson’s portrait of a frazzled working mom, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” the novel’s heroine, Kate Reddy, carefully brushes each of her molars 20 times. She’s not fighting cavities. She’s stalling in the hopes that her husband will fall asleep and won’t try to have sex with her. (That way, she can skip a shower the next morning.) And what would Ray Romano joke about on his hit series “Everybody Loves Raymond” if he didn’t have to wheedle sex out of his TV wife? Romano, who has four kids, including 10-year-old twins, says his comedy is inspired by real life. “After kids, everything changes,” he told NEWSWEEK. “We’re having sex about every three months. If I have sex, I know my quarterly estimated taxes must be due. And if it’s oral sex, I know it’s time to renew my driver’s license.”
Yet some couples seem to accept that sexless marriage is as much a part of modern life as traffic and e-mail. It’s a given for Ann, a 39-year-old lawyer with two kids who lives in Brooklyn. When she and her husband were first married, they had sex almost every day. Now their 5-year-old daughter comes into their bedroom every night. Pretty soon, the dog starts whining to get on the bed, too. “At 3 or 4 a.m., I kick my husband out for snoring and he ends up sleeping in my daughter’s princess twin bed with the Tinkerbell night light blinking in his face,” she says. “So how are we supposed to have sex?”
The statistical evidence would seem to show everything is fine. Married couples say they have sex 68.5 times a year, or slightly more than once a week, according to a 2002 study by the highly respected National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and the NORC numbers haven’t changed much over the past 10 years. At least according to what people tell researchers, DINS are most likely an urban myth: working women appear to have sex just as often as their stay-at-home counterparts. And for what it’s worth, married people have 6.9 more sexual encounters a year than people who have never been married. After all, you can’t underestimate the value of having an (occasionally) willing partner conveniently located in bed next to you.
But any efforts to quantify our love lives must be taken with a shaker of salt. The problem, not surprisingly, is that people aren’t very candid about how often they have sex. Who wants to sound like a loser when he’s trying to make a contribution to social science? When pressed, nearly everyone defaults to a respectable “once or twice a week,” a benchmark that probably seeped into our collective consciousness with the 1953 Kinsey Report, a study that’s considered flawed because of its unrepresentative, volunteer sample.
“As a result, we have no idea what’s ‘normal’,” says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist and author of “Everything You Know About Love and Sex Is Wrong.” Her best guess: three times a week during the first year of marriage, much less over time. When people believe they have permission to complain, she says, they often admit to having sex less than once a month: “And these are couples who like each other!”