This post was updated in January 2021, it was originally published in February 2015.
With Valentine’s Day (and—ahem—the accompanying movie release of Fifty Shades of Grey) soon approaching, I think it’s safe to assume that many of us might have a little more on our minds than romance this week. Yes, ladies, I’m talkin’ about those three little letters that can often be a source of awkwardness for many moms: S-E-X.
(A note to my own mom: Please stop reading this post right now, mmmkay? Thanks!)
We at Alamo City Moms recognize the crucial role sex plays in our relationships. We’ve talked with many moms and asked them to submit their best “in the bedroom” questions, which we will address in our two-part “Ask the Sexpert” series.
Our resident “sexpert” (and ACM Managing Director) is Dr. Erin Ross, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in sex therapy. In addition to holding board positions with several organizations in the field, as well as serving as an elected officer of the San Antonio Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, Erin enjoys working with individuals, couples, and families struggling with communication problems, sex/gender and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, marital conflict, general relationship enhancement, and family adjustment/transitions. Erin is not currently seeing patients.
I’m super grateful that she agreed to help me out with this post, because I truly believe that sex is such an important topic—and yet one that many women are too shy/embarrassed/etc. to openly discuss. I hope that Erin’s responses can help shed light on questions many of us may have but perhaps have never felt comfortable enough to ask.
Today’s “Ask the Sexpert” post focuses on questions with concrete, factual answers. Stay tuned later this week to read Erin’s responses to our advice-related questions.[hr]
1). How often do most people have sex (in terms of average times per week)? What is the average amount of time that people spend having it (e.g., break it down in terms of foreplay, intercourse, etc.)?
Let’s focus on the statistics involving what I assume is the majority of ACMB blog readers, which includes married women between the ages of 30–39. The mode is 46.6% reporting sex a few times a month to once a week (Kinsey Institute, 2014). However, 20% on either side of that percentage report a few times per year to two to three times per week. Only 5.1% in this age group report having sexual intercourse more than four times per week. See? It depends…on many factors, actually. Frequency depends on environment, physical ability, sexual desire, and partner interest. Therefore, if you are seeking a statistic to judge yourself and your relationship against, don’t. We spend enough time beating ourselves up about other things.
When clients walk into my office worried about their sex life because their friends all promise they have sex every night with candles and music, etc., I stop them right there. First, their friends are more than likely NOT having that much sex, especially when young children are a factor. (Remember those statistics?) Second, if YOU and your partner are happy with your frequency of sex, leave it alone. If you’re not, figure out what number works for both of you and then go from there. No perceived problem with frequency means no problem. Period.
The average amount of time that people spend having sex is shorter than most people assume. Ejaculation occurring after two minutes is considered an average time for heterosexual intercourse. Anything less may be considered premature (or early) ejaculation. However, couples have reported preferring a sexual experience lasting five to seven minutes. (There goes your excuse of not having enough time for sex!) But, truthfully, sexual intercourse does not take as long as the perceived sexual experience—which often includes foreplay and post-play. (Yes, post-play is real and involves anything to keep the sexual climate up after ejaculation: cuddling, tickling, kissing, etc.).
Duration of heterosexual intercourse is defined as the time between vaginal penetration and male ejaculation. Therefore, the duration of intercourse is primarily seen as male partner-dependent. It depends on penis size, ethnicity, age, and circumcision. So, while foreplay is not considered in the above statistic, make no mistake: it can play a major role in the perceived success of intercourse.
2). What are the benefits of role-play? Why do people do it? Does it help, and if so, how?
First, role-play works for some and not others. However, if it is safe for and of interest to BOTH partners, it’s worth a try. I have found it often serves to enhance a sexual experience when BOTH partners are into it. Notice the emphasis, yet? It doesn’t work if you are merely doing it to satisfy your partner, because it can actually take away from the sexual experience if it diminishes desire.
People often engage in role-play because it takes them to another place and combines two things that are mean to be fun: sex and pretend play. Perhaps a fantasy acted out, role-play often includes imagining to be someone or something you are not in “real life.” There is something attractive to humans about being someone new or experiencing things you would not normally do. You can be in a room with Christian Grey or simply pretend to meet your partner at a bar using different names (Claire and Phil did this hilariously on an episode of Modern Family). It’s meant to be fun, flirty, and can quickly become a regular part of your sexual repertoire if it works…for BOTH of you.
3). Do men’s fantasies differ from women’s? Is it OK to fantasize about someone other than your spouse? What about while in the act?
Statistics show that men and women do have different types of fantasies, use them differently, and feel differently about sharing them with a spouse. However, the percentage of men and women reporting the use of fantasies during sex is similar. The majority of people report having them, regardless of sex or gender. However, men are more likely to fantasize about cheating or having sex with other partners. Women are more likely to fantasize about being dominated, even including forced sex. A mere 30 years ago, women were thought to not have fantasies at all, let alone fantasies such as those mentioned above.
What is important to know about fantasies is that they are just that. Fantasizing about someone or something does not mean you want it to come true, nor does it mean you or your partner will act on it. Fantasies are fun games our (very powerful) minds play during sex and other sexually charging moments. You can easily have a sexual fantasy while sitting at your desk or driving the kids home from school. Not only is this “normal,” it can be healthy.
Is it OK to fantasize during sex with your partner? Of course! Some people even share their fantasies while they are having them. Obviously, be careful with this, because it can affect the sexual experience and emotional connection felt during sex if your partner isn’t comfortable. However, fantasies can still enhance your sexual experience personally. Is it OK to fantasize about someone other than your spouse? Yes—in fact, it is natural. Lust and desire drive our human prowess and can be related all the way back to human survival. Surveys have shown that fantasizing about someone other than your partner has no correlation to general happiness or relational satisfaction.
4). How do age and hormones change one’s sex drive, performance, etc. (e.g., following the birth of a baby, menopause, etc.)?
As with any health issue, age and hormone levels play a major role in our sex drive. What we eat, how much we exercise, and how often we sleep absolutely affects our level of sexual desire. However, so do our environments (e.g., how exhausted we are after running around chasing toddlers all day, our body image and how we dress ourselves, how we feel emotionally and what kinds of daily/worldly stress we are feeling). As females, we are supposed to be in our sexual prime in our 30s, but we are often plagued with the social pressure of being “supermom/wife.” This takes a toll on our sexual desire, with the enjoyment of sex regularly taking a back seat. Add in the physical and emotional recovery that takes place after the birth of a child, physical ailments (PCOS, low estrogen levels, etc.), and early signs of menopause, and you’ve got a recipe for a dried-up sex tank.
What do we do about it? A few things, actually. I am a huge proponent of self-care and what it can do for our sexual energy. However, this takes work—and work after a long day of mothering can be challenging. Oftentimes I have to stay up late or wake up early to care for myself.
5). What exactly is the “male refractory period,” and how long does it last?
The male refractory period is defined as the time of “recovery” between orgasms. During this time, the ability to have another orgasm does not exist; the penis cannot physically maintain an erection. This time period—you guessed it!—again differs for each man. It can span only a few minutes to a day. However, the average time ranges from one minute to one hour. Research indicates that this can be altered, based on techniques that promote educating oneself on the difference between male orgasm and male ejaculation. Men (and women) often incorrectly assume these two things are the same and occur at the same time. They are not and do not. In fact, some men can experience orgasm without ejaculating (non-ejaculatory orgasm)—thus, the introduction of the multi-orgasmic man.
Recognizing the difference between the two helps to better understand your partner’s refractory period. It is the time between orgasms, NOT necessarily the time between orgasm and ejaculation. Because many sexual intercourse experiences are reported as “stopped” or considered “completed” after male ejaculation, refractory periods are sometimes not completely known.
6). Can women really experience more than one “type” of orgasm? Are multiple orgasms a myth or possible?
The short answer is YES! There are three commonly understood orgasms mentioned in most literature: clitoral, vaginal penetration/G-spot stimulation, and blended. The first two are most commonly known, and the blended orgasm is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of a clitoral and vaginal orgasm experienced at the same time. You will also find plenty of more recent literature listing many other types of orgasms that, although not necessarily academically acknowledged, are very real and experienced by the individuals who claim them.
Multiple orgasms are not a myth, and you can practice to achieve them. Some women have the natural ability to experience multiple orgasms within a single sexual experience, while others have to work at it. This is also true for men as well, but you must consider the time difference due to male refractory. Women do not experience a refractory period like men, so the ability to experience multiple orgasms in a short period of time is comparatively easier for us. The first thing you need to do is have a true understanding of and respect for your body. This means paying attention to (and communicating) your strongest sexual responses, turn-ons, and physical pleasure spots. The second part, in my opinion, is recognizing the semantic dance between female orgasm and climax. A female orgasm is the climax of the sexual response cycle. However, many think of the climax as the build-up to the orgasm. During this very short phase, there is a strong physiological response to sexual stimuli, culminating in a release of tension. As with any orgasm, you want to pay attention to your body’s climax. If your sexual experience involves a partner, communicate to him (or her) what feels good and what doesn’t. If you are alone, recognizing your climax and sometimes stopping it early can enhance the orgasmic experience.
7). Do men and women experience orgasms differently, sensation-wise? Which sex positions typically produce the strongest orgasms for women?
In a study conducted by the University of Chicago, 75% of men reported consistently reaching orgasm during sex, while only 29% of women reported the same (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994). I provide this statistic because it actually relates to how men and women experience orgasms. Why? Because some women cannot tell you whether they’ve ever had an orgasm. They aren’t sure what to feel for, perhaps have not had a partner continue sex long enough to have one, or have never manually stimulated (masturbated) to reach orgasm. There are many reasons, but the fact that women report not knowing their bodies well is the disturbing part.
Do men and women experience orgasms differently? Based on how they self-report, yes. Based on physiological studies of our bodies, no. Men typically have shorter orgasms, and often report higher levels of satisfaction with theirs. Women often report more emotional charge or intensity during orgasm. However, our bodies respond similarly.
In regard to sex positioning, this is definitely up to what feels best to your personal body. There isn’t a secret position to achieving better orgasms, but knowing what feels best to you is the key to a more satisfying sex life. In my opinion, there are three specific things (among others) that you can do to enhance your orgasms. First, know your body. How can a partner be expected to physically satisfy you if you are uncertain of your own arousal triggers? This can be done through masturbation and self-pleasure. Get out a mirror and look at your vagina. Find your clitoris and touch it. See what your labia looks like and how it feels. Do you have sensation? If so, where? Second, clitoral stimulation is a good way to improve your orgasmic experience. Sitting on top of your partner and rubbing the clitoris on the pubic bone is helpful, as is using a vibrator during sex. The clitoris is often an underutilized part of partner sex, but you and/or your partner can stimulate it while having intercourse. Third, know your turn-offs. This may sound counter-productive, but sometimes those little things occurring during a sexual experience can really hurt our chances of satisfaction. Are the lights on when you prefer dark surroundings for sex? Did you brush your teeth? Did your partner initiate after a sweaty workout? Is he talking too much or not enough? We know certain things bother us, and yet sometimes we try to ignore them to the point of denial. If you need fresh breath before sex, make it happen. Otherwise, you’ll be thinking about it during sex, and that can definitely ruin any chances for orgasmic bliss. And lastly, talk about it! Tell your partner what you learn. Show him where it feels best, and most importantly, be honest! If it’s not working, stop it. If you need to change positions, do it!
8). What are the components of a healthy sex life? Similarly, what are some red flags in a sexual relationship?
Healthy sex is such a good, powerful tool in creating general happiness. Unfortunately, many women don’t know what that means. Healthy sex is defined in the eye of the beholder. What is healthy to you or me may not be healthy to your neighbor. Therefore, it should be defined generally. However, regardless of who you are or how many roles you juggle, healthy sex equals safe sex—emotionally, physically, and psychologically. When we think of a healthy sex life, we often think in terms of frequency. Sure, that’s important—but like I said earlier, it’s more about what works for you and your partner.
Safe emotional sex means you are heard. You feel safe communicating your needs, desires, and turn-offs to your partner. You feel safe with who your partner is and how he (or she) understands your body. You can speak freely without judgment about your satisfaction and the level of intimacy experienced. People who engage in safe emotional sex often have a solid understanding of their partner’s emotional experience. If you don’t know this about your partner, ask. Taking care of your partner’s emotional needs is always sexy.
Safe physical sex means you are physically safe: unharmed and given respect to any physical ailments or limitations you may have. If it hurts you to be in one position, get out of it—regardless of the satisfaction to your partner. This is often a challenge for women specifically. If vaginal dryness is affecting your arousal level, take a time-out and grab some lube. Physically safe sex also means having sex in a location that is appropriate to your comfort zone. If your partner insists on sex in the kitchen and the entire time your body is up against a freezing cold granite countertop and you are worried about the kids coming in, then you don’t feel safe. This is not healthy sex.
Safe psychological sex means you feel positive about yourself and the experience. So many things can run through our heads during any single sexual experience. Body image is one that always follows us into the bedroom. How we think about our bodies and our sexual role plays a major part in having a psychologically healthy sex life. How do you feel about your body? About your partner’s body? What is your relational satisfaction level? What are your feelings about sex? Your sexual past also plays a role in creating your psychological sex life.
Stay tuned to ACMB for the second part of our “Ask the Sexpert” series, appearing later this week![hr]
Erin is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who, following the completion of her undergraduate and graduate degrees, earned her Doctorate in Philosophy in Marriage and Family Therapy from Texas Tech in 2010. She is a former member of the clinical faculty at the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancement here in San Antonio.
In addition to holding board positions with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy as well as having served as an elected officer of the San Antonio Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, she has presented at state and national professional conferences in the areas of sex therapy, gender issues, and relational communication. Erin enjoys working with individuals, couples, and families struggling with communication problems, sex/gender and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, marital conflict, general relationship enhancement, and family adjustment/transitions.
Erin and her husband have been married since 20010 and have three children who fill their lives (and calendar) with joy. You can learn more about her approach to therapy on her personal website: www.erinrossphd.com.