Friday, June 12, 2009

The older married couples are, the less frequently they have sex

In a post on the putative problem of sexless marriages, Half Sigma asserts the seemingly obvious:
I believe that it is not uncommon for marriages to become sexless as people grow older, because sex drive declines with age and also other medical problems occur with older age. So while it’s normal for some couples to continue to have sex as they get older, it’s just as normal for other couples to stop having sex, but the Oprah-society has decreed that the couples who have stopped having sex are not normal and have some big Problem that can only be fixed by psychological counseling. This Oprahfication leads to more divorces and erodes family values.
He seems to have dumped the empirical approach to questions in favor of a semi-rapid fire sounding off on human biodiversity-related current events. Far be it from me to criticize him for the transition, since he has an apparent knack for his new avocation.

Instead, I'll just confirm what is already hinted at in the NYT article that spurred his post. As married couples age, they in fact do have less sex than they did when they were younger. The graph shows frequency of sex*, by age range, among those who are married:

Unsurprisingly, the older couples are, the less frequently they have sex. With the exception of a relatively sharp decline going into the mid-twenties, the decrease is remarkably steady.

Specifically addressing Half Sigma's belief that it is not unusual for sexless marriages to occur as couples age, the following graph shows, again by age range, the percentage of married people who abstain completely:

His assertion is contingent upon what is considered "not uncommon", but until couples reach their late-fifties, fewer than one in ten marriages are sexless. Prior to the mid-forties, virtually all married couples are sexually intimate. Married men in their forties and early-fifties average once per week--certainly higher than guys who are still trying to swing at that age. For this reason, from a carnal perspective, marriage is an attractive proposition for middle-aged men.

Although the article relays information from the GSS to determine the average number of times a married couple has sex in a year, the question of how common sexless marriage has been over time is left unanswered. The GSS only allows us to go back two decades, not two centuries, but a relatively short duration is still preferrable to shoulder shrugs. The following table shows, by age range, the percentage of sexless marriages for the period of 1989-1993 and 2002-2008, representing the earliest and latest date range in which the question regarding frequency has been asked:

Age89-9302-08Sexless inc (dec)

Each age range has an average sample size of 232, lower on the youthful end of the spectrum and higher on the wizened side. The differences appear to mostly be random fluctuations, with one age range showing a drop over the last 15 years and the range just above or below it showing a roughly corresponding increase.

Looked at more holistically, during the 1989-1993 period, 7.0% of marriages were sexless. The mean age of those who were married during this time was 46.5. From 2002-2008, 7.9% of marriages were sexless and the average age was 48.3. So the marginal increase in the percentage of sexless marriages looks like it is accounted for by the greying of the US population that has occured over the last couple of decades.

GSS variables used: SEXFREQ, MARITAL(1), YEAR(1989-1993)(2004-2008), AGE([range])

* There are seven response categories for the GSS item, which inquires about annual levels of sexual activity. To figure numerical means, I calculate an annual total as follows: Not at all = 0, once or twice = 1.5, once a month = 12, 2-3 times a month = 30, weekly = 52, 2-3 times per week = 130, 4+ per week = 260. For weekly averages, which are easier to digest, the resulting figures are simply divided by 52.


Jokah Macpherson said...

It seems pretty obvious that sex drive is going to slow down as the aging process takes its toll. I'm actually pretty impressed that over half of married people 72+ years of age still manage to have sex from time to time. This makes me think that if getting it on as an old person is important to you, it is largely within your power to influence this by health habits such as diet and exercise, and by marrying a spouse who is compatible in the long term.

This is another instance where I'm curious about male/female differences since not all couples are the same age, but I don't have time to check for myself right now.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that the decline in the sexless percentage between 89-93 and 03-08 isn't much greater, given the development of drugs like Cialis.


Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant to say "I'm surprised that the decline in the sexless percentage among the oldest age group etc."


agnostic said...

If we engage in a little extrapolation based on the first graph, we conclude that girls in the 15 to 17 age range -- assuming they're in the teenage equivalent of marriage -- are hungry at least three times a week.

Quite an appetite. I guess that's what all those Abercrombie models that cover their walls are for.

Anonymous said...

And if we extrapolate even further, we conclude that girls ages 2-4 want it everyday.

agnostic said...

You're obviously very inexperienced in extrapolating.

Anonymous said...

He seems to have dumped the empirical approach to questions in favor of a semi-rapid fire sounding off on human biodiversity-related current events.
"Dumped"? That implies he used to be empirical??

since he has an apparent knack for his new avocation.

Or not.

Audacious Epigone said...


We can separate by gender, but the lines will look the same, with the men skewed a little to the right (in the US husbands are on average 2.1 years older than their wives). Unlike the number of partners, however, when it comes to married couples, there is no systematic difference in the amount of sex men and women report having--frequencies by gender are statistically identical.

Re: 72+ having occasional sex, this is a benefit to marriage--later in life, it allows for some activity when former swingers who never marry will be hard-pressed to ever get anything. Maybe we should think of marriage as indicating lower time preference...


Good point. The NYT article doesn't even address ED treatments like cialis and viagra. Sounds like a potential post for Agnostic--old people aren't having more sex than they used to, despite what Eli Lilly might claim.


Immediately following pubescence, sex drive is probably at its maximum. Agnostic is probably right. Before 13 or so, though, the mean probably tanks, with a few early bloomers potentially very interested but most kids not yet there.


He used to turn to the GSS regularly. It's actually why I stayed away from the database for awhile, in deference to HS and Inductivist, who were both going balls to the wall with it. Personally, I preferred his old approach, but the size of his readership speaks for itself.

Anonymous said...

but the size of his readership speaks for itself.

I would argue we really don't know what the size of his readership is.
And his complete lack of rationality re Sara Palin last fall indicated to me he had lost a bearing on at least one of his wheels. I enjoy your perspective and would encourage you to resist showing deference to one who's apparent idea of empiricism is to expound on what the current debate is at huffpost or demounderground.

agnostic said...

I think he's just trying to pull in a little more money in the recession. The market for data-based commentary is basically non-existent -- ever notice how few books contain numbers or graphs?

Audacious Epigone said...


HS has 6x the readership I do. But I appreciate the quality of the comments here. They are of higher average quality than his are, owing in part to the quantitative slant taken here.


Gelman's Red State, Blue State is a perfect example of that. It's one of the most informative books on contemporary US politics on the market, yet it never made the New York Times bestseller list. Compare that to a book by Dick Morris...

Anonymous said...

But are they having sex with each other?

Anonymous said...

My wife and I are both 73 years.Having sex at this age depends on the love you have for each other.We have great sex once a week.We do everything you can imagine.
It's greatMy wife knows when we are ready,she has that look in her eyes,so away we go.

Anonymous said...

We are a gay couple age 61. We quit having one-on-one sex about ten years ago. Now we only have sex when we have a third person, which is getting further apart. An important factor in this is that I'm much kinkier than my partner and that difference has moved us apart. Don't know what to do about it.