The joy of sex - just once a week is perfect
A new survey takes the pressure off to perform in bed. It's quality not quantity that counts, says Rowan Pelling
I have a friend who, although the soul of tact and kindness, will persist in telling me she makes love with her husband every day. Sometimes they're so frisky, she adds with a misty look in her eyes, they notch up two bouts in under 24 hours. The fact they've been together for several decades and have a clutch of children makes this even more galling.
Most couples find it hard to maintain the sexual vigour and frequency of the early electric years of passion, so are fascinated, jealous and suspicious of those who proclaim they do. It's relatively easy to cope with a neighbour having a flashier car, or a bigger salary, but intolerable to gather that they're having far more sex. So it's comforting to learn, courtesy of research from the University of Toronto-Mississauga, that the optimum amount of intercourse for true contentment is rather less than the proselytisers for red-hot sex (for example, Cosmo, lads' mags, Dr Ruth, Russell Brand and the bearded man from the Joy of Sex) would have us believe.
Indeed, the best evidence seems to suggest the ideal frequency is a relatively modest once a week. This, apparently, holds true whether you are 60 or 26, gay or straight. The researchers polled 30,000 Americans over more than 30 years before arriving at their conclusion.
The most fascinating finding is that if couples make love more than this, there's no statistical increase in measurable levels of happiness. However, if they have sex less than once a week, they may find their levels of happiness decrease - and the lower the frequency, the more often they're likely to feel discontented.
This is startlingly akin to the research that says £40,000 (€57,000) is the optimal salary for delivering a sense of wellbeing to your average human in the Western world. If a person earns less, they may feel discontented (or even abjectly miserable), but if they earn more, there's no commensurate rise in satisfaction.
Interestingly, the two matters - sex and money - appear to be closely related. When the findings of the last National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle was published in 2013, Professor Kaye Wellings, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the recession may have had an effect on sexual performance: "There's a strong relationship between unemployment and low sexual function, according to the literature. That is to do with low self-esteem, depression."
All this research makes perfect sense to me, suggesting, as it does, that it's quality - not quantity - of coitus that is truly important for erotic contentment. I once worked with a woman who had devised a three-times-a-week sex pact with her long-term boyfriend, only to find it wasn't compatible with long office hours, an Open University course, a puppy and an equally stressed partner. She told me they were "shoe-horning" sex into their weekday schedule, when it would be preferable to spend all of Sunday in bed. And all this angst was before she had a baby. Children, notoriously, wreak even greater havoc with their parents' romantic lives.
Once weekly, by contrast, feels sensible and achievable. It's like squeezing in a salsa class, or a Cor onation Street Sunday omnibus. It doesn't involve swaggering to the neighbours or your friends about your stamina.
The psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose, author of No More Silly Love Songs, says: "When something is in short supply, it becomes more precious. Once a week sounds like a halfway point between not enough and too much. It's desire-inducingly scarce, without being icy and passionless - or perhaps worse, dully repetitive. It gives you a bit of time to forget in between. Forgetfulness is key to a good relationship!"
There was some alarm when the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles reported that the average sexually active Briton was having less coitus. At the turn of the millennium, 16- to 44-year-olds were putting it about 6.2 times a month, but that had fallen to five times a month. Cue fretting about whether we were taking iPads to the bedroom rather than our spouses and lovers. But five bouts a month is near enough the precise figure for wellbeing.
When I discuss "frequency" with friends, they tend to feel the social scientists have assessed the matter correctly. One female novelist told me: "Good sex kept me in a bad marriage. And bad sex or infrequent sex have doomed otherwise positive relationships. By infrequent, I mean less than once a week. An absence is unthinkable. That's not a marriage, that's a flatmate."
Sex therapists don't tend to categorise relationships as sexually dysfunctional until the gaps between lovemaking are considerably bigger.
Indeed, couples' counsellor and author Andrew G Marshall has said: "In my therapy room, I put out the bunting if couples are having sex twice a week, and the once-a-week Saturday night or Sunday morning sex is more common than you'd think."
It's when activity declines to once every two or three months that the sexperts agree a problem has been flagged up - and only then if one, or both, partners find they're dissatisfied. After all, there are certain times in life when you have to allow some slack - and even flannelette pyjamas. The writer Hilary Freeman, who had her first child this year, speaks for most new mothers: "At the moment, I am so exhausted that having sex is the last thing on my mind."
Of course, disagreements between husbands and wives about what constitutes a healthy love life are all too common. But while one person's plenty may be another's famine, most equable souls seem to agree that a weekly dose of sex will keep the marital charabanc rolling cheerfully along.