How common are sexually “inactive” marriages?

Consistent sex is a normative expectation for most married Americans. A 2007 Pew Survey found that a happy sexual relationship was the second most important predictor of a marital satisfaction, with 70 percent of adults saying it was “very important” for a successful marriage.47 Yet Relationships in America survey data reveals that a notable minority—12 percent of all married persons ages 18-60—reported not having had sex for at least three months prior to participating in the survey.

Figure 13.1Percentage sexually inactive, by years married*
12 PERCENT OF ALL MARRIED PERSONS AGES 18-60—REPORTED NOT HAVING HAD SEX FOR AT LEAST THREE MONTHS PRIOR TO PARTICIPATING IN THE SURVEY.

Sexual inactivity is hardly a new phenomenon, of course.48 In their 1994 landmark study of human sexuality, Edward Laumann and colleagues reported that 1.3 percent of married men and 2.6 percent of married women between the ages of 18 and 59 had not had sex within the past year. In contrast, twenty years later—in the Relationships in America data—4.9 percent of married men and 6.5 percent of married women in the same age range report that it has been over a year since they have had sex with their spouse. Although the questions were asked in slightly different manners, it appears that there may have been an uptick in marital sexual inactivity in the past twenty years. The General Social Survey, which has consistently employed the same question since 1989 to determine sexual frequency, confirms this trend (results not shown). But what prompts sexual inactivity in marriage? The presence of children? Age-related sexual disinterest? Or something less relationship-oriented, such as spouses working and living in two different places?

For those whose sexual inactivity is not explained by being in a “commuter” marriage, sociologist Denise Donnelly of Georgia State University argues that habituation may be at fault: while sex may be exciting at first, over time one becomes accustomed to sex with a spouse, until eventually what once was exciting is now rather dull.49 Such an explanation is also increasingly on the lips of nonmonogamy proponents.50

At first glance it would appear that habituation—as measured by length of marriage—may be responsible for sexual inactivity in relationships. Figure 10.1 reveals a tight association between sexual inactivity rates and the length of time a couple has been married. Those who have been married for longer are quite a bit more likely to be sexually inactive.

But length of marriage and age are also highly correlated, making it appear as if the length of a marriage is responsible for sexual inactivity, when in fact the age of the respondent may be the culprit. What happens to sexual inactivity among married couples when we account for the effects of age? Older couples are much more likely to be sexually inactive. Older people are more likely to be ill, have lower energy levels, and experience decreased testosterone and libido, all of which contribute to decreased sexual activity.51

RESPONDENTS WHO ARE THE SAME AGE—BUT WHO HAVE BEEN MARRIED LONGER—ARE ACTUALLY LESS LIKELY TO BE SEXUALLY INACTIVE THAN THEIR COMPARABLE-AGE PEERS WHO WERE MARRIED MORE RECENTLY.

For most age groups there is a brief “honeymoon phase” where sexual inactivity levels are lower for those who haven’t been married for long, but then increase sharply for those married a few years. However, after the first few years of marriage, sexual inactivity levels off (or trends downward), meaning that those respondents who are the same age—but who have been married longer—are actually less likely to be sexually inactive than their comparable-age peers who were married more recently. When we account for the effects of age, we actually see a positive correlation. As length of marriage increases, sexual inactivity decreases.

It’s important to remember that sexually-inactive couples are certainly more likely than sexually-active couples to get divorced (and so be absent from these analyses), deflating the sexual inactivity rates for those who remain married. It isn't clear if having a longer marriage decreases rates of sexual inactivity, or if sexually-active marriages are simply more likely to last, or both. Either way, with the exception of the first few years, the longer a couple is married, the more likely they are to be sexually active, whether because sexless marriages end, or because couples settle into an established pattern of sex, or both.


47Modern Marriage.” Pew Research Social & Demographic Trends. July 18, 2007. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

48 Laumann, Edward et al. The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994; Donnelly, Denise. “Sexually Inactive Marriages.” The Journal of Sex Research 30, no. 2 (1993): 171-179.

49 Donnelly, Denise and Burgess, Elisabeth. “The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship.Journal of Marriage and Family 70, no. 2 (2008): 519-535.

50 Laslocky, Meghan. “Face it: Monogamy is Unnatural.” June 21, 2013. Retrieved August 19, 2014; Sheff, Elisabeth “The Polyamorists Next Door.” Psychology Today. Retrieved August 26, 2014

51 Greenblat, Cathy. “The Salience of Sexuality in the Early Years of Marriage.Journal of Marriage and the Family 45 (1983): 277-288.

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