Is this just a Christian myth? Is the idea that the best sex occurs within marriage something that is only believed by church-going people? What does the research say?
If you’re struggling with your sex life we offer sound, research-based advice, and today, hope for a constantly improving sex life too. Today we’re going to be looking at why the best sex happens inside marriage. Actually, it’s hard to believe that going through a bunch of research might be arousing but today we’re going to take a crack at it.
Why Sexual Boundaries Are A Good Thing
We’re going to do something very deliberate today: we’re not going to refer to the Bible at all. Now if you’ve just started reading our posts you need to know that Verlynda and I are born again Christians who are very involved in our local church and we always think and write out of our Christian worldview. We often refer to Scripture as well as to research. And today could definitely be a Bible-thumping episode. In the New Testament, there are only a handful of epistles that refrain from addressing sexual sin, from lust to fornication to adultery. So that message is clear.
And I think that a lot of people, perhaps from more agnostic or atheistic backgrounds, look at Christianity and see it as being very prudish because of these restrictions. Like we’re missing out.
But I think it’s actually very much the opposite: the sexual revolution of the 1960s to 1980s has actually done more to erode the quality of sex that people are experiencing than to enhance it. It’s telling that just now, in 2017, we’re starting to see articles in the New York Times and Washington Post raising the alarm over pornography use and its detrimental impact on male sexuality. This is nearly 50 years after the first adult erotic film had a wide theatrical release in the USA.
Where culture has got this backwards and impressions are still inverted is that God put boundaries around sexuality to increase the amount of pleasure and sexual satisfaction that can be experienced, not to decrease it.
And we’re going to demonstrate this from the research today. At the end I’m going to tell you why this is important to your marriage, and to ours, of course.
What Statistics Say About Sex Within Marriage
Overall, research tends to support the idea that the best sex happens within marriage. Let’s start with a study from 2000 by Christopher and Sprecher[i] which compared sex within marriage to sex within dating and cohabiting relationships. They found that married couples generally reported being satisfied with their sexual relationship. They cited a study where 88% of married couples reported being “either extremely or very pleased in their [sexual] relationship”
What I think is really cool is the words that these same extremely pleased or very pleased married couples used to describe how they felt about having sex: loved, thrilled and excited.
So not only are married couples typically satisfied with their sexual relationship but Scott and Sprecher also showed that studies have found that married individuals are more satisfied with their sexual relationship than single and cohabiting individuals. This was particularly the case for monogamous married respondents. So it’s not just being married that’s the key, but being monogamous in marriage too— can’t make any assumptions here since the Sexual Revolution.
So this is great: sex is better within marriage. But why?
Again, we could go to the Bible and argue that it just makes sense because God is good, and He designs us to flourish when we are obeying him. And of course, that’s very true. But instead, let’s go to the research again and see what these researchers are observing. What makes monogamous married sex the best kind of sex?
5 Steps to Better Sex
This weeks’ download gives you Five Steps Towards Even Better Sex and I’ve also included in that download some links to books I recommend for continuing to develop the quality of your married sex. And I’ve included some great Christian websites on married sex too, including one resource that actually has sex positions illustrated with stick people so it is not pornographic at all and is safe for couples to look at without defiling themselves.
Sex Within Marriage is Exclusive
This study is interesting. They looked at what they call time horizon: meaning they asked people about the stability of their relationship and how long they expected it to last.
They also asked a very specific question about sexual exclusivity: “What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner-is it always wrong, almost always wrong, sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all?” The researchers used these views on extramarital sex as “an indicator of a commitment to sexual exclusivity, at least within marriage[ii]”.
And then they asked about physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction related to the couple’s sexual relationship. What they found is that both physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction increased with time horizon and increased with sexual exclusivity.
So these are important clues as to why married sex is better. When people hold an expectation that the relationship will last long into the future and will be an exclusive interaction between the two of them, I think it’s only natural and normal that these two people are going to make the most of it.
See, when you make commitment and monogamy becomes part of your core values, sex no longer becomes about swapping out the person for someone with more skills or better features. Rather, it becomes about continually pursuing growth together. As you grow closer emotionally you naturally learn more about how to enjoy sex together. That pursuit over a lifetime is going to reap a far better experience that flitting like a butterfly from flower to flower. As we said in a recent episode: emotional intimacy is the key to great sex.
There are some more interesting results that these researchers highlighted:
- “In all cases but one, the more exclusive the sexual relationship, the greater the emotional satisfaction reported[iii]”.
- “Both men and women who said that they had another partner in the past year during their marriage, cohabiting, or dating relationship-were less emotionally satisfied[iv]”.
- “Women who either had another sex partner themselves or whose husband or boyfriend did, report less physical pleasure from sex than do others.[v]”
- “For both men and women, the married, cohabiting, and “engaged” all report higher levels of physical pleasure than those in relationships that they expect to end soon or within a few years[vi]”.
Again: this is a secular study and you can see they’re looking at what people are experiencing without coming through our Christian value system. But they’re drawing the same core conclusions: the best sex is happening inside monogamous, committed marriage.
But I want to come back to the butterfly thing and this idea of focussing on one person.
Sex Within Marriage Specializes in a Specific Partner
These same researchers took their research one step further. They concluded that time horizon and sexual exclusivity improve sexual satisfaction because of the way in which they “facilitate emotional investment into a particular relationship and specialization in that partner[vii]”.
So they used another variable called sexual investment. They tied sexual investment to various sexual behaviours including the number of times a couple has sex per month and the frequency of orgasm for both the male and female partner.
Basically, they are saying that investing in sexual activity with your spouse and developing your sexual skills are going to result in an increase in the frequency of orgasm.
They showed in their study that sexual investment increased both the emotional and physical benefits of sex. You became better at it but there’s also this other super important piece where you invest in your spouse whom you love, and you are incentivized to please him or her because you get direct satisfaction from pleasing him or her. Sex then becomes less about simply fulfilling your own needs and becomes a joint experience with a deep emotional and physical connection. The longer you expect to be in a sexual relationship the more incentive you have to make this investment.
This becomes a positive cycle, right? The more you invest sexually the more satisfaction is returned. The more satisfaction the more you’re incentivized to invest.
In terms of quality and quantity they noted the following:
- “More sex is associated with more emotional satisfaction with sex”
- “Both partners are more emotionally satisfied the more frequently the woman has orgasms during sex”
- “Physical satisfaction with sex is higher for men and women who have sex more often and when the female partner always or usually has an orgasm.”
In other words, the more investment a couple puts into their sexual relationship, the more able they are to know and meet the needs of their specific partner. A perfect place for this to happen is in the exclusive and lifelong context of a marriage relationship.
By the way, if you’re needing to brush up your skills on the female orgasm we have a terrific resource on this where Verlynda interviewed Shannon Ethridge so be sure to check that out.
But there’s one more important piece to all of this.
Sex Within Marriage is Guilt-Free Sex
So you could make the argument, well, what about a long term cohabiting relationship. Why doesn’t that work just as well?
It turns out that sex within marriage is more satisfying than sex within long-term cohabiting relationships. There’s a reason for this: in a 2016 study, Hackathorn, Ashdown and Rife[viii] showed that compared to any other form of sex, sex within marriage is completely guilt-free.
We have this thing we all can experience called sex guilt. Previous research has shown that there are correlations between religious beliefs and lower frequency of and desire of sexual activity. We’ve looked at sex guilt in Christian couples in a previous episode. Basically, religious beliefs lead people to feel guilty over their sexual activity, which causes them to enjoy it less. That’s the suggestion.
However, the results of this study showed that “sex guilt mediates the relationship between religious and sexual satisfaction for unmarried individuals, but not for married individuals[ix].” Having that religious guilt made sex less enjoyable for non-married couples, but not for married ones.
These researchers actually coined the term “sacred bed phenomenon” which they use to describe the belief that there is such a thing as a sacred marital bed. A place where sexual activity can be enjoyed free from guilt. And that place is inside marriage where couples have no reason to feel guilty about engaging in sexual activity. As a result, they experience higher levels of sexual satisfaction than unmarried couples.
Investing in Your Marriage Sexuality
I told you near the beginning that I’d summarize why this is important to your marriage. You have the opportunity to create something within your marriage that is richer, deeper, and more thrilling than something you can create anywhere else.
I want to challenge you to invest in your marriage sexuality. That’s going to look like different things for different people. Maybe it’s making yourself available. Maybe it’s investing emotionally in your spouse so that when you do come together to make love you actually feel like a couple, not just two people who can do it.
Maybe your commitment to your marriage has drifted and you realized that this intrinsic mental piece is not what it should be. You need to recommit and make sure your spouse knows they’re #1. Perhaps loyalty and fidelity have become a problem. You’ve been unfaithful even in “small” ways. You need to stop diverting your sexual energy and interest towards the woman you rubberneck at or the men you admire at the mall. Maybe cutting profane movies and TV shows from your media consumption is necessary.
Basically, you want to take all of the emotional and sexual energy and interest you have and cultivate that into the fertile soil of your marriage. That is how you build a thriving, passionate sex life.
[i] F. Scott Christopher and Susan Sprecher, ‘Sexuality in Marriage, Dating, and Other Relationships: A Decade Review’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62.4 (2000), 999–1017.
[ii] Linda J. Waite and Kara Joyner, ‘Emotional Satisfaction and Physical Pleasure in Sexual Unions: Time Horizon, Sexual Behavior, and Sexual Exclusivity’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 63.1 (2001), 247–64.
[iii] Waite and Joyner.
[iv] Waite and Joyner.
[v] Waite and Joyner.
[vi] Waite and Joyner.
[vii] Waite and Joyner.
[viii] Jana M. Hackathorn, Brien K. Ashdown, and Sean C. Rife, ‘The Sacred Bed: Sex Guilt Mediates Religiosity and Satisfaction for Unmarried People’, Sexuality & Culture, 20.1 (2016), 153–72 <https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12119-015-9315-0>.
[ix] Hackathorn, Ashdown, and Rife.