The last time I participated in a panel discussion, a man in the audience was annoyed at me for saying positive things about single people. At one point, he stood up and said, “What about sex?” I tried not to be snide when in response, I said something like, “well, as it turns out, you don’t have to be married to have sex.”
Probably what he meant, though, was that in his opinion, sex is easier for married people. That’s part of a built-in bias in the way people think about single and married people, and not just when the topic is sex. What comes to mind most readily is what’s bad or difficult about being single and what’s good or easy about being married. That’s understandable, because that’s where the stereotypes and the conventional wisdom lead us.
But when you think that way, you end up imaging that if you are single, finding a sex partner is always a problem, and if you are married, your partner always wants to have the same amount of sex and the same kind of sex that you do, at the exact same times that you do. I’ve never been married, but I kind of think that’s not true.
But let’s set aside all that and look at the data.
Researchers have been tracking people’s sex lives for decades. For a while, it looked like married people were having more sex. But over the past several decades, people of all marital statuses have been having less sex. Maybe you’ve heard about that: Atlantic magazine had a cover story called “The sex recession.” That decrease in having sex, though, has been greater for the married people. It has gotten to the point that now, single people, on the average, are having about as much sex as married people. There are even ways of looking at the data that suggest that single people are having more sex.
Maybe, as someone who likes to stand up for single people, I should be applauding this finding. But what I think is more important than the average behavior across all single people is all the variability from one single person to another. What matters most, I think, is that single people have more of a choice. Within most committed couples, there are certain expectations. If you are in a couple and your expectations match your partner’s, that’s great for you. If you are single, though, you don’t need to worry about matching. If you want to have a lot of sex, or sex with a number of different people, or if you don’t want to have any sex at all, there is no partner around giving you the stink eye.
Sure, it can be a challenge for some single people to find intimate partners. But consider the married persons who would like to have sex with people other than their spouse but whose spouse expects monogamy. They have more of a problem.
At the other end of the spectrum are the people who do not want any sex at all. When I first started studying single life more than 20 years ago, I never heard of the word “asexual.” Now we know it is a thing. There are people who just aren’t interested in sex. That can happen for reasons that are not very interesting – maybe you are on some medication that messes with your sex drive, or maybe you’re just depressed. Asexuality is something different – a growing stack of studies suggests that it is an orientation, like other sexual orientations and identities.
In a society that has been so obsessed with sex for so long, and in which it is just assumed that of course everyone wants sex and lots of it, this idea is one we’re not used to. The documentation that some people just aren’t interested – and it is not just temporary, and it’s not a problem, it’s just who they are – I think that’s one of the most important things we’ve learned about humans in the 21st century.
With regard to single people who are asexual, the implication is that not getting sex is not going to bother you if you never wanted it. If you are a married asexual, though, you had better be married to another asexual if you want that part of your life to be as unproblematic as it is for single people.