Australians are having sex less often than a decade ago

Australian couples had sex an average of 1.8 times a week in 2003, this has dropped to 1.4. benik.at/Shutterstock

Australian couples are having sex less often than a decade ago, the latest national survey of sexual activity reveals. People in heterosexual relationships have sex an average of 1.4 times per week, down from 1.8 times a week when the study was last conducted in 2003.

Young couples are more sexually active, with people in their 20s reporting having sex 2.1 times a week. Australians in their 60s have sex an average of once a week.

The second Australian Study of Health and Relationships, published today in the journal Sexual Health, collates data from 20,094 phone interviews with Australians aged 16 to 69.

Overall, 14.6% of respondents had no sex in the four weeks before the survey. Just under 30% had sex less than once per week, while 21% had sex two to three times per week. Only 1.7% said they had sex every day.

Most participants said they found sex with their partner extremely or very pleasurable and would ideally like to have sex two to four times per week.

While the study did not explain the decline, lead author Juliet Richters, Professor of sexual health at UNSW Australia, said the intrusion of individually consumed media into home life may play a role.

People take their laptops and smartphones to bed and are reading their work emails before they go to sleep at night, she said. “It’s that feeling that you’re always on duty.”

British couples are also having sex less often, Professor Richters said, with a large British survey showing similar declines over the same period.

Kath Albury, Associate Professor of media and cultural studies at UNSW said the change could be down to any number of factors such as tiredness, precariousness of employment and mortgage stress. But it is unlikely a result of online porn consumption, she said.

The study found Australians are diversifying their sexual practices. A decade ago, 79% of men and 67% of women had ever had oral sex (cunnilingus or fellatio), but now 88% of men and 86% of women have done so.

People also experience oral sex earlier. Among people under 20, 21% of men and 17% of women had had oral sex before they had intercourse, but this was true of only 3% of men and women in their 60s.

“Oral sex has stopped being the naughty exotic act that it was for my parents’ generation and has become a socially accepted part of foreplay or mucking about,” said Professor Richters.

In terms of partner numbers, the average man in the survey had sex (vaginal intercourse, oral sex or manual stimulation) with seven women and the average woman had sex with four.

But Associate Professor Albury said the disparity in partner numbers may come down to misreporting.

“There was a study in the US where men and women were told they were connected to lie detectors while they answered questions regarding the number of sexual partners, and women reported exactly the same numbers as men,” she said.

“So I do think perceptions of stigma/slut-shaming might play a role here.

"But it may also be that men perceive they will be culturally rewarded for having high numbers of partners, and women (correctly) perceive they will be condemned, and their behaviour reflects those perceptions.”

The study also found:

  • The median age of first vaginal intercourse was 17 and there has been no significant decline from a decade ago

  • 72% of men and 42% of women said they had masturbated in the past year

  • 3.6% of women 3.2% of men identified as gay or bisexual. However, more people had had some same-sex experience than identify as gay or bisexual

  • Of people who had had casual sex in the past six months, 49% of people who had vaginal intercourse always used a condom, and 58% of men who had anal intercourse with a male partner always did so

  • 22% of women and 4% of men had been forced or frightened into doing something sexual they they did not want. Half of this coercion occurred before the age of 17

  • Among 16- to 29-year-olds, around half of men and three quarters of women shave, wax or laser their pubic hair.

Clinician and researcher Melissa Kang, who has also been the Dolly Doctor for more than 20 years, has mixed feelings about the removal of pubic hair.

“On the one hand, people can do what they like and it’s great that young women are looking at their genitals, they’re obviously more aware of them,” she said.

“On the other hand, what concerns me is that young women feel that they must remove most of their public hair because otherwise they’re not attractive.”

Dr Kang said it was important not to get too caught up in notions of what’s normal or not because humans were aroused and attracted by a vast range of activities.

“The majority will stick to a limited range of sexual behaviours – they’re the ones we label as normal and we label the other as abnormal. I think that is dangerous,” she said.

“We need to acknowledge the diversity across the ages – and there are some people who aren’t interested in sex at all.”

University of Melbourne health sociologist Louise Keogh said while the report was important and well-designed, it was disappointing it did not include data about the use of long-active contraceptives and abortion.

“For women, sex is as much about pleasure and enjoyment as not falling pregnant when you don’t want to, and the problems of dealing with that,” she said.