Does getting married improve your sex life?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 8 2011 5:14 PM

Do Married People Have Better Sex? Michele Bachmann Thinks So.

Michele Bachmann
Getty Images.

The conservative values pledge that Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have already signed, and that other presidential candidates are under pressure to sign, has a number of stipulations, including that the signer support “robust child-bearing” and vigorously oppose “all forms of pornography,” as well as any attempts to put women into “forward combat roles.” But the main focus of the pledge is defending “traditional” marriage—hence, the document's title, the “Marriage Vow.” Signers of the document, authored by an Iowa organization called The Family Leader, must oppose same-sex marriage, for instance, and pledge fidelity to their own spouses. (The preamble to the pledge also goes on to bemoan the fact that modern black children are more likely to be raised by single-parent households than they were during slavery, even while allowing that slavery “had a disastrous impact on African-American families.” Is this to imply, as Michelle Goldberg suggests, that slave kids were somehow better off?)

In the midst of its energetic efforts to list all the reasons why non-gay people should get married (married people supposedly live longer, are healthier, more financially stable), the marriage pledge insists that there’s “overwhelming statistical evidence” that married people enjoy “better sex.” Is this true? And if so, whither the plots of countless sitcoms?

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It turns out, the claim is not true. The supposedly “overwhelming” evidence that marriage equals better sex is a study called “Why Marriage Matters,”—the available summary of which makes only vague, unsubstantiated claims that “relationship quality” relates to “marital status.” Elsewhere, an 11-year-old book called The Case For Marriage tried to make the same argument more forcefully. But as Singled Out author Bella DePaulo has pointed out, the actual statistics suggest that cohabitating (non-married) couples have better and more frequent sex than married people do.

It would be as dishonest to argue that cohabitation causes better sex as it is to argue that marriage causes better sex. The available statistics don’t appear to break out, for instance, whether people who cohabitate before getting married have better sex during marriage than those couple who don’t do test runs, so to speak, before the wedding. They don’t indicate whether the drop in marital satisfaction is merely a reflection of time taking its toll on a relationship’s romance. (According to the stats DePaulo cites, fewer than half of married men and women report being “extremely emotionally satisfied” with their sex lives.) Indeed, the statistics are so hard to read that none of this should really be an argument for or against marriage. But it should be an argument against ideology getting ahead of the facts.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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