Let’s Talk About Sex: The Science, the Script, the Human Right

Why do we do ’it,’ fundamentally—have sex? Sex researchers, locally and abroad, are trying to drive home that it’s about a basic human right: pleasure.
“I also know how inaccessible accurate information about sexual health can be to the public and how difficult it is for some people to talk about it in a comfortable way,” says sex researcher Dr. Kristen Mark.
“I also know how inaccessible accurate information about sexual health can be to the public and how difficult it is for some people to talk about it in a comfortable way,” says sex researcher Dr. Kristen Mark.

Illustration by Lisa Seitz

Elbow-to-elbow, Minnesotans are filling up a large side room in Fulton Brewery on a Tuesday night to listen to three experts talk about sex.

Drifting through the crowd, eyeballing the room for an unclaimed seat, one could feel awkward retreating to the bar, straining to hear the three Ph.D.s as they peppered the hour-long sex talk with research- and experience-backed wisdom: about how a low libido isn’t necessarily a problem if it doesn’t bother you, about how sex doesn’t need to involve penetration, about the false idea that heterosexual women have a smaller sexual appetite than men.

“Who ordered food?” University of Minnesota sex researcher Dr. Kristen Mark asked as a hot little sandwich emerged from the kitchen. Some giggled.

But the vibe at November’s “Sex Science Happy Hour” felt progressive, even perky.

Stacked on a table beside Mark were copies of “Desire: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating Libido Differences in Relationships.” Mark described the book, released in August, as radical for its wide parameters around sex: not just between heterosexual, cisgender men and women, and not only within “normative” relationship structures.

She and the co-authors of “Desire”—Dr. Lauren Fogel Mersy, who owns a private practice in Minneapolis, and Dr. Jennifer Vencill, of Mayo Clinic in Rochester—made the happy hour feel as though we were delicately cracking through a layer of widely agreed-upon silence. The topic was unevenness, when one partner wants more sex. Such a discrepancy is a given, they agreed. It’s a feature, not a bug. When the bimonthly forum reconvenes in March—again with Mark, again at a brewery—the topic will be masturbation. (You can sign up and find more information here.)

Is it awkward? Attendance seems to declare, “I have sex! Or want to!” Which is generally unsurprising yet somehow close to taboo. It’s refreshing, too, because aren’t we all, culturally and societally, over that puritanical type of embarrassment? Perhaps. Perhaps not really.

“I know how interested the public is in sexual and gender science,” Mark says, explaining by email her inspiration for launching the happy hours. In September 2021, the first featured well-known sex columnist Dan Savage at St. Paul’s BlackStack brewery. “I also know how inaccessible accurate information about sexual health can be to the public and how difficult it is for some people to talk about it in a comfortable way.”

The past few years, reports have been flying that Americans—especially young Americans—aren’t having as much sex. The so-called “sex recession” may amount to “one-time reactions to all the upheavals of the past few years,” suggests the Institute for Family Studies. The year of 2020 was, after all, unprecedented. In 2021’s General Social Survey, which polls American adults, 26% of respondents said they had not had sex in the past 12 months, which figured into a pattern of decline: In 2010, 21% of respondents had not had sex in the last year. In 2000, that number was closer to 18%. In 2022, we saw a slight rebound. Still, Americans seem to be having less sex than they were when the survey started three decades ago. (The survey has its limits, as pointed out in a 2020 study published through the American Medical Association. It’s subject to “response and reporting bias,” for instance, and with “sexual activity” left undefined, respondents had to interpret what counted.)

Why the dip? Researchers have flagged many reasons. Millennials and Gen Z are getting into relationships later, and living single may mean less sex. There are also digital distractions thanks to social media.

Sex will never not be a hot topic. And with reports of a modern-day “loneliness” epidemic, the media has, in some cases, treated the decline in reported sex with concern. Sex, after all, comes with a range of benefits. In the context of relationships, the experts at the Fulton event, on the other hand, framed frequency of sexual activity in neutral terms. On the individual level, not having sex does not have to raise any alarms, they said. Nothing is wrong if nothing is wrong.

Still, perhaps this means there is room for boldness, or sexual reclamation.

Illustration by Lisa Seitz

Presenting these Sex Science Happy Hours is the University of Minnesota’s Eli Coleman Institute for Sexual and Gender Health. Minnesotans may not realize the institute is a big deal in sex research. “It’s world-renowned,” says Mark, who is director of education at the institute. Maybe because of Minnesotans’ humble nature, she says, “people here don’t know we exist. We have this amazing institution. I’ve always been aware of this place that is so well-known nationally and internationally but not locally.” Readers likely know the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University for its headline-grabbing decades of sex research, but the U of M’s institute is equally prestigious and a rising star in gender studies and clinical access.

Bringing some of that reputation to the community, Mark modeled the happy hours after other casual, educational hangouts—Suds n’ Science, Brainy Brews. “Breweries are notorious for having a laid-back atmosphere. That’s what is most important about this.” 

At one point, an attendee took the mic to ask about consensual non-monogamy. With partners openly dating multiple people, what happens when a newcomer begins to enjoy a “honeymoon” phase and starts soaking up the sexual attention? (One answer: Those who have been in the relationships longer can learn to cultivate “responsive” desire, as opposed to “spontaneous.”) Other audience questions came up anonymously, on notecards. 

Some takeaways from that night:

  • Assuming a common “sexual staircase” exists, along which everybody moves up the same graduating levels of intimacy—with penetration, perhaps, inevitably at the top—may trip up the many who “have a different pathway to pleasure.” 
  • In relationships, libidos will likely never match. The notion that one partner—typically the one with a lower sex drive—needs “fixing” or is “the problem” isn’t fair.
  • Whereas “spontaneous” desire stirs up seemingly at random, “responsive” desire depends more on stimuli and context. Sometimes we exemplify one more than the other.
  • A study released last year found women’s desire appeared to have more ups and downs throughout their lives, but men and women have similar desire fluctuations throughout the week. So, the notion that women generally have lower sex drives than men? It doesn’t hold up.
  • Research has shown that some approaching retirement are having the most satisfying sex of their lives. Hormones are not the end-all, be-all.

Ultimately, sex is personal. Within the bounds of consent, you are your own authority on what feels good. But for those who have felt stifled by dominant “scripts”—which may reduce sex to what’s seen in the media, or what’s described by parents and friends—there can be liberation in taking, or reclaiming, sexual pleasure as a fundamental right.

Illustration by Lisa Seitz

The Right to Sexual Pleasure

Why do we do “it,” fundamentally—have sex? Because it feels good. 

Sex reduces pain, relieves stress, improves sleep, lowers blood pressure, and strengthens heart health, according to multiple medically reviewed studies. And it’s enjoyable.

“That’s what it comes down to: Sex gives us pleasure,” Mark says. 

This sex-positive focus is emerging as a popular way to think about the universal and natural act. Instead of focusing on pregnancy prevention, consensual concerns, and other “negatives” around sex, researchers and others are working to recognize and enhance the benefits.

Mark and her colleagues say sexual pleasure is so important that it should be considered a human right, something along the lines of the right to a fair trial, free speech, and freedom from torture. 

Pleasure is a fundamental part of sexual response, which happens in four phases and is called the “sexual cycle,” as coined in 1966 by researchers at the Kinsey Institute. 

The first phase is excitement. The second is a continuation and intensity of first-phase changes—a faster heartbeat, heavier breathing, increased blood flow to sexual organs. Phase three is the orgasm stage, a series of intense muscle contractions. Then breathing calms, the sexual organs return to their original size and color, and resolution is reached.

This linear, four-stage model revolutionized sexual research for decades, but since then, “we’ve learned much more,” Mark says. In fact, the four-phase order is not always accurate: Not every sex act leads to orgasm, some people have sex without feeling any excitement, and others have multiple orgasms in a row and don’t reach resolution.

Sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan added the concept of “desire” to the cycle in the late 1970s, arguing that humans need to be “in the mood” to get aroused and have an orgasm. She also emphasized the potential emotional impact of sex. 

About two decades ago, during the rise of post-modern and non-linear thinking, sex researcher Rosemary Basson introduced the circular sexual response model. She posited that humans have sex for multiple reasons, not just excitement. 

As the research on human sexuality continues to expand to include gender norms and societal perceptions, Dr. Annelise Swigert, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Southdale ObGyn, adds that good sex needs to involve feelings of safety—and, obviously, consent. For instance, maybe contraceptives free you from worry about pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. 

“You should be able to enjoy sex, however you define ‘pleasurable,’” Swigert says. She adds, “Sex should not be painful.” That’s a concern many menopausal and post-menopausal women have.

By reframing sexual pleasure as a human right, Mark says, her work as a sex educator becomes about creating a common ground. “There’s an assumption that when you say, ‘sex education,’ you’re teaching kids how to have sex. That’s not it at all. Actually, we see strong support for sex education that focuses on pleasure”—whether that means self-stimulation, oral sex, vaginal sex, or some other method. “It’s doing a good job with community building. When educators learn about the pleasure, they usually buy in.” 

She adds, “There has been so little funding poured into understanding the physiology of human sexual pleasure—another issue that is totally related to people’s lack of comfort talking about it or seeing it as important—but that is changing.”

And that’s something else we feel good about.

Illustration by Lisa Seitz

Sex Survey Results

According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior:

  • Men and women both were likely to report sexual satisfaction if they also reported frequent kissing and cuddling, sexual caressing by the partner, higher sexual functioning, and if they had sex more frequently. On the other hand, for men, having had more sex partners in their lifetime was a predictor of less sexual satisfaction.
  • Frequent kissing or cuddling predicted happiness in the relationship for men but not for women. Both men and women reported more happiness the longer they had been together.
  • Over 50% of respondents ages 18-24 indicated that their most recent sexual partner was a casual or dating partner. For all other age groups, the majority of study participants indicated that their most recent sexual partner was a relationship partner. 
  • 28% of Americans over age 45 report they had sexual intercourse once a week or more in the last six months, and 40% report having intercourse at least once a month. More than one in five Americans over age 45 (22%) say they engage in self-stimulation at least once a week. 
  • For women aged 50 and older, older age is related to a decline in all sexual behaviors: 5% per year of age for penile-vaginal intercourse; 7% per year of age receiving or giving oral sex. 
  • About 85% of men report that their partner had an orgasm at the most recent sexual event; this compares to the 64% of women who report having had an orgasm at their most recent sexual event. 
  • Men are more likely to orgasm when sex includes vaginal intercourse; women are more likely to orgasm when they engage in a variety of sex acts and when oral sex or vaginal intercourse is included. 
  • Women are much more likely to be nearly always or always orgasmic when alone than with a partner. However, among women currently in a partnered relationship, 62% say they are very satisfied with the frequency/consistency of orgasm. 

A note about the survey: The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) is the largest nationally representative probability survey focused on understanding sex in the United States. It is an ongoing multi-wave study with data collected in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018. More than 20,000 people between the ages of 14 and 102 have participated in the NSSHB.

Sex Therapy: Is It Right for You?

While delving into sex positivity, we figured it would make sense to ask a local sex therapist about common issues that come up. Then, we heard from the other side: An anonymous couple opened up about their experience getting help from that same sex therapist, Lyndsey Fraser. Read the Q&As here:

As editor of Minnesota Monthly, Amy works collaboratively with a team of writers, designers, photographers, and digital producers to create impactful, surprising, timely and insightful content that reflects the Spirit of Minnesota. An award-winning newspaper and magazine editor based in the Twin Cities, Amy has decades of experience guiding coverage of luxury living, arts and culture, style and travel topics across multiple platforms. She has interviewed personalities ranging from Prince to Roger Goodell and has stories to tell.
Erik Tormoen is Managing Editor of Minnesota Monthly. He studied journalism at Northwestern University. etormoen@greenspring.com