Sex is a good thing. It is essential to the survival of the species and comes with all kinds of incentives like increased intimacy and the release of a host of neuro-chemicals that bathe us in joy. Yet when we consider the science linking sex to health, the vast majority of studies involve the health problems associated with sexual behavior and almost completely ignore how sex might enhance health and well-being.
When we consider how relationships affect health, sexual behavior should have significant effects on the quality of a romantic relationship and also play a role in overall health. We know that married people live longer and somewhat surprisingly married couples have, on average, more sex than singles.
Could sex have something to do with why married couples are living longer?
The idea that sex may benefit health is not new yet historically many cultures have warned that frequent sex might result (at least for men) a loss of an "essential essence" that would cause a reduction of strength, memory, and even reason. Freud theorized that sex was necessary to relieve tension and that masturbation was not sufficient to avoid heightened stress reactivity. There is some that intercourse is required for the bursts of oxytocin and improved heart rate variability that might be the physiological routes to improved health from sex.
In one researchers found that frequency of sexual activity was related to lower stress reactions when preparing to speak in public. Volunteers who reported having no sexual relations or masturbation had the greatest spike in blood pressure during the task. Those who had frequent sex but no masturbation had the smallest increase in BP before speaking in public.
Another found that middle age men who engage in frequent sexual activity with a partner were 50% less likely to die than men with little or no sexual behavior over a 10 year period.
Given these results you might imagine that the medical profession would start prescribing more nookie for stressed out and unhappy couples.
The sad truth is that many of us do not get the love and affection we crave. A in 27 countries revealed that sexual dissatisfaction is widespread, with 58% of women and 57% of men reporting that they are not fully satisfied with their sex life. Sex, like wealth, seems to be unevenly distributed with a relatively small proportion of couples having the most frequent sex. The researchers found strong evidence demonstrating that sexual intercourse is a significant predictor of satisfaction with life in general, satisfaction with partnership, and satisfaction with one's mental health.
Finally, we can't ignore the way sex might help us connect and treat our partners better, facilitating a closer and more satisfying relationship. A found that when couples engaged in physical affection or sexual activity they were more likely to experience positive mood and less likely to experience negative moods and stress afterwards and into the following day. Masturbation did not affect mood in the same way but was related to a reduction in stress. Most marriage counselors will point out that a non-existent sex life is a strong sign that a marriage is in trouble and that improvements in a couples sex life are some of the best methods for improving the relationship.
So plenty of questions arise here. What about gay sex? Why doesn't masturbation have the same health benefits? How much sex does a couple need to have for it to benefit health? Since there are so few studies on sex and health, there really isn't enough good evidence to answer these questions yet. Perhaps when academics get a little less squeamish about studying sexual activity and can convince funding agencies of the health protective function of sex, will we be better able to understand how "getting busy" is also helping us toward staying healthy and connected to our closest partner.