Given that sex has existed as long as the human race has, you'd think our scientists, doctors, and psychologists would have collectively figured out all there is to know about sex by now. But the truth is, there are still many, many aspects of human sexuality that are a big, unexplored, confusing question mark. The good news is, 2019 has been quite the year in the world of sex research. Here are a few of the most fascinating findings we've made this year:
1. Women are still struggling to talk about what they want in bed.
In 2019, more than half of American women were still struggling to talk about what they want sexually. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found 55% of women in the U.S. reported experiencing situations in which they had wanted to communicate with a partner about how they wanted to be touched and what sexually turned them on but decided not to say anything. About one in five women didn't feel comfortable talking about her sexual desires at all, and one in 10 had never experienced sex in which she felt like her partner valued her sexual pleasure.
2. Just saying the word "clitoris" out loud is linked to better sex for women.
Yes, it really matters that much. As we've known for a while, the clitoris is the key to sexual pleasure for people who have them—but mainstream narratives and norms around sex prioritize P-in-V penetration as the main act of sex, despite the fact that the majority of clit owners can't get off from that alone. Further proving how important the clit is, the same study cited above found that just being comfortable using the word "clitoris" is associated with greater sexual satisfaction and being less likely to fake orgasms. The researchers said their findings indicate why it's so important for us as a society and as individuals to start talking openly about our sex lives. When you're comfortable talking about sex—including the specific body parts where you like to get touched—you're way more likely to convey that to your partners and then get the type of stimulation that actually feels good for you.
3. Not all orgasms are good.
Orgasms are not the definitive marker of good sex, as it turns out. In another study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found 55% of people had experienced a "bad orgasm," including orgasms that physically hurt, orgasms that didn't feel as pleasurable as past orgasms, or orgasms that happened in sexually coercive contexts, such that having the orgasm led to intense psychological turmoil.
4. People in relationships really are having less sex.
Experts have been talking about a so-called sex recession for the last year or so, in which several different data reports have been showing people are having less sex these days than in generations prior. One multiyear study published in the BMJ this year found the majority of the dip is happening among married people and cohabiting couples. Some of their key findings: In 2001, 38% of women and 30% of men in serious relationships had no sex in the past month. In 2012, that number jumped to 51% for women and 66% for men in serious relationships. What's more, even sexually active couples were having less sex than usual: In 2012, just 48% of women and 50% of men in serious relationships reported having sex at least four times in the last month, meaning about half of couples are having sex less than once a week.
5. But millennials don't think they're in a sex recession.
Cosmopolitan conducted a nationally representative survey on over 1,000 people. Their findings showed 71% of millennials feel "personally satisfied" with how much sex they're having, and 62% of millennials think their friends are having "plenty of sex" too. So maybe it's all relative?
6. Commitment and better sex are linked.
Researchers surveyed hundreds of couples in several weeks of couples' therapy to ask about their commitment levels and sex lives each week. Published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, their study found commitment and good sex were definitely linked: Having good sex one week was associated with couples feeling more committed to each other the following week. The reverse was also true. Feeling more committed to each other one week was associated with the couple having better sex the following week. The two seem to feed off each other.
7. People who love casual sex are more committed to their relationships when those relationships are consensually non-monogamous.
If you think people who love casual sex are inherently less committed in their relationships, think again. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that, in consensually non-monogamous relationships, enjoying casual sex (i.e., "sociosexuality") was associated with being more committed to your relationship.
8. Childhood trauma is associated with less sexual satisfaction in adulthood.
People with more traumatic experiences in childhood tend to have less satisfying sex lives in adulthood, according to a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. Why? Experiencing trauma as a kid is associated with experiencing more daily psychological distress and with being less mindful, two qualities that may affect one's ability to engage and feel pleasure during sex.
9. More than half of seniors are unhappy with their sex lives.
You know what you hear about people having less sex as they get older? That might be true, but it might not be because seniors want less sex. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE found 58% of men and women between ages 55 and 74 are not satisfied with their sex lives. In another study published in the journal Menopause, 78% of the more than 4,000 postmenopausal women surveyed were sexually inactive. Of these sexually inactive women, the top reasons for not having sex were not having a partner to have sex with, having a partner with a medical condition making sex out of the question, and having a partner dealing with sexual dysfunction.
10. These three key factors reliably turn women on.
A study of 662 straight women identified three factors that made women more likely to experience sexual desire for someone: intimacy (i.e., feelings of closeness and deep affection), celebrated otherness (i.e., seeing yourself as a separate entity from your partner instead of seeing yourselves together as a single unit), and object-of-desire affirmation (i.e., being told you are desirable).
11. Men aren't more visual than women.
This is an oft-repeated myth, but findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have officially disproved the idea that men are "more visual" than women are when it comes to sex. The researchers reanalyzed over 60 studies, each of which had hooked up men and women to fMRI machines while showing them porn to try to see how their brains reacted. Gender was the least predictive factor in determining how activated a person's brain was while viewing the erotic material.
12. One in four women experienced pain during their most recent sexual experience.
In a study of over 2,000 women published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers found nearly a quarter of women had experienced pain the last time they'd had sex. Of those who'd experienced pain, 49% didn't tell their partner about it. Those who'd experienced little to no pleasure during the sexual experience were also three times more likely to not tell their partner about the pain.
13. Vaginal dryness and atrophy begin in perimenopause.
During and after menopause, hormonal shifts tend to cause the vaginal walls to become thinner and lubricate less. Known as vaginal atrophy, these changes tend to cause vaginal dryness, which predictably leads to more difficulties having sex. (Nothing that a little Astroglide water based or silicone based lubricant can't fix, of course.) However, a new study published in the journal Menopause has found that these symptoms of vaginal atrophy, vaginal dryness, and the sexual pain that comes with them may actually begin in perimenopause—the period of time right before menopause hits, around ages 40 to 55.
14. Better sex ed improves LGBTQ kids' mental health.
Sex ed is important for supporting people's sexual health and helping people navigate sex safely. But it also has important mental health benefits for people in the LGBTQ community, according to new research in the American Journal of Sexuality Education. The study found kids who received sex ed that was inclusive of people with diverse genders and sexual orientations tended to have less anxiety, less depression, and fewer suicidal tendencies.
15. Open-minded people are more likely to cheat.
A study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal found the personality trait most associated with cheating was open-mindedness. In other words, people who are more open to new experiences and people tend to be more likely to cheat as well. Seems obvious, but open-mindedness is also correlated with being more welcoming, more creative, more sexually liberated, and more extroverted. So…uh-oh?
16. There are at least some psychological components to why some people struggle with their sex drive.
Researchers interviewed about 100 couples where one partner struggles with sexual desire and about 100 couples with no such struggles. Published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, the study identified a few common traits among the partners who struggled with desire: They were more likely to pursue sex simply to avoid negative consequences (like a disappointed partner) and less likely to pursue sex to experience positive outcomes (like orgasms and connection). The findings also suggested they may "have difficulties recognizing and responding to their partners' sexual needs due to having fewer sexual needs themselves."
17. For women, just learning about the orgasm gap is linked to having more orgasms.
You can't make this stuff up! A study published in the journal Sex Education found female students who had taken a sexuality class that discussed the orgasm gap tended to have more orgasms and better orgasms after they took the class than before.
18. Parents have better sex when they like each other.
Yes, researchers talked to 93 couples and found those who complimented each other more and had higher opinions of each other tended to have higher levels of sexual satisfaction in the relationship. It might seem obvious, but many long-term couples (especially parents) will readily admit that just because they're married and in love does not mean that they always like each other. That means couples should never dismiss the importance of making sure actual feelings of affection and positivity still live on in their relationship.
19. Postcoital dysphoria affects men too.
Postcoital dysphoria refers to inexplicable feelings of sadness, frustration, or distress after having otherwise pleasurable sex. Some people assume that women are more likely to be emotional after having sex, but a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found 41% of men have experienced PCD, and 20% experienced it in the last four weeks.
20. How you feel about your genitalia affects your sex life.
Feeling self-conscious about your vulva or penis might actually affect how much pleasure you're experiencing during sex. A study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found people who felt more confident about their genitalia tend to have less stress about their "performance" during sex and better sexual functioning, which includes getting turned on easily, having more vaginal lubrication, and being able to orgasm with ease.
21. Sexual desire is buildable.
For couples, experiencing sexual desire today makes you more likely to experience sexual desire tomorrow and have sex tomorrow, according to a study published in the Archives of Sexual Desire. That means couples who want to improve their sex lives should consider starting small: Just adding a few moments of heat and turn-on daily, even without having sex, will build up sexual desire over time.