People are often interested in frequency, so we can start there. Sexual minorities reported 4.88 times per month of any type of sexual relations, whereas straight spouses reported an average of 2.83 times per month. We tried to get at something similar with a different question about sexual intercourse. Sexual minorities most often indicated having sex with their spouses 1-3 times per week, which was by 41% of the sample. Others did report Never, Less than once a month, and About once a month, just to give you a sense for the variety here.
When we asked straight spouses about frequency of sexual intercourse, the highest percentage was actually Never (at 44.5% of the sample), followed by 1-3 times per week, Less than once a month, About once a month, and Greater than 4x per week. That is tremendous range when you think about it. Keep in mind that these straight spouses were not necessarily married to the sexual minorities who participated in the study.
Also, keep in mind that in this larger study, we had people who were currently in mixed orientation marriages, as well as people who had previously been in mixed orientation marriages. When someone had been in a mixed orientation marriage (but were not currently), we asked them to provide information on the last year or two of their marriage, so I suspect that accounts for such variability. You essentially have people who are currently in a mixed orientation marriage in which they are likely sexually intimate, as well as people who are no longer in those marriages and may have had poor or no sexual relations in the year or two before the marriage ended.
We may run into the same challenges when we look at satisfaction with sexual intimacy. On a scale of 1 (Terrible) to 9 (Great), sexual minorities were, on average, indicating a 6 (somewhere between “not pleasant, not unpleasant” and “more pleasant than unpleasant”), whereas straight spouses indicated a 4.6 (“not pleasant, not unpleasant”).
Given the importance of disclosure of same-sex sexuality in many mixed orientation marriages, we also asked about how their sex lives changed at that point. For sexual minorities, the main themes were “negative change”, although fewer did report “improvement” (in that it may have broadened in activities or focused more on emotional connections).
Straight spouses tended to report “no change” or “negative change”, followed by some who reported “improvement”.
I would note that a few of the sexual minorities spoke of a “honeymoon” period after disclosure in which sex with their straight spouse dramatically increased in frequency (then later fell off or ended). The folks who shared this with us attributed it (in hindsight) to an effort on the part of the straight spouse to compensate for what they perceived as a “sexual problem” represented by the fact that their spouse was gay or to help the sexual minority spouse become attracted to them. The sexual minorities who shared about this did not see this dramatic upswing in sex as a sustainable or helpful practice over time.
In a separate set of analyses one of our students did for her dissertation (with this same sample), we found that relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction were highly related to one another. We don’t know the direction, however. It may be that folks who report higher relationship satisfaction do so because of higher sexual satisfaction; the opposite could also be true–those who report higher sexual satisfaction do so because of greater relationship satisfaction. In any case, there does appear to be a relationship.
So I would say that this is an important area to attend to. However, different couples feel differently about talking about their sex life with anyone outside of their marriage. That is understandable. With mixed orientation couples, there is also the potential for concern that a counselor/therapist will not understand some of the unique issues that may be present, may make their own judgments about what the couple should do, and so on.
In my own clinical practice I have worked with several mixed orientation couples. We often at some point discuss sexual intimacy, just as you would discuss it with couple in which both partners are straight. When I meet with mixed orientation couples, I provide a lot of education about what others have shared about similar marriages, while I am also listening to them tell me about the unique aspects of their marriage. I also draw on basic principles for improving sexual intimacy if that is what they identify as a goal. These can be sensitively tailored to the needs and experiences of mixed orientation couples.
In our next segment (Part 4 of this series), we can draw on what we’ve covered so far to discuss how counselors might actually work with mixed orientation couples in clinical practice.