How much sex is 'normal'?

'Sex isn’t just sex. We are told that it is a barometer of the quality and intimacy of our relationships.'

'Sex isn’t just sex. We are told that it is a barometer of the quality and intimacy of our relationships.' Photo: Cindy Singleton

“Is there something wrong with me?”

It has been eight days since my friend Arielle* last had sex, and she is feeling agitated. Something of an overreaction, perhaps – eight days hardly constitutes a “drought” by most people's standards – but Arielle, 26, is in a steady relationship, and these week-long interludes between rumbles are a regular occurrence. An occurrence that sits in stark contrast to the rest of her sexual, hyper-confident self-image.

It is a conversation we have had countless times before, and will have countless times again. The only difference is that on this particular occasion I have brought along a recording device to document our discussion.

Arielle is a dreamer; a romantic idealist for whom every relationship would be a non-stop bodice ripper if she had her way. She is also a keen observer of social norms, constantly scanning her surroundings to determine what others find appealing and adapting her behaviour accordingly.

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It is not just that Arielle is not having as much sex as she wishes she was – although that is a factor. It is that she is not having as much sex as she believes other people are, a fixation that has left her feeling unattractive and defective.

Arielle might be relieved to learn that her sex life isn't as unusual as she thinks it is. According to data from the General Social Survey, a US demographic survey covering everything from sex to income to religion, the average frequency of sex for a woman in Arielle's 26- to 29-year-old age group comes in at slightly less than once a week. Nor is her desire to be sexually normal (or her feelings of inadequacy when she believes she comes up short) uncommon.

A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder has confirmed that having regular sex does make people a little happier: respondents who reported having sex at least two to three times a month were 33 per cent more likely to report a high level of happiness than those who had had no sex within the previous 12 months. Respondents who reported having sex two to three times a week were 55 per cent more likely to report a high level of happiness.

But more striking is the finding that, like Arielle, our happiness hinges not just on how often we have sex, but on how often we have sex compared to the people around us. Regardless of how often respondents actually got it on, they were more likely to be happy if they were having more sex than they believed other people in their peer group were having.

And they were more likely to be unhappy if they were having less sex than they believed most others were. As researcher Tim Wadsworth put it, “Having more sex makes us happy, but thinking that we are having more sex than other people makes us even happier.”

In other words, when it comes to sex, most of us just want to be normal. Or if we can swing it, slightly better than normal.

Sex isn't the only arena in which we measure our experiences against those of other people. Similar studies have been conducted around wealth and income: economists have found that most people, for instance, would rather earn $50,000 in a world where everyone else made $25,000, than $100,000 in a world where everyone else earned $250,000. 

Humans are innately social animals, and we look to each other for an indication of how well we are doing or whether we are on the right path.

But sex is an arena in which those comparisons have a special emotional significance. We live in a culture in which sex has become a convenient shorthand for so many of the things we hold dear. Sex isn't “just sex”. We are told that it is a barometer of the quality and intimacy of our relationships. That it is a reflection not only of our desirability as a sexual partner, but of our acceptance in the social arena at large. As UK sociologists Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott put it, to be bad at sex "is almost to fail as a human being”.

To be normal, on the other hand, is synonymous with success. “Normality”, after all, isn't just a reflection of what is statistically common. It is a reflection of our values and experiences: what we have collectively determined to be good and desirable.

The trouble is that, contrary to what the semantics of the word suggest, most of us aren't normal. Or rather, like my friend Arielle, we don't always feel as if we are.

Whether it is because we started having sex too early or too late, because we have had too many partners or none at all, because we fear we are too kinky or too dull, because our desires run too hot or too cold – too many of us are still recoiling under the weight of sexual shame, embarrassed that we have failed to attain an imagined sexual ideal that virtually no one lives up to. How could we live up to it, when it is a moving target; one which changes according to our age, peer group, and values?

The source of our shame isn't to be found in something as simple as the glossy veneer of magazine sex advice or internet pornography, although both play their part. Our anxieties are as much a product of our own creation – our collective interest in and obsession with sex – as they are the traditional narratives of sexual repression.

But even if “normality” was the norm, if it was easily measurable and simple to attain, would it be worth pursuing? Numerically speaking, after all, normality only tells us what is typical – what other people are doing in the aggregate. It doesn't tell us how much or what kind of sex we want to have. It doesn't even tell us how much or what kind of sex other people want to have.

Knowing how our sex lives measure up may give us a temporary ego boost, but it tells us very little about what we really desire.

* Name has been changed.

20 comments

  • So to summarise: subject to basic needs being met, happiness is relative? No surprise there really, the only difficulty with regards to comparing sexual frequency is that it is difficult to know. It's easy enough to compare income, there are plenty of statistics on it but how often people on average are getting it on is a little bit more difficult to know as those being asked may well be lying or just not actually know.

    On a sidenote I would suggest that either the authors of the UC-Boulder report or the author here have assigned causation wrongly with their study. I'd suggest that having sex two or more times a week/month isn't what makes you happy, being happy makes it more likely that you have something good going on in your life and because of that you are more likely to be having more sex. And if you haven't had any sex in the last 12 months then there is probably a decent chance that you're not enjoying life as much regardless of the fact you aren't getting any sex as there is probably a fairly strong correlation between that and not being in a relationship, and probably socio-economic status as well.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    May 02, 2013, 9:30AM
    • That works fine for self pleasure but however sex is a game that two or more people play- If you are the person in the relationship with the higher libido then access to sex is not controlled by your happiness, it's controlled by the far more complex interaction of negotiation with the other partner, regular norms within the relationship - 'not tonight dear I'm on my period' etc.

      In which case you're not getting as much as you want - and happiness is relative - you are less happy.

      Saying sex is not just sex is true in the same way that food is not just food - it is what keeps you alive. Sex is why you are alive. If you aren't getting as much of it as you want it's reasonable to be a little unhappy about it.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      May 02, 2013, 10:39AM
    • @Steve

      Steve, I suggest you find someone who can keep up with your libido, and who won't say no - a blow up doll, perhaps?

      Go back and read your message, the "me, me, me" attitude is astounding.
      Do you EVER put anyone before yourself? Were you never taught the meaning of restraint as a child, that you can't (and shouldn't) always get what you want because it will turn you into a spoilt, uncontrollable brat? Is there more to your life than sex?

      I suggest you get out more....

      Commenter
      me, me, me
      Date and time
      May 02, 2013, 11:13AM
    • @Steve - It depends on how much importance you place on sex within a relationship. To me, it's important, but subject to there being a minimum amount it's not the reason I am in the relationship. For others it is far more important than it is for me.

      Ideally people find a partner who has around the same level of libido and I think that is definitely part of forming a strong long term relationship. One of the problems though is when libido falls for one person and the other person feels as though they've been given the bait and switch, resentment tends to build fairly quickly.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      May 02, 2013, 11:29AM
  • Sex should be had every day. Or 5-6 times a week at least.

    Commenter
    April
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 02, 2013, 9:57AM
    • I think sex every 2-3 hours would be normal. I have no problem with that.

      Commenter
      Marty
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 02, 2013, 10:56AM
      • None of my girlfriends talk about how much sex they are having and I don't either... I find that most people only mention it to me when they aren't getting any and it usually isn't close friends but people at work etc.

        As for how much sex is normal, well I don't even think about how long it has been since I have had sex, it may be a couple of times a week or we may go weeks between. I think what is much more important is whether you are happy with your boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife, as opposed to measuring the success of your relationship by how much sex you have. I think people put too much pressure on themselves, especially in a world where life is hectic and busy all the time.

        Commenter
        Toucans
        Date and time
        May 02, 2013, 11:07AM
        • But, if Arielle is in a steady relationship, surely it is just a matter of getting her fella to be a bit more vigorous in terms of sexual recreation? Maybe she just needs to initiate things a bit ore often? I think lots of people make the assumptio that men's libidos are higher than women's. Whilst that may be so in the majority of relationships, it is certainly not always so.

          More generally, I agree that sex is no different than any other aspect of life: people want to keep up with the Joneses. It is a shame that, in our society - especially in the current, class warfare-driven political environment - that people are so often encouraged to indulge in pointless envy of others. People should judge their own success and happiness without (negatively) comparing themselves to Gina Rinehart or whoever. The author's comments about money - we would rather be poor in a poor society than fairly well-off in a rich one - highlights how irrational our species can be.

          Commenter
          AdamC
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          May 02, 2013, 11:27AM
          • My partner and I haven't had sex in close to four years. Medication has robbed both of us of a sex drive.

            Commenter
            Once in a while
            Date and time
            May 02, 2013, 12:23PM
            • Keep trying and you'll get back into the rhythm of things.

              Commenter
              BB
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              May 02, 2013, 3:14PM

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