'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.

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.