A few weeks ago, a friend (let’s call her Veronica) told me about a recent stress-inducing conversation she’d had with a friend of hers (let’s call her Betty). Betty told Veronica that she was worried because she and her boyfriend hadn’t been having that much sex recently. Veronica empathized, and told Betty it was perfectly normal for any couple to have less sex over time. Then Veronica asked Betty how much sex Betty and her boyfriend were having. The answer? “Twice a week!!!” Veronica told me. “Can you imagine? My boyfriend and I do it, like, once a month.” Before her conversation with Betty, Veronica was perfectly content with her sex life. After it, she wondered if she shouldn’t be. I told her that whatever she was happy with was right for her. And then I promptly started worrying about me, and how much sex I was having, and where I would fall on the Betty-to-Veronica sex scale. And then I started worrying about how much I was worrying about how much sex I was having, which is, of course, extremely sexy.
How is it that an otherwise mostly rational person, in a happy relationship, accepting of her own sex drive and that of her partner’s, can suddenly find herself participating in this weird sex-rate competition nobody meant to start? If I’m satisfied, and Veronica’s satisfied, why can’t we ignore the world’s many bragging Bettys?
Amy Muise, an assistant professor of psychology at York University and researcher at the Sexual Health and Relationships Lab, is well acquainted with our culture’s fixation on finding the “normal” frequency of sex. “Once people find out the kind of work that I do, one of the questions I get most is ‘How often do most couples have sex?’” she says. Obviously, this is something people care a lot about — but why? “Sex is something that’s pretty private — we don’t necessarily know what the people in our lives are doing behind closed doors, so there’s a bit of mystery about how much sex other people are actually having,” says Muise. “It’s also a way we might compare. I think people think of sex frequency as an indicator of how good or passionate their relationship is.” Unlike most markers of a relationship’s health, sex is quantifiable. There is no diagnostic test that measures a couple’s compatibility or love for each other, but it’s usually possible to count how many times you had sex in the last six months. (And if it’s not, congratulations, nobody wants to hear it.) And if we assume more sex is better (and we do), that’s a number that carries an implicit value judgment along with it.
Incidentally, Muise has found that more sex is better only up to a point — on average, about once a week. At that rate, most couples report optimal relationship health and happiness. Any more often than that and most couples could take or leave it. But just as you might suspect, reactions to this finding were mixed. “Certainly there was the reaction that was like, ‘Oh, okay, thank God,’” says Muise. “One woman told me it made her feel relieved, because she felt like it was less pressure. Before that she’d been thinking it wasn’t quite enough, or thinking it should be more. But to other people, once a week didn’t sound like enough.” When I first encountered Muise’s study, I, too, was comforted. On the one hand, once a week sounds totally doable. On the other hand, even having that number in the back of my mind stresses me out. Knowing an “average rate” puts a sense of obligation behind something that’s supposed to be self-determined and fun; it’s like creating Google calendar events for watching TV or hanging out with friends (which is something I also do).
In fact, Muise refers me to another study, in which a team of researchers assigned a group of couples to double their sexual frequency. These researchers found that having twice as much sex didn’t improve any relationships as far as the couples were concerned, and, if anything, it made them worse. “Actually, people reported more negative mood around their sexuality, I think because it took the autonomy out of it and made it feel like a chore,” says Muise. Rather than setting a strict sex quota, Muise recommends a sort of sex-frequency mindfulness. “I do think being motivated to set aside the time for sex can be really important,” she said, “with some flexibility and some understanding that moods are going to change, and things are going to happen in life.”
So if we’re supposed to have more sex in general, but we’re probably not supposed to have twice as much as we’re having now, and we’re supposed to set aside time for sex, but we’re not supposed to stick to it too strictly, then … what the hell? Is it any wonder that in our desperate attempt to strike the right sex life balance, we cling to our peers for comparison?
Muise says there are two reactions most people have to finding out they’re having less sex than their peers: One is to feel badly, and the other is to feel motivated. (Tag yourself, I’m “feel badly.”) Muise says the key is to evaluate your own level of satisfaction before asking around about other people’s sexual frequency. If having more sex is already a goal of yours, and you know the happy average is once a week, you should feel encouraged that it’s possible for most couples to get it in (ha) once a week. But also, people lie.
There is a gendered component to the sexual pressures people feel, too. Our culture depicts men who are starved for more sex and women who are fighting it off, but Muise says that’s far from always the case. In my own relationship, there is the specter of “lesbian bed death” to contend with, a sexless stereotype that we, as queer women, sometimes feel the need to fight against even as we disavow it. Given the various cultural values and often regressive gender norms ingrained in our sex lives, and the general tendency toward less frequent sex the longer a relationship goes on, one could be forgiven for finding it miraculous that anyone who’s been with their partner for more than six months has sex at all.
Still. In the context of most romantic relationships, having regular (or somewhat regular) sex matters. It’s often sex alone that separates our romantic relationships from our platonic and familial ones. That may be another reason why we devote so much attention to it. “For most couples, sex is something that’s unique about your relationship with your partner,” says Muise. “You might have other close relationships with friends and with family where you get some of the same kinds of emotional support and you spend leisure time with them, but sex is usually something that’s really particular to your romantic relationship. Having that time together, and that intimate expression, it is something that speaks to and links to the satisfaction in your relationship.”
Sex is also an easy way to compare a relationship you know well (your own) to a relationship you don’t (anyone else’s). I’m convinced that it would be impossible, in this culture, not to draw those comparisons — especially now that you know about the once-weekly statistical average, for which I am sorry. What you do with all this knowledge is a different story. Worrying about how much sex you’re having isn’t likely to put you in the mood, and worrying about worrying about how much sex you’re having definitely won’t. But if it helps — though I kind of doubt that it will — it is normal.