Sex Ed

What’s “Normal” When It Comes To Sex?

August 1, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller


Virtually every day, I receive emails from people around the world who have questions about their sex lives. More often than not, these questions can be reduced to the same underlying theme: “Am I normal?

Many of the people asking these questions have done a little research on their own and discovered that they differ from some reported statistical average–and it’s often the realization of this difference that prompts many of these emails. For instance, I sometimes hear from men who worry that they’re masturbating “too much,” as well as people of all genders who worry that they aren’t having “enough” sex in their relationship.

While averages can be a wonderful thing in the sense that they provide a handy way of summarizing large amounts of data, they can also be misleading and dangerous, especially when people start comparing themselves to those numbers and make the mistake of equating “different from average” with “abnormal.” Why is that? Let’s take a moment to talk about why focusing only on averages is problematic for determining what normal sexual behavior is.

For starters, averages are usually surrounded by a wide range of responses. In fact, you don’t usually see people clustered tightly around the average in sex studies—rather, there’s typically quite a bit of variability, with some folks scoring much higher and others much lower. What this means is that if we want to define “normal” sexual behavior, we need to talk about a range of numbers, not just a single number. The truth of the matter is that even though you may seem very different from some reported average, chances are good that you still fall within the range of responses that scientists consider to be normal.

Second, averages can be very misleading because they can be distorted by extreme responses. Let me explain: When calculating a statistical average (also known as a mean), each individual case is weighted equally. In other words, you simply add up all of the responses and divide by the total number of observations. The problem with this is that even if just a couple of extreme responses are included in a sample, they could throw off the average by quite a bit. For example, if you were to conduct a penis size survey on a relatively small number of men and it turned out that a few of your participants were porn stars, the resulting average might be a little, um, inflated.

It is for this reason that researchers often consider the median in addition to the average. The median is the middle number in the data where exactly half of the responses are above and half are below it. Because this concept is not familiar to many folks, medians are usually not reported as often as averages; however, it is often helpful to look at both of these numbers because averages alone do not tell the full story and sometimes you’ll see medians and averages that are wildly different.

Lastly, it’s also important to remember that “normal” is actually a very subjective and complex judgment–and one that cannot be made without taking multiple factors into consideration. For example, is it normal for a couple to have sex only once per year? The immediate response for many of you reading this is probably a resounding “no.” However, you need to consider that there’s a lot of variability when it comes to relationship type, as well as the health, ability status, and age of the partners involved. Imagine an older married couple that has sex only on their wedding anniversary and are perfectly content with this frequency. Is it really fair to call them “abnormal” because their preferred frequency of sex doesn’t align that of other couples who are vastly different in so many other ways?

In short, the terms “average” and “normal” do not mean the same thing. Although you may be tempted to make judgments about your own or others’ normalcy based on some average reported in an article, please keep in mind that averages are just one small part of the story and that being different from some average isn’t necessarily a sign that you or your relationship are abnormal.

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Image Source: 123rf/Krasimira Nevenova

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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