Media & Culture

When It Comes To Sex, “Average” and “Normal” Don’t Mean the Same Thing

April 25, 2018 by Justin Lehmiller


People email me with questions about their sex lives all the time. More often than not, these questions boil down to the same theme: “Am I normal?

A lot of folks asking these questions have already researched the answers and, often, they’ve discovered that they differ from some statistical average reported in the media. It’s the realization of this difference that prompts many follow-up emails to me. For instance, I sometimes hear from men who worry that they’re masturbating and/or watching porn “too much,” as well as people of all genders who worry that they aren’t having “enough” sex with their partners.

While averages can be a wonderfully informative thing in the sense that they summarize large amounts of data, there’s the potential for them to be misleading and dangerous, especially when people start comparing themselves to those numbers and equating “different from average” with “abnormal.” Let’s take a moment to discuss why focusing only on averages is problematic for determining what normal sexual behavior is.

First, you need to realize that averages are usually surrounded by a wide range of responses. In fact, you don’t usually see people clustered tightly around the average in most sex studies—rather, there’s typically quite a bit of variability (a standard deviation, to use the statistical term), which means that some folks are going to score higher and others are going to score 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 that you’d still fall within the range of responses that scientists consider normal.

Second, averages can be very misleading because extreme responses often distort them. 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 a very small number of extreme responses are included in a sample, they could throw off the average quite a bit. For instance, if you were to conduct a survey on the subject of penis size with a relatively small number of men and it turned out that a few of your participants were big-time porn stars, the resulting average might be a little, well, 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–exactly half of the responses are above and half are below. Because this concept is not as well known, medians are usually not reported as often as averages in media reports; 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 from one another.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that “normal” is a very subjective and complex judgment–one that cannot be made without taking multiple factors into account. For instance, is it normal for a couple to have sex just once per year? Many of you would probably say 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 only has sex on their wedding anniversary and they are perfectly content with that. Is it really fair to call them “abnormal” because their preferred frequency of sex doesn’t align with that of other couples who are vastly different?

What I hope you see here is that 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 an average isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re abnormal or that your relationship is, either. So relax–odds are that you’re probably pretty normal.

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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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