While it's fine to talk about your sex life happily and openly, highly public discussions of how much sex a couple has often lead to headlines like "Kanye West Admits to Sex With Kim Kardashian Several Times a Day." Those bold headlines send the rest of us into dark, self-doubting spirals, questioning how much sex we're really supposed to be having. In fact, it's one of the most commonly asked questions on Reddit, Dr. Oz and Google.
But when it comes to how much sex we're having, we shouldn't be asking: "Am I normal?" The better question is this:
"Am I satisfied?"
Creating insecurity: While it's normal to wonder how much other people have sex, the truth is that there isn't a fixed standard for these types of things. According to the Kinsey Institute, 45% of married couples report having sex a few times a month, "34% reported two to three times per week, and 7% reported four or more times per week." But those are just the averages, which change year to year.
As the New York Times' Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found after analyzing the General Social Survey, heterosexual men over 18 say they average sex 63 times a year while women over 18 reportedly average 55 times a year. That comes out to about 1.2 times a week for men and a little over once a week for women, on average.
Those statistics are far off from the ones purported by Kanye West, and they may be far off from your own. Yet we try to hold up the "numbers" from celebs and our neighbors alike as yardsticks to measure what's normal, which both reflects and amplifies our insecurities over our own habits.
"People are always looking for a 'normal' that they can compare themselves to," Kristen Mark, assistant professor and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, tells Mic. "But this can be harmful if you don't naturally fall within that range."
Expectations we can't meet: When you type "how often should" into the Google search bar, autofilled questions like "how often should we make love" and "how often should my girlfriend blow me" pop up. This speaks not only to the eternal comparisons we make between our sex lives and others', but the expectations we put on our partners.
In his research, Stephens-Davidowitz found that one of the most complaint-driven search terms involving sex included the phrases "sexless" or "won't have sex with me." Expectations of how much you should be doing it can contribute dangerously to the assumption that you are owed something in the bedroom, an attitude that conflicts with the nature of partnership itself: It's a conversation, not a transaction.
The way to avoid falling short and feeling as if something is owed is to avoid setting concrete benchmarks in the first place. Instead, Mark says, "The best way for couples to find a frequency of sex that is right for them is to talk to one another and check in regularly."
Putting the emphasis on a numerical goal misses the point of a satisfying sex life. "Great sex is about a lot more than frequency and sexual satisfaction is determined by a lot of variables other than frequency," says Mark. Indeed, studies have shown that couples don't rate sexual satisfaction by the frequency they have sex but by their mutual pleasure.
Plus, environmental and relationship factors like age, health and time management (not to mention sex drive) can influence how much sex you're having and how much sex you want to have. And those factors, unsurprisingly, might not match up with those of celebrity couples.
Satisfaction isn't only physical: Changing the question from "Am I normal?" to "Am I satisfied?" can remind us to think about satisfaction more broadly — sexual satisfaction, for example, is just one piece of relationship satisfaction. This is where "maintenance sex" can come in, considering sex for what it contributes to the relationship upkeep as a whole.
There's no right answer to this question of having "duty sex," besides that both partners should pay attention to each other's needs and desires all the time. It's what Dan Savage refers to as "being good, giving and game." Sexual satisfaction is about balance and care. "If one of you is wanting sex way more, but the other is wanting sex way less, meet in the middle. Don't expect one person to do all of the compromising here. That won't work for either of you in the end," says Mark.
The next time we see a headline about how much sex someone is having, we should take a step back and remember it's not the number that matters, but the conversation.
"The only 'normal' that people should compare themselves to is the 'normal' within their own relationship," says Mark. "And that may change over time."