SEX–What is Normal?
Author: Sunny Rodgers, ACS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARI SAPERSTEIN
As a certified, professional sex coach, I am frequently asked what is “normal sex.” Here is the truth— our sexuality is as unique as our own fingerprints.
What is normal to me may be quite different than what is normal to you. Is normal a number, a position, a preference? The important thing to me is that sex is consensual and you aren’t harming yourself or others. Beyond that, normal sex can have many different appearances depending on the individual.
Everyone has an imaginary place that marks their exact “normal,” perfect sex life. Some want to feel that their sex lives are better than others— not ordinary, but not too questionable. Others have what they explain to me to be secret perversions, kinks, that they want to be told are “normal” by a professional.
Other than 20th-century sex research pioneers Alfred Kinsey (Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction,) William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Kurt Freund (Dr. Freund) and a handful of others, there has been scant legitimate research into sex. Historically, government-funded research on any sexual-related topic is frowned upon. In 1975, U.S. Senator William Proxmire created the Golden Fleece Award, bestowing these “prizes” upon public officials that he felt were wasting taxpayer money. The first recipient was researcher Elaine C. Hatfield, Ph.D., a psychology professor and past-president of the Scientific Study of Sex. Dr. Hatfield received the dubious award for her National Science Foundation-funded study of passionate love and sexual desire.
Harvard Medical School’s study of male sexuality, states that vaginal intercourse is the type of sex that will most likely lead to orgasm for men, so this is what their researchers have defined as “normal” male sex. Another study by Harvard Medical School found that women have varied ways of showing sexual arousal, leading some to believe that there may be no “normal” for the complex female sexual response.
My profession allows me to ask direct questions about sex.
When I query friends, colleagues, and acquaintances what they consider “normal” sex, the most common response I receive is “missionary” pertaining to the man-on-top sex position considered to be the most conventional sexual position globally. But is defining “normal” sex really that simple? Perhaps not if you take into consideration there is little research documenting non-heterosexual sex.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s National Institutes of Health shares that prior to 1993’s World Conference on Human Rights, the analyses of sexual orientation were barely studied. Could this be one reason why the missionary sex position is considered to be “normal”?
I would love to know – what is normal sex for you?
Has historical sex research been hidden?
In 1886, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing published “Psychopathia Sexualis: The Classic Study of Deviant Sex”. While the subtitle calls this book the classic study of deviant sex, it truly focused on “sexology”. Krafft-Ebing wrote various sections in Latin to discourage the majority of the public (and possibly censors) from reading it, hoping that his colleagues and other psychiatrists would find its’ value. The book explored clitoral stimulation, homosexuality, and reduced libido and highlighted the fact that there is no consensus on which sexual interests are normal, abnormal, or pathological. The biggest concern Krafft-Ebing shared was the lack of research and data to allow us a baseline of what normal is when considering sex.
In 1973, a Swarthmore College psychologist, Kenneth Gergen, conducted a social psychology experiment that began as a look into anonymity – which soon became an unexpected sexual study. Gergen placed five young men and women in a small room in complete darkness and observed them using infrared cameras. None of the participants knew each other or could see each other. So, what would these ten people do given total anonymity? 90% of them touched someone else on purpose, and 80% reported feeling sexual excitement. Yes, given anonymity, participants freely showed their sexual desires.
Direct observation of sexual behavior is a challenge, and surveys cannot be 100% infallible. So where does one even start when searching for what is considered “normal” sex? Why are your sexual preferences different from someone else’s?
What is SEX?
Sex doesn’t need to include intercourse or the insertion of a penis into a vagina. Sex can be anything that feels sexual to you – kissing, licking, touching, tickling, spanking, fetish play, intercourse, outercourse, and any other sexy choices and activities that feel good.
Sex by Statistics
How often do you have sex?
It is common to wonder if you have a normal amount of sex. According to the National Opinion Research Center, people aged 18 to 29 have sex approximately 84 times a year. People in their 40’s have sex approximately 63 times a year. However, a person’s desire is unique to that individual and therefore normal to one person may not be considered normal for another.
What kind of sex is normal?
Studies have found that sex is usually more than just one sex act. The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior shared that Americans aged 14 to 94 reported engaging in more than 40 combinations of sexual positions and acts. Vaginal intercourse was reported as the most common shared sexual activity among those polled (who skewed towards heterosexual participants) along with oral sex and masturbation (solo sex.)
The results of these studies illustrate how heteronormativity is so deeply embedded in societies assumptions. But what if this wasn’t the case? Psychologist Catherine Butler wrote a short story entitled Homoworld, in which she imagined a world where heteronormativity was reversed and LGBTQI was the norm.
In 1972, Martin Rochlin, Ph.D., created a Heterosexuality Questionnaire covering 22 specific questions created to open heterosexual minds. This questionnaire is now used by several LGBTQI counseling services throughout the world as an eye-opening practice.
How many sexual partners is normal?
According to The Statistics Portal, nine is the average number of sexual partners per person, globally. Is this average normal? In the era of the “hook-up” this statistic, researched during 2005, seems relatively low. Or, are perceptions of our over-sexed society just that – perceptions only?
Superdrug, a health and beauty retailer, did a survey in the U.S. and Europe on this same topic. Of the 2,000 men and women surveyed, men averaged six sexual partners, but women averaged over seven. They concluded people in the Netherlands and U.K. had the highest numbers of sexual partners.
The Statistics Portal also shared interesting research showing that out of forty countries, 20 had 50% of their population view premarital sex as unacceptable. This same study showed that European countries (France, Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy) had the highest percentage of the population that considered premarital sex acceptable.
Do these numbers reflect a more realistic look at sexual partners given that sexual education and acceptance is more prevalent outside of the U.S.?
Many of the people I have spoken with shared that they had many, many more sexual partners than quoted in the studies referenced above. For many, sex is for pleasure and not necessarily a moral issue.
IS USING A CONDOM NORMAL?
According to research, condoms are used only 25% of the time during sex, and most often used by people under the age of 40. So, while it statistically appears that condom use isn’t normal, it is advocated and preferred by many, especially as a method of preventing pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. Most people who don’t use condoms attributed their lack of use to condoms limiting the pleasure of their sexual experience.
Condoms can equal safe sex. Condoms are effective in blocking bodily fluids that can cause sexually transmitted infections. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), when used consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV.
WHAT IS HEALTHY SEX?
According to the World Health Organization, sexual health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.
CAN STRESS AFFECT YOUR STRESS DRIVE?
Absolutely. Stress is not only one of the main factors in decreased sexual desire, it can also lead to erectile dysfunction in men.
WHAT IF I'M NOT INTERESTED IN SEX OR ASEXUAL?
Asexuality is a sexual orientation onto itself. An asexual person also called an ace, is someone who has a persistent lack of sexual attraction toward any gender. According to research by Anthony Bogaert, a psychologist at Brock University, one in 100 adults are asexual. The Asexual Visibility & Education Network hosts the world’s largest online asexual community and offers a large selection of resources for individuals wanting to learn more.
I'M A VIRGIN, AM I NORMAL?
Virginity can have a unique meaning depending on the individual. Are you a virgin who has never had sex? Or, are you perhaps a female who has an intact hymen? Many people choose to wait to have a sexual experience until it feels right for them. This is a personal decision and not one that should be weighed against normal vs. not normal.
Virginity by the Numbers: The average age for a person to have sex for the first time is 17. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1.1 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 40 are virgins. In 2017 the U.S. population stood at 325.7 million.
WHAT IS A NORMAL AMOUNT OF TIME TO BE THINKING ABOUT SEX PER DAY?
Perhaps you have heard that men think about sex every seven seconds. This isn’t the case. Experts estimate that 30% of men don’t think about sex during the day at all. According to the Kinsey Institute’s FAQ, 54% of men think about sex every day or several times a day, 43% a few times per month or a few times per week, and 4% less than once a month. The Science of Relationships reports that men think about sex an average of 34 times a day and women an average of 19 times a day. This means twice an hour for men and once an hour for women is considered the norm.
IS AN ORGASM REQUIRED FOR NORMAL SEX?
There are many ways to enjoy sex without attaining an orgasm. Having an orgasm does not define a sexual experience. Some people find it difficult to reach orgasm, which is a topic that we will be covering in an upcoming article on The Sex Ed.
IS LOVE REQUIRED FOR GOOD SEX?
While sex is complex and its quality can depend on intimate interactions, love is not required for a satisfying sexual experience. However, when the physicality of sex is combined with the heady chemical connection of love, sex can be a powerful thing – sometimes binding people together for life.
IS SEX ADDICTION REAL?
This is a divided topic. On one end are therapists who doubt sex can be addictive and believe the sex addiction label to be shaming. At the other end of the spectrum are therapists who believe that sex can be quite addictive depending on the individual’s personality.
The term “sexual addiction” was coined in 1983 by Dr. Patrick Carnes. Dr. Carnes’ book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, was one of the first books to identify compulsive sexual behavior. In his book, Dr. Carnes compared the behavior to an addiction.
To me, sexual addiction seems to be a misinterpretation of what a person may be feeling, such as a lack of sexual control. And, according to Frontiers in Psychiatry, a loss of control is not central to an addiction. Currently, there is only one addictive disorder that the American Psychiatric Association considers addictive behavior and that is gambling.
Of the people I have coached, limerence is the most common element I’ve encountered that people crave. Limerence is the intensely giddy, infatuated feeling people experience because of a strong romantic attraction to another person. While limerence isn’t entirely sexual, it can be an obsessive emotion often leading to passion. Limerence has a tendency to fade quickly, so while it cannot be addictive per se, people can move rapidly from one relationship to the next in search of it.