Sexual health

When It Comes to Sex, There’s No Such Thing as Normal

Published: SEPTEMBER 20, 2018
It's common to assume that there is one sexual standard - one level of normal - to which we should aspire. In reality, we're all different and we're all OK.

It happens at every family gathering. Someone will mention that I have a book coming out. Another person will ask what it's about. I'll hesitate, wondering how best to explain it and, in a rush to fill the silence, someone - most often my sister-in-law - will make a joke about how my book will obviously not be appropriate for family members to read. In that nudge-nudge-wink-wink way, she'll insinuate that my life is a real-life erotic novel and that my book is the embodiment of that novel. Really, though, my book is about so much more.


Sometimes, I'll try to explain what my book is really about. Sometimes, I don't bother. In these moments, it is because I am exhausted by the effort it takes to constantly correct others' assumptions. People always make assumptions about who I am when they hear that I write about sex. It's funny because - for much of my life - I've wished to be the person they imagine me to be.

In much the same way people make false assumptions about me, I've made false assumptions about what a healthy sex life should look like. What everyone else is doing in the bedroom. How I should be. And as I've since learned in over 15 years of writing about sex, I'm not the only one. Many of us assume that there is one sexual standard - one level of normal - to which we should aspire. And for that reason, many of us feel less than.

Below are six common assumptions people often make about sex, assumptions we should probably kick to the curb.


Other People Are Having Way More Sex Than Me

I once co-authored an ebook with Ian Kerner called "52 Weeks of Amazing Sex." In the book, we encouraged readers to have sex with their partner at least once a week in order to obtain optimal levels of intimacy. At the time, that level of sexual frequency was intimidating to me. I just wasn't there. But I didn't feel that I was missing out. Was there something wrong with me? (Spoiler alert: no.)

According to the National Survey of Family Growth, the average American adult has sex about 60 times per year, which amounts to a little more than once a week. A study from the Kinsey Institute shows that these numbers drop off as we age, likely due to a mix of increased family obligations, stress and physical changes. But averages aside, there are plenty of people who fall below the average. And when they do, they generally report that they're just as happy as people who have sex more frequently.

Women Are Always Playing Defense in the Bedroom

There's an enduring myth that men are always raring to have sex, and that women are the frigid gatekeepers. But back in the day, when I wrote a sex advice column for The Frisky, the most common questions I received were from women who were worried because their male partners didn't want to get busy as often as they did.


Here's the thing: Our levels of desire fluctuate over the course of our lifetime, and for a wide range of reasons. This holds true for everyone. It's reductive to assume that any one gender always wants sex more or less than the other. Such assumptions create a problematic power dynamic within the bedroom, and also breed insecurities for those who don't fit the pattern. Just know that with all the changes we experience in our lives, it's not surprising that we rarely seem to be in sync.

The One with the Lower Sex Drive Is the Problem

In "A Dirty Word," I write about how I feel sexually deficient because my sex drive is so much lower than my husband's. For years, I treated this imbalance as a problem with me, one that needed to be fixed so that my husband could have the sex life he deserves. Then one day, I read "Come As You Are," Emily Nagoski's book on female sexual response, and everything changed.

"Problematic dynamics emerge," Nagoski writes, "when the partners have different levels of desire and they believe that one person's desire is 'better' than the other person's." She goes on to explain that the partner who wants sex more infrequently is often seen as in some way deficient, and that the partner with the higher level of desire is seen as "normal."


"[I]f you have sex because you have to or you feel like you're supposed to," she writes, "you won't have much sex and you probably won't enjoy it when you do."

Instead of assuming one partner is dysfunctional while the other is normal, partners should be working together to better understand each other's turn-ons and desires, finding ways in which each of them can feel satisfied.

The Goal of Sex Is Always the Orgasm

According to recent research, nearly 37 percent of American women require clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm, while only 18 percent of women report that vaginal penetration alone is enough to bring them to climax. This leaves a significant number of women who aren't actually having orgasms during sex, which is only problematic if you consider orgasms to be the only purpose of sexual activity.


I am by no means trying to insinuate that people shouldn't pursue orgasm. It is a tremendous source of pleasure and I am constantly grateful that a woman's truncated refractory period allows for multiple orgasms. Hallelujah! But as I've written on this site in the past, when you're focused on causing - or having - an orgasm, you don't give yourself the chance to enjoy all of the other aspects of sexual play. Plus, you place a lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself. Instead of thinking about the possibility of orgasm, stay focused on giving and receiving pleasure, in whatever form that may take.

Penetrative Sex Is the Only Sex Worth Having

Speaking of the various forms of pleasure that exist under the sun, "sex" does not have to refer to just penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex. And even if that is your favorite form of sexual activity right now, it may not always be. As we change - as our bodies change - you may discover that the same old turn-ons don't actually … turn you on anymore. But as long as you remain open to redefining what sex means for you, pleasurable sex will never be out of reach.

"Vanilla" Sex Is Lame

Hello. My name is Steph Auteri, and my favorite sex position is missionary. Also, I'm sort of a sex mute, and dirty talk makes me feel self-conscious and silly. My favorite flavor of sex is vanilla. Got a problem with that? There's oftentimes a misconception around what it means to be sex-positive. Some assume that to be sex-positive is to be up for sex at all times, to be without boundaries, and to be into any type of sex play imaginable. Sex-positivity is none of these things. For me, to be sex-positive is to acknowledge that sexual health is a normal and integral part of overall health and well-being. Beyond that, and as mentioned above, everyone has to define for themselves what good sex looks and feels like. So, no, my bedroom does not sometimes cosplay as a dungeon with handcuffs, riding crops and sex furniture, despite the fact that I am a sex writer.


And you know what? That's OK.

We're all pretty OK.

Steph Auteri

Steph Auteri has written about sexuality for the Atlantic, VICE, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, and other publications. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, VQR, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot, the Pure Romance Buzz blog, and the Feminist Book Club, the author of A DIRTY WORD, and the founder of Guerrilla Sex Ed.

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