Let’s start with this: The other day, I was standing in line at Starbucks and two women behind me were talking about sex. Or, more specifically, they were sharing intimate details about their sex lives. Given that the line was moving painfully slowly, I took the opportunity to eavesdrop. One of the ladies, who looked to be in her late 20s or early 30s, was telling a ridiculously lurid story that ended with a half-hearted complaint about her boyfriend’s sex drive. “It’s overwhelming,” she sighed, over the hiss of the cappuccino machine. “I’ve never had this much sex in my life.”

It wasn’t so much the explicit exchange next to the piles of muffins and biscotti that struck me—talking frankly about sex has become something women will do anywhere, anytime— as the motive that I suspected lay behind this woman’s “complaint.” Wasn’t it the sexual equivalent of a backhanded compliment? A thinly veiled attempt at bragging that, unintentionally or otherwise, made her friend feel inadequate?

And she must have felt inadequate: No matter how satisfactory your sex life, you never want to hear that other people are doing it more and better; that they are sexier, wilder or more desirable or desiring. Our sexual knowledge and freedom have never been greater, so why is it that our confidence and contentment are still floundering? Knowledge and freedom have inevitably meant more talking about sex, more open conversations about the whys, the wheres and the how muches. There is literally nothing you can’t find out about sex now—and all at the click of a mouse. A few hours’ reading on the Internet and you could know enough to last you a lifetime. So why are problem pages still filled with women anxious about their sex lives? Writers like Ariel Levy and Natasha Walter, authors of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism respectively, have shown that, far from feeling empowered by the explosion of discussion and representation of sex, women feel pressured to be sexy. Every day, a new survey reveals the anxiety we feel. According to research conducted by the University of Sydney, 75 percent of women don’t like their men looking too closely at their bodies during sex (to pluck one concern at random). Why not? What standard are they failing to meet?

Why do we feel compelled to compete? Find out on the next page…

FLSJ-12-526-EC118page2.jpgBut the real question is this: Why do we feel compelled to compare and compete?

Because being sexy, desiring an active sex life and having sex in a particular way—the “right” way— are what we’re now supposed to do. Our biology makes us want to have sex, but beyond that we’re shaped by our culture as to what’s normal— and if you don’t think that’s true, consider how differently you’d have thought about sex if you were born 100 years ago. We don’t tend to jump on information about how to be frigid or abstinent these days, but once upon a time “chaste” was the highest of compliments. Now, however, its opposite number, “sexy,” has replaced it as one of the most important things we can be. And along with it comes a feeling that, compared to the women we see on magazine covers and in movies, we are just not sexy enough.

Of course, no one would claim that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was a bad thing— attitudes about women and sex before then weren’t just modest; they were repressive—but it’s hard to deny that once we knew that everyone was having sex, it became another commodity. There was nothing to be shy about anymore, so why not sell the idea that getting better at sex was something everyone should be striving for? Exploring the outer limits of your sexual potential wasn’t just something you might like to try one day; it was your duty as an empowered woman. As Naomi Wolf points out in her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, it’s a curious fact that since the supposed “liberation” of women a generation ago, body anxiety, cosmetic-surgery procedures and the sale of beauty products (the things that might make us more sexy, in other words) have increased exponentially.

Men aren’t exempt from this anxiety either: They have their own set of problems that they are encouraged to address. And that can’t be helped by the explosion in Internet pornography, which is seeping into the mainstream and providing us with a whole new set of standards about what’s sexy, what’s hot and what’s normal. So, we’re curious to know what’s going on with other people to justify our own behaviour, but—and here’s the snag—there’s no real way to find out. We’re told that sex is an area that is important to get right, but there’s no tablet of commandments to abide by. When it comes to sex, we live with information overload: But how much of it is hearsay, circumstantial evidence or unreliable?

Are you influenced by your friends? Keep reading onto the next page…

FLSJ-12-526-EC118page2.jpgWe know that the media can varnish and gloss, but what about friends?

Your friends will willingly and happily share their most private details, after all. But it’s easy for a friend to be an oversharer because you can’t check if she’s telling the truth. With the freedom we feel to openly discuss the minutiae of what goes on behind closed doors comes the freedom to exaggerate, play down and cherrypick the anecdotes that we recount; we can develop any sexual persona we want. So that augmented reality they’re peddling may be the very thing that’s causing you to feel that your own reality leaves a lot of desiring to be desired. Compared to what, though? A rose-tinted sexual memory? With sex, it’s all relative—but we tend to forget that. The curiosity to know what others are up to is natural, but these days we’re primed to feel insecure about what we’re not up to.

What’s disturbing is that it often seems that the emphasis is slanted: More sex, and more sexy sex, equals a better sex life. We focus on the quantitative benefits of sex: How to have the best sex ever in 15 minutes! What does that even mean? And according to who? Whose libido is the definitive barometer?

Plus, there’s that vaguely patronizing tone. How many positions do you know? Only three? That’s not enough! Statistics and figures trump the value of communication and desire. The guidelines we are left to follow are imprecise and subjective.

But what is normal? Find out on the next page…

FLSJ-12-526-EC118page2.jpgSo, is there even such a thing as “normal”?

Dr. Petra Boynton, a social psychologist at England’s University College London, explains that the more she talks to people about relationships, the more variety she finds. Or, put another way, no, there is no standard of normal. The core thing, she says, is what’s normal for you. Hold that thought.

The idea of a sex race is not as perverse as it sounds. The information about sex that we’re constantly bombarded with is usually geared toward enhancing a “dull” sex life with exciting and boundary-pushing ideas, new positions, costumes or special toys. And implicit in all of this is the idea that there’s unlimited fun to be had, which invariably makes you question if you’re having enough fun.

But what’s “fun” is also relative. Having sex in public, for instance. One person’s adventure is another person’s misery. And what about all the other variables: How long have you been with your partner? Do you have children? Is one of you depressed, stressed? Maybe—let’s just put it out there— you’re not that bothered about sex. It’s okay! It’s allowed! But did you know that? The false sense of what’s normal makes any hope of genuine comparison pointless.

When someone is telling a story about something they’ve experimented with, an instinctive response might be to consider not having tried this a deficiency. But Boynton warns that comparing and contrasting can be dangerous based on hearing about “perfect” or “aspirational” sex. “This is another reason people feel inadequate,” she says. “If you’re led to believe that the nation’s sexual ‘norm’ is several times per week, with mindblowing orgasms every time, you’ll definitely lack confidence.”

I asked a friend who has been married for a few years for her take on comparing. “We’re in the once-a-week category,” she stated. Very matter-of-fact. She said that she used to feel guilty that she wasn’t having sex more often, but the guilt gave way to acceptance once she realized that they do what works for them. “I’ve always been a person who would rather have brunch than sex,” she said. It makes sense that she married a chef.

Chances are, someone reading this will think “Once a week? That’s a lot.” But someone else will think the opposite. Which highlights the point: Any information about another person’s sex life will lead to an irrelevant comparison. Of course, there’s also the issue of intimacy—a topic that is far more nuanced. Whenever I hear stories about what other people are doing for “fun” in bed, I feel bad—for them. Are they following a prescriptive idea of what they’ve been told will “spice things up,” or is it an organic and natural result of being excited to be with the person they’re with? A friend once told me how she tried to recreate a scene from Ally McBeal, where Lucy Liu’s character flicks her long hair up and down her partner’s body to turn him on. When my friend tried it, her other half was so nonplussed that he begged her to stop. She was embarrassed; he was confused. Just because it works for one couple (and onscreen couples should never be taken seriously) does not mean it could, or even should, work for you.

The happiest stories I hear from my friends are about how, whatever they’re doing, they know what they want and what their partner wants. There is no competition because, in the end, it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. The only person that can exempt you from the sex race is you, by resolving not to hold yourself up to anyone else’s standards, real or otherwise. Wouldn’t it be good to sit this one out?

Read more:
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Boudoir boredom: How to bring back the love
Why men cheat