When it comes to sex and relationships, the popular media loves to discuss these topics in terms of statistical averages. For example, what is the average number of time couples have sex each week? What is the average penis size? What is the average age at which people get married? Averages are a wonderful thing because they provide a handy way of summarizing large amounts of data and tell us something about the most common attitudes and behaviors among certain groups of people. However, averages can sometimes be misleading and dangerous, especially when people start comparing themselves to those numbers and make the mistake of equating below/above average with abnormal. When someone perceives that they differ from average, it is all to easy to start feeling insecure or inadequate (e.g., “Am I having too little/too much sex?” “Are my genitalia too small/big?”). As I explain below, such concerns are usually not warranted for several reasons.
First, please keep in mind that averages are typically surrounded by a wide range of responses. It would be rare for everyone to be clustered very tightly around the average—instead, there tends to be a lot of variability. What this means is that if we want to define “normal” sexual behavior, we need to speak in terms of a range of numbers rather than just simple averages. Thus, even though you may seem very different from some reported average, the chances are very good that most sexual scientists would still consider you to be within the normal range.
Second, averages can be very misleading because they are subject to distortion by extreme responses. Let me explain: When calculating a statistical average (also known as a mean), each individual case is weighted equally (i.e., you simply add up all of the responses and divide by the total number of observations). As a result, even if just a couple of highly unusual people were included in a sample, they could throw off the average quite a bit (e.g., imagine that a few male porn stars were included in a study of penis size—the resulting average might not be an accurate reflection of reality). For this reason, it is sometimes informative to consider the median in addition to the average. The median is the number in the exact middle of the dataset, where exactly half of the people are above and half are below it. Because this concept is not as widely known, medians are not reported as often as averages; however, it is often helpful to look at both because averages alone do not tell the full story.
Finally, keep in mind that “normal” is not a statistical term—it is a very subjective and complex judgment that depends upon multiple factors. For example, is it normal for a couple to have sex just once per year? For most of you, your immediate response to this question is probably “no.” However, we need to take into account the type of relationship the couple is in, the age of the partners, not to mention whether the couple members themselves are satisfied with their sex lives. Let’s say we’re dealing with an older married couple and both of them are perfectly content having sex only on their anniversary. Does this information change your response?
In short, 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 from media reports of sexual behavior, please keep in mind that ranges, medians, and the other information necessary to make an informed decision are usually missing, which means that any comparisons made are likely to be unfair and may lead to unnecessary anxiety.
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