Saturday, May 23, 2015

By the Numbers

by Annabeth Leong

I can't think about the topic "over-sexed" without going for the data. From an early age, I felt weird about myself whenever I heard about women and sex—whether I was hearing what women are "supposed" to be like, what women are actually doing, or listening to what other women said they were doing.

In Alfred Kinsey's 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, he reported that unmarried women had a mean of 0.5 orgasms a week, and married women had 2.2. By that definition, I'm not over-sexed—I'm exponentially sexed (expo-sexed?).

For basically my whole sexual life, I've averaged a minimum of an orgasm a day, and often many more. I masturbate to fall asleep, so that's how I know it's at least one. I'm sure I've missed days here and there, but I definitely made up for those with recreational masturbation or experiences with lovers. Also, being coupled has often caused me to have fewer orgasms than I do when I'm single—when you live alone, it's not awkward to randomly masturbate on the living room couch, but when your lover's around, unless they're into that, it might be.

So, basically, when I read numbers like Kinsey's, I get pretty damn confused. Are all these women being surveyed telling lies? Or am I just that much hornier than everyone else? Do I need hospitalization? Or perhaps a shock collar? (Damn it, the idea of a shock collar turns me on…)

But Kinsey's book came out in 1953. Maybe those low, low numbers are the result of patriarchal oppression. If you don't know to call your sex organs anything other than "down there," and you're told you'll definitely go to hell if you dare to feel around down there, maybe it's hard to find the clit.

Modern numbers don't make me feel much better, though. Here's a clip from Jesse Bering's book Perv:

In a 2006 survey of 1,171 Swedish women, 80 of them (around 7 percent) were labeled "hypersexual." Why the researchers settled on thirteen orgasms per month as the critical dividing line between "normal sexuality" and "hypersexuality" in women is something of a puzzle (there's nothing special or catastrophic about that figure so far as I can tell), but nonetheless any kvinna finding herself on the wrong side of that line was considered "hypersexual." The bar for the Swedish male respondents in the same survey was set somewhat higher. Men needed a minimum of seventeen orgasms a month (another dubious figure) to be classified as "hypersexual."

Bering takes an appropriately skeptical tone about what really seem to be arbitrary definitions of hypersexuality, but I don't even need to get into that argument to feel like a weirdo nympho. Only 80 of those 1,171 Swedish women have more than thirteen orgasms a month? I shudder to think where my personal slice of the pie would be if I were in that survey. Would I have any company at all, or would they delete my figures because it's often a good idea to remove extreme outliers?

I want to pause here to emphasize that I'm not humble-bragging. I don't mean to imply that the frequency of my masturbation is somehow superior or even sexier. And I don't mean my incredulity at these comparisons to come off as shaming other women. I truly don't mean to throw any shade on women who choose to orgasm less often than I do.

I think maybe everyone is wondering what normal is. If we could remove our societal value judgments about normal or abnormal sexuality, maybe we could all just be ourselves and please ourselves without worrying so much.

Others have brought up the slut/frigid bitch dichotomy. Women are punished for both too much and too little sexual desire, and "too much" and "too little" are often defined in relation to the amount of sexual desire a male partner has.

My experiences, though, are all with the slut end of the spectrum. Frequency of orgasms isn't the only number that matters there. There's also number of partners. There was a movie that came out in 2011 called What's Your Number? It's about a woman who freaks the fuck out in response to a magazine article that correlates having more than twenty partners and having trouble finding a husband. She's been with nineteen people, and she thinks she needs to be sure that the next man she gets with is her husband.

I'll just say that I found the number twenty…quaint. I'll never forget going to a clinic to get tested and learning that having more than three partners in a year was considered promiscuous. That particular year, I'd had thirteen.

These numbers about partners are another vector along which I've always felt bizarre and over-sexed. Part of what's always been strange to me is that I can't imagine being any other way. How else would I fall asleep? And as far as the number of partners, aside from issues of coercion and the way people treat you when you're known as the town slut, I've just never seen the point in waiting when all parties involved know what they want to do. I've never been sure how people manage to hold back so much.

And I think this gets me to a very similar place to where Jean ended up. It would be so great to live in a world where we could be our true sexual selves without shame (assuming consent and safer sex practices). What if we stopped counting these things? What if I stopped counting?

For a long time, I tracked lovers according to several complicated systems. I lived in fear of discovering I'd forgotten a lover's last name, or wasn't sure exactly what I'd done with them. I obsessed over what did and didn't "count" as sex. But I think all that was part of the effort to be normal when I didn't feel normal, or to cling to whatever sense of normal I could.

What isn't normal, but should be, is to learn what's right for oneself and go with it.

I'll end with a plug for the best book of sex science aimed at women that I've ever read. Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are is the first book I've read that explained things I experienced, treated a wide variety of sexual personalities as normal, and never once made me feel like a slut. What if I'm not over-sexed at all, but properly sexed for me? I highly recommend that book.

(I'm posting on the weekend to make up for missing my normal day in this cycle. Back to normal next time, everyone!)


  1. You may or may not know that Emily Nagoski is HERE! (Not here in our living room, that is, but here in Northampton, where she works at Smith as the wellness education director.) Local pride squeeeee!!

    What isn't normal, but should be, is to learn what's right for oneself and go with it.

    Exactly!! And not just for sex, but for personal well-being in general.

    1. That is awesome about Emily Nagoski! If you ever see signs about her giving a talk, please email widely! And yay for local pride, and for personal well-being as well!

  2. Why is it that people feel they have to judge others? We're all different, so why make a negative of our differences? If anything, we should celebrate those different than us. Christ, how boring would erotica be if we all experienced similar reactions to the same stimuli. For that matter, how one-dimensional would the world be.

    1. It's a good point, and one you're good at making. I think there's a lot of fear of being too outside the circle of acceptable behavior. The judging is both defense and offense, and hard to resist. Though you're absolutely right that no one would actually want such a one-dimensional world (or at least that I wouldn't).

  3. Masturbation as a cure for insomnia! And here I've been trying to make do with keeping a cup of sleepy-time type chamomile tea ready (and cold by that time) for when I inevitably wake up around four AM (or anywhere from two to six, for that matter) and really have to get more sleep because I have so much to do the next day, especially if it involves driving long distances.

    Hmm. Sex tends to wake me up rather than put me to sleep, but at least it would distract me from the worries (real or imagined) that keep me awake, including the worry that I won't be able to function as I should if I don't get more sleep. But there's that being coupled thing you mentioned, which does make things awkward.

    1. Sex wakes me up, too, and has always been a funny source of conflict with male partners as a result. (Most women I've talked to say it wakes them up). Masturbation, however, does relax me and help me sleep. It's interesting how it's different.

  4. I missed reading this earlier, Annabeth. Excellent points.

    Counting orgasms, counting lovers, counting sex scenes... there's no equation relating any of these to eroticism or to sexual satisfaction. We live in a world that loves to quantify things, perhaps in order to gain some sort of control over them. The meaning, though, slips between the cracks of the numbers.

    As for Kinsey -- well, I recently read T.C. Boyle's fictionalized account of his life and research (The Inner Circle). If the portrayal is at all accurate, Kinsey himself was hypersexual and seeking justification for his own desires.


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