Sex survey puts paid to the myths and shows the reality

What is ‘average’? When it comes to sex, it’s comforting to know we are not as strange or weird as we might think


We are all intensely interested in reading about other people’s sexual lives and it is even more compelling to compare ourselves to what appears to be the “average”. On the one hand, none of us likes to consider ourselves average but there is a comfort in knowing that we are not as strange or weird as we might think. The Irish Times sex survey offers us a glimpse into the lives of our fellow citizens and compatriots in the western world and some of the results are surprising in that what we imagine to be normal may in fact be wide of the mark.

We often think, particularly when warning younger people of the dangers of sex, that our world has become over-ridden with sex, porn and fantasy but this survey shows perhaps that we are having as much sex as our parents and grandparents.

For couples who are together more than a year, the average amount of sex is once a week and it seems that most couples experience orgasm and satisfaction and they almost all rate trust and communication as vital to good intimacy. This sounds very sane and yet it can provide longevity as those couples who are in a relationship for more than 30 years report having a good sex life.

There is some truth to the maxim “use it or lose it”, and staying sexually active throughout life can keep us open to the world, engaged with the human side of us and keep us generous and kind. Habit can however be boring and it seems that men (and homosexual and bisexuals in particular) seek to keep the sex interesting and varied and this might be worth noting as desire and intimacy keeps us on the edge of life.

People report that talking about the difficulties appears to be the best way of solving them and this survey shows that dysfunction is not just an experience of aging but is common across all age groups. That talking and communication can improve your sex life is something that deserves consideration as many people would hesitate before discussing their intimate lives with friends or family and yet this might be the road to understanding and success.

We often talk to our partners but can find that fear of upsetting or causing hurt can limit our conversations and so perhaps we could risk opening up to other people and we might find perspective and compassion there.

Also, the survey suggests that people have become more flexible in their sexual practices, with oral, anal and fantasy sex becoming part of the sexual fabric, and the internet has become both a source for information and a sexual satisfaction tool for many people.

The survey could have gone further here and investigated how much and what type of porn is used and what effect it has on people as individuals and on their relationships. That porn has become the hidden underbelly of modern sexuality is not in doubt but how this affects us and our choices would be a good subject for discussion across all ages.

Most young people report having a reasonable relationship with porn in that they know it is fantasy and that real human beings behave differently but there are those who become obsessed with it and find that they are having difficulty with reconciling their fantasies with real-life relationships. This can lead to hiding their real desires and the possibility of intimacy with a real person becomes remote as revealing the truth might bring shame and condemnation.

If this is not tackled quickly then the habit can become hardened and it is more difficult to solve when the person eventually meets someone they want to be intimate with. So, again, talking and opening up at an early stage is the way to go but this might be a very difficult ask of a vulnerable person. Further surveys on this topic of porn and sexuality might allow people to feel more normal and less alone in their situations but we need information that is more detailed and varied.

The survey reports that the average age of the first sexual experience is 19 (slightly younger for girls) and this something that might take pressure off young people who feel their virginity to be a burden to be got rid of. Most teenagers report that they think the age of loss of virginity is much younger than this and this might offer some relief.

Added to this is the information of the average numbers of sexual partners in a lifetime is also lower than expected (10 on average) and this might also give people time to allow themselves to experience this across the lifespan rather than trying to gather experience in a few short years.

That younger people report satisfaction in the sex education they receive is also heartening as this is new for Ireland and it might mean that there will be a new openness and lightness about sexuality that has not been available heretofore. However, with the onslaught of internet porn there is no doubt that we will need more knowledge and support than has been required previously.

Having sex surveys that are done by an independent, credible source offers a wonderful alternative to going to the internet for information. However, we need information that is more in-depth as this merely whets our appetite for more of what is usual, normal and acceptable in our intimate lives.

That there are many people and couples who have no sex in their lives needs also to be acknowledged and their experiences and attitudes validated. Our sexuality is core to our being and it continues to be relevant for the entirety of our lives – this survey validates this notion and further research is needed as the complexity of our sexuality is revealed.

Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist and an Irish Times columnist

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