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Sexaggeration: How Much Sex Are You Having?

Other people must be having way more sex.

Key points

  • We evaluate our own personal and social worth by comparing ourselves to others.
  • Keeping score of how much sex we have is important in transactional relationships.
  • In interpersonal relationships, sex is negotiated, not exchanged—there's no need to "sexaggerate."

Author Rebecca Reid has coined the phrase "sexaggeration" to talk about why we typically think that other people are having more sex than we are. As Reid describes, you’re having a chat with a group of your close friends, and someone volunteers that they are having sex five or six times a week. "How about you?" they ask. What do you do?

  • You could not answer, but that may not fit this situation of being with intimate friends.
  • You could tell the truth, which is likely to be less than five or six times a week. The average is thought to be about once or twice a week.
  • You could lie, say you are doing it about as much as everyone else…or more.

Lots of us will be tempted to lie, "rounding up" the true figure and skipping over the times when we are not having much sex for one reason or another. This leads to what Reid calls the “inflation effect.” If you "round up" to five or six times, others will likely think they are having less sex than you are when the question comes up again. You can see where this is going—everyone is lying. And we all think we are failing sexually.

What Do the Data Tell Us?

Ipsos, a global market research and public opinion organization, in 2016 studies on misperceptions, asked people in Britain and America to guess how often people in their country aged 18 to 29 years had sex. Here is what they found about what people thought about others' sex experiences.

  • People thought that young men in both countries had sex 14 times in the previous month. The actual number is five in Britain and four in America.
  • Men think women are having an incredible amount of sex—22 times a month in Britain and 23 times a month in America. It’s about five times a month in each country.

Why Do We Compare?

Reid wonders, Why are we so bothered about what others think about our sex life? For her, how much sex she is having is like a health check on her marriage. She, like others, has internalized the idea that how much sex you have is a direct reflection of how happy you are with your marriage. Admitting to having a sexless week is terrifying.

Social comparison theory, introduced by Leon Festinger, suggests that people evaluate their own personal and social worth by how they compare to others. We compare our relationships, often unconsciously, to others in our social worlds, such as friends, coworkers, celebrities, etc. Comparing how much sex we are having may be a way of evaluating if we are getting what we want from our relationship.

Comparing our sex life to others' is particularly relevant if you think of your relationship in transactional terms in which keeping score is how we evaluate the relationship. This is the idea that marital interactions are based on each partner fulfilling the needs of the other in a “quid pro quo” arrangement. You work to fulfill my self-identified needs, and I work to fulfill yours.

The point of comparison is to help you decide if you are having enough of your sexual desires met to make the relationship valuable to you…on an ongoing basis. This is called the social exchange theory of relationship—the contract model of marriage.

At the heart of the marital contract, which is not necessarily formally agreed upon, but can be implicit, is getting something deemed equal in return for what you give. This means that partners contribute to the relationship (do housework, have sex, make dinner, mow the lawn, take care of children, etc.) and expect to get something of perceived equal value in return. This is based on the worldview that we are motivated by self-interest (i.e., we look out for "number one").

Psychologist John Gottman, a well-known researcher on marriage, tells us that this kind of "unspoken contract" in a marriage is full of anger and resentment because each partner is consciously or unconsciously keeping score.He says that happy marriages are not about 50-50 transactions.

By the way, psychologists started using the idea of "need" instead of thinking we have wants, desires, and preferences in the middle of the 20th century because it fit with the general idea of the era that we are all motivated primarily (or mostly) by self-interest. Hence, the need for a "contract" to make sure we are getting what we "need."

Partnered Sex Is Interpersonal, not Transactional.

Let’s rethink the transactional, contractual view of sex, in which we see men and women as self-interested agents. We can think about having sex as a partnership—even if it is a one-off encounter. In having sex once or regularly, you cooperate with a partner to have both pleasure and/or be interested in baby-making. You are both interested in your own experience, and you are both interested in your partner’s experience—it’s both self-interested and other-interested.

Sexual Partners Negotiate Sex.

Partners negotiate their sexual relationship and the sexual activity in the context of the relationship. Human sexuality is defined in terms of the kind of relationship you have with a partner—even if that “partnership” is a one-time encounter. What you want sexually is not a static thing. It will change from time to time with the same partner and will change from partner to partner. You must work it out each time in the context of the relationship that it is happening.

Good, partnered sex can be had when

  • Partners are fully committed to the value of each other.
  • Partners can hear "No."
  • Partners are willing to negotiate cooperatively, not influenced by gender or status.
  • Partners both want to have sex and feel excited about it.
  • Partners can let go of stereotyped views of male and female sexuality.

Negotiating sex in a truly partnered sexual encounter is an exploration of what each of you wants (forget needs) each time you have sex. Do you want sex for pleasure? Do you want sex as an intimate relationship encounter? Do you want sex because you are feeling lonely, anxious, etc.? Do you want to make a baby? Do you want sex because you adore your partner?

Partners talk to each other, every time, about why sex is important to them at that moment. And they also talk about the way in which they want to have sex, how often they want to have sex, etc. If you reduce sex to a "need," there is no need to explore what having sex means to each of you. Instead, make negotiating sex fun.

We Don’t Need to Compare—We Talk to Each Other.

When we compare ourselves to others, we often get it wrong. Researchers who study misperception tell us that, in most instances, we try to get an idea of social norms from our observations of the world. But sex happens mostly behind closed doors. And the sex that is observable for general viewing is not a fully accurate indicator of the norm.

So, if you find yourself "sexaggerating" in comparison to others, talk to your partner.


Reid, R. “Sexaggration: The Sex Trend Making Us Feel Bad About Our Relationships.” Metro. July 30, 2018.

Catherine Aponte. Sex Is Not Just Sex—It's Baby-Making. Psychology Today.

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