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Statistics Could Do More For Your Sex Life Than ‘Female Viagra’

Other people’s sex lives can ruin yours: If you think you’re having less sex than your peers, it can take a toll on your relationship and your overall happiness. That’s one problem some experts see with flibanserin, a drug to treat low libido in women that was approved by the FDA on Tuesday. When does a “low” libido become a problem that requires medication? We don’t know.

According to the Mayo Clinic, any level of libido that falls short of a patient’s expectation could be considered “low.” Flibanserin — wrongly nicknamed “female Viagra” — raises desire modestly, but it might do less for sexual satisfaction than just having an accurate idea of what other people are doing.1

Inaccurate perceptions about what counts as normal sexuality are widespread. In sociologist Michael Kimmel’s book “Guyland: The Perilous World in Which Boys Become Men,” he found that male college students assumed about 80 percent of their classmates had sex on any given weekend. The real number was closer to 5 percent to 10 percent. Kathleen Bogle, the author of “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus,” also found in her interviews that students consistently overestimated the amount of sex that others were having.

The result is a reverse Lake Wobegon effect: Everyone is below “normal.” Rachel Hills, author of “The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality,” told me that the women she interviewed “have internalized that sex should happen two to three times a week.” In reality, according to the 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, less than half of men and women 18 to 49 in partnered relationships report having sex at least that often.

When people grade their sex lives relative to their peers, it takes a toll on their overall happiness, not just satisfaction with their sex lives. Tim Wadsworth, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that falling behind other people’s sex lives can lower overall happiness. For every level of sexual activity (two to three times a week, once a week, two to three times a month, etc.) that people were behind the actual average for their peers, they were 14 percent more likely to describe themselves as “not too happy” rather than either “pretty happy” or “very happy.”2

Emily Nagoski, author of “Come as You Are,” says that we’re not only making ourselves miserable by judging our sex lives by the activities of others, but we’re also keeping score using the wrong metrics, period. She told me, “I don’t know how we got to the point where we put more of the emphasis on craving, not enjoyment.” Women are more likely to experience responsive desire (sexual desire that kicks in during sexual activity, rather than preceding it), so treating spontaneous desire, not pleasure, as the barometer for sexual well-being will leave these women feeling insufficient.

These mismatches — between expectations and reality and between what leads to happiness and what people think leads to happiness — have real consequences. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage told me that he sees a lot of what he describes as “the carnage” of mismatched or misunderstood libidos. He worries that medicalizing the issue could increase the pressure on a woman who is anxious about living up to a partner’s or society’s expectations.

“Often the person with a cratered desire feels broken, is treated like they’re the problem, and along comes this pill that won’t do what the commercials lead you to believe it does,” Savage said. “And this pill will be another thing the person with low libido gets to fail.”

Footnotes

  1. In clinical trials, the drug caused one additional “sexually satisfying event” per month compared with a placebo.

  2. Wadsworth used data from the 1993 through 2006 waves of the General Social Survey, which categorizes frequency of sexual activity by asking respondents how often they tended to have sex in the last 12 months: not at all, once or twice, about once a month, two or three times a month, about once a week, two or three times a week, more than three times a week.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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