Love & Sex

Why Do We Care More About Other People’s Sex Lives Than Our Own?

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A new study reveals chasing other people's sex lives is making us miserable.

If you thought you were dissatisfied because you were coveting your neighbor’s five iPads and six Jaguars, it might also be because you’re coveting the ten thousand times a month you suspect they are having sex while you’re not. According to a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder, our satisfaction with the frequency of our sexual activity largely depends on how we think we’re measuring up to our peers. Using national statistics from the General Social Survey from 1993 to 2006, the leader of this study, professor of sociology Tim Wadsworth, found increasingly higher levels of happiness correlated with increasingly higher levels of sexual frequency. Well, duh. More orgasms and intimacy are generally synonymous with a healthier, happier lifestyle. 

After controlling for the variables of different sexual frequencies, though, Wadsworth realized an interesting pattern: when subjects thought their neighbors were getting laid more than them, they were unhappy. If subjects thought they were doing as well or better than their friends in the bedroom, they reported back greater happiness. "Having more sex makes us happy, but thinking that we are having more sex than other people makes us even happier," the study concludes a little ominously, suggesting we care not only about our sex lives, but if we out-do the public by relative comparison. 

Which raises the question: who are we having sex for? I would like to say the resounding answer is, “For ourselves.” The dubious component of that, though, is that statistically we appear to be devaluing our sexual satisfaction if it doesn’t live up to what we only think others are doing in bed. "If members of a peer group are reporting having sex two to three times a month, but believe their peers are on a once weekly schedule, their probability of reporting a higher level of happiness falls by 14%," Wadsworth adds.

If our perceptions of enviable lifestyles like class and health are mostly visually apparent, (the types of houses we live in, slim and sculpted figures), then our source for our sexual neuroses and feelings of shortcomings must come from vocalized outside sources. We do not want for these sources; the internet and our personal conversations are rife with detailed accounts about our own and other’s sexual activity and frequency.

We’re finding out about the inner intricacies of our peers’ sex lives because we’re broadcasting it, openly and readily. Men’s and women’s magazines with high circulations, blogs, even sites like our very own Nerve have opened up free dialogs about sexuality. Within those conversations come innumerable reports of our Skype sex, bondage fetish, masturbation addictions, be they real, perceived, or fictionalized. On occasion, sex is done for the report, and much more frequently, there is pleasure in the report to others. This study complicates the notions of happiness with our sexuality when we start to think that our happiness might frighteningly depend too much on other’s sexual identity—our activity versus their inactivity.

If sexuality has become just another keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, I can think of a few benchmarks in the cultural landscape: George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and even the fictional Don Draper have become paragons of active, successful sex lives. But according to sociologists, comparing ourselves to aspirational figures of sexual satisfaction and reliance on self-reports to inform our own will just make us miserable, detracting from the original enjoyment of sex in the first place.