A tweet that went viral four days before the end of 2021, followed by an even more popular TikTok, read: "Apparently, the average person has sex around 51 times a year. Not sure I'm ready for the next four days, tbh." As with anything to do with sex – or anything that goes viral online – it had the internet divided.
Reading it took me back to being 15 years old and seeing pictures of my mates at a house party while I sat at home with my parents, watching I'm a Celeb on a Saturday night. Embarrassment, shame and a self-evaluation of the crippling un-coolness of my current life ensued for the first time since leaving school. Three different friends sent me the tweet – clearly the cobwebs forming across my vagina were no longer a private matter.
Having sex makes us cool, right? "You're a virgin who can't drive" has to be one of the most memorable insults in pop culture history. If I had to get my iCal out to remember the last time another human and I were freaks in the sheets, or even missionary planks Inbetweeners-style, then clearly it was time to get off the sofa (which, too fittingly, I am back to sharing with my parents) or prepare for a sexless, sad life.
But the thing is, I'm not sad at all and it wasn't long before different feelings of shame started to creep in. Was I really re-evaluating my life choices, which made me pretty damn happy, because of a stat about sex?
Sex is personal. Mind your business and let people mind theirs.
This longstanding idea that the frequency with which we have sex, our number of sexual partners or even how adventurous we get with the Kama Sutra should have any impact on how the world sees us – or, worse, how we see ourselves – has to go.
Anna, a 23-year-old sales ops associate, is on the other side of the stat. Last year she had sex about 75 to 100 times with 16 different people – one of whom is now her boyfriend.
"I don't give society's views on my sex life a second thought or allow them to have power over me," she shared with R29. "Some may say I'm having too much [sex], some may say I'm having too little! It is for me to know and decide," she added. "I think there is a lot of shame that is wrongly associated with sex. Society can easily influence one's perception of themselves, or others, in a general scope, when it shouldn't. Sex is personal. Mind your business and let people mind theirs. Oftentimes those statistics are alienating."
Ollie, a 22-year-old student at Winchester University, echoes this and raises a key factor that led to much of the conversation on social media: the impact of COVID-19.
He admits that the first year of lockdowns made for a very different dating scene but it did readjust his priorities for 2021, and "loosened any social inhibitions to just crack on with people I fancied".
"The first thing I thought when I read the stat was, That's probably a lot, but then when you think about it, it's less than once a week. So, for me, now three months into a relationship, it happens a lot more than that," he tells R29. "Before getting into my relationship I had sex with nine people last year. But I don't base my self-worth or how attractive I feel on the amount I have sex at all. I think it's quite a superficial way to define yourself. There's a lot more to life than just numbers, sex, or trying to get prestige from the people we sleep with."
While the past two years of COVID rules may have given some people a newfound confidence in sex and dating – as in Ollie's case – for others quite the opposite is true. Despite the UK returning to some sort of normalcy last year, many of us came out of months of isolation with re-evaluated opinions towards getting intimate.
I try not to attach self-worth to sex because it's a fleeting feeling of confidence, almost like a filter on Instagram. If you aren't confident in yourself then it won't last.
Angela, a 24-year-old bar manager in Essex, had her sex life turned upside down by COVID.
"In a pre-pandemic life I had many sexual partners, both men and women, but at one point it all started to become meaningless and I was desensitised to it," Angela says. "I've been in two serious relationships before and understand what I'm looking for. Sex is an important thing, you're giving someone your complete self, and I just don't want to do that with strangers anymore. Having the time alone made me realise that."
For Rebecca, a 24-year-old buying assistant in London, this idea of reserving sex for someone you have a genuine connection with is nothing new. But with fewer opportunities to create these connections, and staying cautious despite restrictions easing, she didn't have sex at all last year.
"Sex can help you feel more confident. It's almost like a confirmation that someone is interested in you so it does give a weird reassurance in yourself. But I try not to attach that self-worth to it because it's a fleeting feeling of confidence, almost like a filter on Instagram. If you aren't confident in yourself then it won't last," she shared with R29. "I feel most sexy, confident and empowered when pushing my body physically. An intense workout or run makes me feel stronger in myself and who I am as a person more than anything else."
Delving deeper into the origin of the headline stat, it's actually a YouGov data set from February 2020, before COVID took hold. According to that data, "sexually active Brits on average have sex 1.1 times in a week." So we may have jumped the gun by getting heated about it online, although some of the comments were quite hilarious.
Looking at the most recent data – which has been tracked weekly up until 30th December 2021 – the fuller picture shows that 31% of people aren't sexually active, 31% are sexually active but haven't had sex in the past week, 15% prefer not to say, 10% have sex once a week, 12% have sex between two and six times a week, and 1% have sex seven times or more a week. The numbers really aren't that different from those taken in February 2020 – despite the somewhat misleading, now famous statistic.
But ultimately, who cares? Hopefully no one. Back in February 2020, I would have been on the other side of the coin myself. In full honesty, I'm just as happy – if not more so – in myself and my current life than ever before, and the frequency with which I have sex has nothing to do with it. We have so many other things in life to worry about than sex – something that's meant to be enjoyable – so go forth, have as much or as little as you desire, and the next time one of these stats comes up, let's all just scroll past.