The Typical Sex Life Fallacy
[Related to: Different Worlds.]
[Please note that this post contains explicit discussion of sexuality (without pictures), including discussion of my own sex life.]
[I have no moderation control, but I would definitely really appreciate it if further discussion of whether this post and ones like it are appropriate for LW move to here.]
My friend Andrew Rettek remarked to me a while back about the tremendous diversity in how people shower.
People may take anywhere between five minutes and forty minutes to shower. They may wash their hair daily, once a week, or not at all. They may wash their bodies thoroughly, only clean the parts that look dirty, only clean certain parts (such as the armpits or genitals), or just stand under the water. They may use a loofah, a sponge, or nothing. They may bring in a comb to comb out the conditioner. They may sing. They may zone out. They may jerk off. They may bathe instead, and bathing may involve reading a book or bath bombs or lighting candles and drinking a nice bottle of wine or bubble bath or none of those things at all. The one thing that is consistent is that everyone thinks the way they shower is the way normal people shower.
The reason for all this diversity, of course, is that after early childhood we don’t shower together (except in locker rooms or as a form of sexual foreplay, both of which are likely to be unusual) and we rarely discuss exactly how we shower. We can get a certain amount of information about typical showers (such as length) from living with people, but again most people don’t live with that many people, and the people they live with may be unusual. The rule follows: for things that are private and rarely discussed, there may be a good deal of unacknowledged diversity.
Sex is interesting because, while private, it is often discussed. People (including myself) have a certain tendency to deduce what sex is like for everyone from what sex is like for ourselves. As an example, consider pubic hair. There are innumerable thinkpieces about the pressure experienced by women to shave their pubic hair and the disgust of their male sexual partners if they are unshaven.
This has never been my experience. I have literally never had a man offer any opinion on my pubic hair whatsoever. If he did I would consider him to be an utter boor, I would never hook up with him again, and I would complain to my friends and expect all my friends to be sympathetic. My local norm is that, while of course one may have preferences about pubic hair grooming or genital size or coloring or some other traits, it is incredibly rude to voice any opinion about others’ genitals other than “happy to be here!” Maybe if you’re in a long-term committed relationship with someone you could bring up the topic politely, while remaining aware that their pubic hair grooming is their own business and you have no right to demand anything.
In the rare occasions where I’ve had the opportunity to find out men’s opinions on pubic hair, they have often been enthusiastic. For instance, when I cammed, my clients universally preferred a hairy pussy. (As my ex-girlfriend used to joke, “the first day you cam you shave your pussy, six months in you start googling ‘pubic hair thicker darker techniques.‘”) And of the men I know who have mentioned their opinions on pubic hair, most have been something along the lines of “I say grow that shit like a jungle, give ’em something strong to hold onto, let it fly in the open wind” (although they do not generally agree that if it get too bushy you can trim).
Do I think the thinkpiece writers are wrong? Probably not! I suspect they’re accurately reporting what the dating pool is like for them and their friends, but for some reason it’s different. Perhaps men who hire camgirls are older and have more old-fashioned preferences, or hairy pussies are undersupplied in mainstream porn causing their aficionados to seek out handmade artisanal porn, or a hairy pussy makes the camgirl look normal and attainable and clients find this attractive. Many of my friends are queer; perhaps queers are different from heterosexuals, and this rubs off even on the straight men around them. Maybe I spend lots of time in sex-positive communities, and we’ve successfully created a norm of body positivity, which means that people feel it is rude to make negative comments on other people’s bodies. Maybe it’s something I haven’t thought of.
Another example: a few months back, I was reading an argument about polyamory in which a monogamous man said that he knew that poly men didn’t really have girlfriends, because their wives would shut down this whole poly thing the second they started spending $10,000 a year on their new girlfriend, as of course everyone does. My first reaction was to make fun of it: who spends $10,000 a year on a girlfriend? What the fuck are you buying her, a solid gold pony shoed with diamonds? I want someone to spend ten thousand dollars a year on me, that sounds great.
(Topher: “I think that probably involves a lot of nice dinners at fancy restaurants with expensive bottles of wine, and you have a phobia of alcohol.” Me: “they can buy me tea instead! you know how much really good pu’erh I could get for $800 a month?”)
To be clear: while there might be some extraordinarily wealthy poly person who spends $10,000 a year on their girlfriends, in my experience of poly communities this is not true. Typical dates include “taking a long walk”, “getting a cup of coffee”, “watching a TV show on Netflix”, “being on Tumblr in the same room and showing each other cute cat gifs”, and “taking care of a small child together”. (Maybe that last one is just me.) If you get dinner, you can generally expect to split the bill, unless one person happens to be particularly poor or prone to forgetting their wallet, and the date is probably going to be at a $5 burrito place. In my experience, polyamory only starts getting pricey if you have to buy plane tickets to visit out-of-town partners or start letting all your partners stay in your house rent-free in the Bay Area.
But when I make fun of $10,000/year guy, I’m making the same error. I’ve generally only dated broke students, broke artists, and programmers, who while wealthy have a distinct tendency to drive old cars and refuse to wear any shirts not given to them for free. And even if I did go on a first date with someone who wanted to spend $10,000/year on me, I would wear sweatpants to the nice restaurant, not be able to find anything lacto vegetarian on the menu without custom-ordering some very depressing spaghetti with marinara sauce, and flinch away from the expensive wine as if it were a spider. At that point the question is just who rejects whom first.
Instead of assuming that the people I date are a random selection from the pool of All People Who Date Ever, I should assume that they’re a biased sample: they’re people I’m attracted to, who are attracted to me, and whom I even get a chance to meet and interact with at all. This is a pretty biased subset of humanity: no prizes for guessing why I don’t typically date monolingual Swahili speakers.
And I’m unlikely to notice the other subsets of humanity even exist. While I can observe the existence of truck drivers, hockey fans, and other people far different from me, sex and romance are private, and I only get indirect evidence and self-report of what other people’s sexual or romantic lives are like. It’s particularly easy to assume that what it’s like for me is what it’s like for everyone—just like it’s easy for me to assume that everyone else zones out in the shower.
Therefore, I think it’s a good practice to, when people make claims about dating or sex that seem ludicrous or bizarre to you, have as your first hypothesis that they are accurately describing some dating pool you are not in.