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.