Your sex life is more transactional than you think

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Don’t write about sexual history or morality that often — although have, here and there — but figured I’d use my relatively-limited platform to make a quick point herein.

This comes about at the intersection of a few things:

  • A NPR Hidden Brain podcast on “the hookup culture,” which talks about Tinder and stuff but is mostly focused on college campuses. So many depressing lines in that podcast about how 18 to 22-year-olds are learning about sex (or continuing to learn about it), including one guy saying “She really liked me, so she can’t have sex with me, but she’s always off having sex with this other guy.” Huh? Our grandparents would be like “Goddamn you, Steve Jobs! You wrought all this!” (He didn’t really.)
  • Mark Manson’s “A Brief History Of Romantic Love And Why It Kind Of Sucks.” Good writer and article. You can probably infer a lot of the arguments without me needing to quote anything out. I might later, though.
  • My own marriage and divorce deal.

My point is that I think both genders tend to attach a bit too much to sex. That’s a generalization often heaped on females, but I know males (sometimes even myself) guilty of that. But in reality, a lot of sex is simply … well, transactional. Let’s see if I can effectively make this point.

Let’s start with some sex partners numbers

Hold on to your hats for this one, because it might surprise you.

Baby Boomers averaged 11 sexual partners in their lives (varies a bit by gender) and Gen X averaged 10. Millennials, though …

… they’re only on pace to hit eight.

What the fuck? Isn’t this the generation with apps designed for sexual partner seeking? Aren’t they getting married later, or not at all? Shouldn’t they be doubling the Boomers?

Well, yes and no. But if you listen to that Hidden Brain podcast I linked above, the hookup culture — which would drive higher numbers — is only beneficial for a certain socioeconomic slice of attractive white males. (The stereotype here would be lacrosse players, etc.) Most other people feel left out of the culture and thus retreat from sex. One girl on Hidden Brain says “It’s bad when you know someone is using you, but it’s almost worse when you’re not being used, because then it’s like no one wants you.”

Let that heartbreak set in for a second and then we’ll move on.

OK, so if those numbers are true…

Let’s give millennials a few more rolls in the hay and bring them to 10. Let’s assume a good chunk eventually get married and there’s limited infidelity. So most will end at about 10.

That means you’ve got 9 other partners, right? Now look, I’m all for When Harry Met Sally and other movies, and I realize some people bang their best friend along the way and it’s all good. That’s not the norm, but it does happen.

My number is higher than 10, but I’d estimate I have no relationship with probably 80% of my current list, and that’s potentially a little bit low.

Think about your own list. Could you even do first/last name on everyone? (Ideally you should be able to, but I know dozens of people who can’t.) How many do you still speak to, with “saw this thing on Facebook” not counting?

Now look, there are outliers in every deal: high school relationships going the distance, saved self for marriage, etc. Those seem more common 4–5 generations ago, but they still happen. So obviously everyone’s story is a bit different. We’re all magical butterflies.

But if you end up sleeping with 10 people, I’d take $20 in Vegas that you probably have an end-game relationship with your wife/husband and maybe 1–2 of the rest of the list.

So, as such…

… maybe those other 7–8 occurred in long-term, deeply-passionate relationships. Awesome. But now those relationships are over, so by technical definition, that chunk of your sexual history is transactional. It served a specific need at a specific time but it doesn’t have any long-term resonance behind maybe a fleeting memory or two (and if you’re currently married, hopefully not that many of such memories).

Now bring strict biology into this fast

The strict biological constructs around sexual usefulness — along with some religions — is that sex is tied to procreation. If you’re a woman and you hit 44 and you can’t give birth (I raised the number because all the numbers we tell women currently are a lie) then technically, to a sexual biologist, you have no role in the world anymore. Harsh but true. They discuss that whole deal in a New Yorker article on Silicon Valley trying to “hack” death. I’m 36 and don’t have kids. It’s a little bit different because I’m a guy, but I got to that part about “being biologically useless” and almost collapsed into tears on a flight. So that’s fun!

Per research, the ideal American family size is shrinking — it’s about 2.1 kids. (Here are some global fertility rates.) If you believe in strict biology or religion and you have two kids, that means 2 out of the 1,000+ times you have sex as a married couple (I gave you the benefit of the doubt) are transformative, i.e. they changed and created life. The other ones? Well, what are the other ones…?

Inside married sex

Man, this might be the biggest rabbit hole I’ve ever attempted to go down, and if you know anything about how I write, that says a lot. Let’s try this, though.

First of all, think of 10 guys you know who you’ve ever discussed sex with. How many complain about the quantity of sex in their relationship? I’d say 8 is going to be the average. It might be one of the top-10 topics in stand-up comedy history.

Tim Ferriss and Ester Perel deep-dive on this pretty well in a podcast from May. Thing is: people’s lives get busy, especially as they have kids and take on more responsibility at work. So a lot of married sex does, in fact, become transactional. Reasons can include:

  • “Haven’t done this in a while.”
  • “Feels like we should.”
  • “Man, that was a lot of wine.”

Is every couple like this? Good Lord no. Some are absolute zero (as in never) and some are all over each other. But no research or idea-generation can capture every scenario. I’m speaking to what I’ve seen, read about, listened to, and knew.

Fun sidebar: if you want to make a list of “stuff never to say in front of your wife,” here is the place to start. I was at a wedding once and we were talking to a couple trying to conceive. In front of his wife, the husband says “Yea, so fucking now is like taking out the trash.” See, I get the analogy, but … a million times no.

Sad but true fact is, as life gets busier for many, probably some people do feel that way about the intimate side of their relationship. I just wouldn’t say it at weddings in front of your partner.

So what’s the point here?

Simple. We attach all these feelings and emotions to sex, and that’s logical from brain and biochemistry. But if you really stop and think about it, the vast majority of sex you’ll have is probably going to be transactional and serving some type of short-term purpose. That’s going to be the SIGNIFICANT chunk of your experience there, whether or not you’re in love with the person on the receiving end at the time.

So maybe there’s something to be said for embracing that attitude, being freer with our emotions and physicality, and remaining safe with our protection?

Just a thought. Would love to hear any of yours.

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