Of all the suggested lifestyle scripts, none may carry as much internal strife as the one advising the right amount of sex. Throw a stone and you’ll hit someone’s idea of a healthy minimum—but let’s take this moment to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as the right amount of sex, only whatever you desire and can reasonably procure and justify. So when considering how much to “do” others, always remember to still do you, too.

Of course, coming up with your own yardstick for sex launch and/or frequency is easier said than done. We all know intellectually that we should look to our own inner standard to evaluate a lot of things—how happy we are, how pretty we feel, what success looks like, and how much action we should be getting day in, day out. But none of us really lives in a vacuum, and even those among us who think we are rugged individualists are probably as guilty as anyone when it comes to measuring ourselves against others.

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But sex is a different story, because how much sex you should be having and with whom is not just about how much you want to have it. There’s also how much you can get it, how often, and layers of messages about when it’s OK to have it and with whom. Demographics—culture, gender, sexual orientation and religion all factor in on some level or another, to say nothing of actual sex drive. And then there’s body image, body shame, general shame, specific shame, your general confidence about your sexual abilities and sexual enticement factor.

And we haven’t even mentioned what’s going on with your junk yet, aesthetically or otherwise. These are all things that can influence, spur, or inhibit our sex drive, sexual desire, and place in a sexual landscape—and it can all turn on a dime too, depending on age, circumstances, mood. It’s a wonder we ever pull it off, all this boning.

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It’s all compounded when the sex you want, or don’t want, feels well outside the perceived norm for your situation. We’ve written about why sex twice a week, for instance, is a misleading bit of advice that should stop being perpetuated, but it sticks in the mind nonetheless, and is likely to remain the baseline to which many of us compare our sex lives throughout eternity.

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Here is the real truth about sex frequency: The right amount for you is somewhere between none and some, depending.

This week’s sex diary at The Cut, for instance, is a tortured tale of a guy in a “great” no-sex relationship in which he is tempted to deviate. He writes:

I lie in bed sexually frustrated. My girlfriend has never been very sexual. She blames her Catholic upbringing, and she also believes some people are born with higher/lower sex drives than others. Her sex drive is extremely low. Mine is not outrageously high but … I like sex a lot! Year one, we had sex a fair amount. Year two, we had sex twice a month or so? Now, it’s a special-occasion thing only. Christmas, birthdays … what a cliché!

He is not fine with his situation; he is not having enough sex, because he is not having any. He should investigate. But, compare that with an essay in the New York Times about losing your virginity too “late”—at 26—where author Rachel Hills writes that for a while, no sex was the perfect amount:

It wasn’t that I was afraid of sex, or disgusted by it. Like most people I knew, I talked about it near constantly. In conversation, I was cool, flirtatious, ballsy. Yet privately, my sex life was largely nonexistent, and not entirely by my own choosing. In an ideal world, I would have shed my virginity in the first year or two of college, but the right opportunity never seemed to present itself. I wanted to have sex, but I wanted to do it with someone I loved — or at least with someone I liked and trusted enough to expect our relationship to last more than a month or two after we did the deed.

And so I waited, growing increasingly ashamed of my status, yet never quite troubled enough by it to throw in the towel and have sex with someone I wasn’t into.

Such perspectives show us that any of us can fall just about anywhere on the spectrum of desire, all of which can make us feel woefully inadequate when we are, in fact, probably quite normal.

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And while it’s all well and good to calibrate your own individual desire for sex, you still you have to match those expectations, desires, and preferences with another human being—the most complicating factor of all. Hill notes in her essay that shame about sex is part and parcel of a standard human upbringing, that our sex lives are seemingly “carefully monitored” for signs of nonconformity in either direction. There is slut-shaming, she writes, and homophobia still—both prudish toward sex for anyone who isn’t a hetero male, but also, an increasing sense of culturally mandated shame for not getting it on, too:

But these standards are now accompanied by a new, more insidious set of ideals and aspirations around sexual frequency, performance and identity.

These ideals are implicit in the habitual surveys of how often we have sex, quickly transformed through popular culture into dictates of how often we should be having sex (two to three times a week, as any regular reader of women’s magazines will tell you). They are in the portrayal of sex as a perpetually dripping tap that everyone is drinking from, and in the intimation that the sex you’re having probably isn’t interesting enough to satisfy your partner’s needs — or to secure a partner in the first place.

But the most nonnegotiable part of the new sexual orthodoxy is simply that you should be having sex.

You should, or else you’re not desirable enough by some standard—your own, someone else’s, the world at large. Hill notes the extent to which how much you’re getting is a measure of your happiness (as a couple) or market worth (when single). Basically, to paraphrase Helen Gurley Brown, whom Hill quotes: If you aren’t fucking, you may as well be dead.

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Hill writes:

This isn’t just a problem for 20-something virgins. It’s a problem for anyone who has ever feared that his or her sex life is something other than what it ought to be. Which is to say, it’s a problem for almost all of us.

It is. There are so many situations where sex or not having sex for a period of time makes sense. There are peaks and valleys, dry spells and periods of abundance. Sometimes you go for a while without sex, and it occurs to you that you could keep going, until suddenly you realize that is absurd. Deviations are a normal part of people’s sex lives, although they can feel precisely deviant—happy sex lives are often portrayed as maddeningly consistent, as desire that keeps going and going like the Energizer bunny. Real sex lives are so much murkier and so much more unpredictable.

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Hill suggests sex should not be so fraught, so symbolic. And while that’s a nice idea, it’s highly unlikely; sex is, after all, a driver for the human race. But she is right when she argues that, even if her own journey to a comfort level with sex was unique, her general anxiety about measuring up was anything but.

There’s comfort in the lessons she learned. Perhaps if we all begin to see that none of us measures up to a strange, whimsical, arbitrary standard for something simultaneously everything and nothing, then in a way, we can all be exactly correct in our own weird way.

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Image via Columbia Pictures