"Oh ... four," replied the woman. In her forties and a veteran of the sexual revolution, she flinched when a sex researcher asked the number of sex partners she'd had in her life. As the interview proceeded to flesh out the range of her sexual experience, she eventually admitted there had been more.

"It makes me uncomfortable to think about what I did," she reportedly said. "I couldn't say 25 men because it makes me feel cheap." She doesn't tell her husband the truth, either.

Another woman who had been married 30 years figured she'd had sex with her husband a total of maybe 10 times, mostly in the beginning. They never discussed it, never acknowledged there was a problem. After he died, she felt embarrassed about it, and was resigned to never knowing what went wrong.

Another couple lived together for more than a year, carrying on seemingly a normal sex life. No complaints. No problems. But before their wedding day, the bride's parents told her that she should expect "to make love once or twice a day" on her honeymoon.

Arriving at an exotic destination for their carnal celebration, the groom wanted to tour the island, sight-see, relax in the sun. He was interested in making love to his wife, of course -- but maybe every other day at most. The bride was embarrassed, enraged. She accused him of having no sex drive, she questioned his masculinity.

"What we found out is that everybody's different," says Steven Carter, whose book "What Really Happens in Bed" (Dell, $8.95), explores these and other anecdotal "realities" of sex in America. After conducting more than 250 in-depth interviews with ordinary people, most of whom had to warm to the idea of revealing their most intimate moments, Carter and coauthor Julia Sokol came to one important conclusion about sexual behavior and attitudes: It is unrealistic to conclude that "most people" ever do or think anything. "You just can't make generalizations," says Carter.

With one exception: Most people are anxious to know that their sexual experiences don't measure short of most other people's. It's what researchers call "The Norm." The ever-elusive sexual norm.

In many ways, the sexual revolution of the '70s and the sexual recession of the '80s has led to sexual confusion in the '90s. Make that confusion with a capital C. Because this is a decade where sexual facts can be a life-and-death matter, can have greater leverage on everyday sex lives than ever before. Yet many sex researchers are finding that our perception of what, sexually speaking, is fact, fancy, fallacy and fiction is a jumbled mess.

How did we get so skewed?

Oddly, much of this sexual confusion arises from misinformation and unrealistic expectations. When sex lives are ruled by fantasy, the nuts and bolts of what goes on under the covers make little sense. Conventional wisdom about sex proves to be, at best, only conventional, and usually flat-out wrong. "Scientific sex research" is often more impressive in its authority than in truth. And, what may be the ultimate antidote to sexual confusion -- honest and intimate communication between mates about sex -- remains the final sexual taboo.

Maybe, as in the aftermath of the French Revolution, heads have to roll before peace and proficiency are achieved in America's bedrooms. "You would think that after the sexual revolution, we would have come so far, that things would be so much more in better perspective," says Carter. "The truth of the matter is, we haven't. The revolution has brought with it as many questions as it has answers. And, in some ways, we're not any further along in having a satisfying sexual relationship than we were before."

Up front in their book, a product of nearly two years of asking everyday people to kiss and tell, Carter and Sokol clarified their motivation: "We believed that many men and women have sexual expectations of both themselves and their partners that are based on performance myths and romantic fantasies. ... Despite the plethora of statistical data about frequency, ejaculation, and orgasm, it was blatantly apparent that most of us didn't really have a clue about what was normal and what was expected of us sexually."

The how often's and how long's that fill pages of sex manuals and scientific reports weren't critical to the project. They wanted to know the what's, when's, where's and how's -- the nitty-gritty of "real-world" sex. Mostly what they discovered was anxiety and unmet expectations.

"Even the most sexually experienced men and women can be sexually misinformed and surprisingly naive," says Carter. "In terms of where they stand and how they measure up, all we really see and all we really talk about is the stuff that is in print and in the movies," the romance novels, girlie magazines, films and television shows, all more entertaining than realistic, but the greatest input to our sexual knowledge.

One woman interviewed based her expectations in bed almost entirely on what she read in women's magazines. "Magazines sometimes will have two articles about sex that contradict themselves in the same issue," Carter says. "And here she is feeling that she is not desirable because he doesn't want to have sex with her twice a day. If he did, she'd probably say, 'Enough!' Even under ideal circumstances, once couples settle down, there are very few who really want to make love every day. ... But instead of dealing with it in a realistic fashion, this woman flipped it around and blamed it on her partner -- as most of us probably do.

"Some of us grow up with sexual expectations entirely built on fantasy; others who recognize the fantasy still don't know what the reality is. People really are confused because there is no place to turn."

Time was when people in search of healthy sexual information consulted data from the authorities of sex research -- The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, for example, and the Masters & Johnson Institute. But times aren't what they used to be.

Many sex researchers have grown skeptical lately as to how much relevance close encounters of the numerical kind -- sexual statistics -- reveal about sexual reality. They also wonder how much damage norms do. Carter mentions the Kinsey Institute's stat for the "mean frequency of marital sex for the college-educated male, aged 26 to 30." Put your calculators away. It's 2.6 times a week.

But, he points out, that mean frequency says nothing of frustrated husbands "having sex .5 times a week while wanting it 10 times a week, or of people having it 20 times a week at their partner's insistence and wanting it once." The deficiency of such statistical research, stresses Carter, wasn't overlooked by Alfred Kinsey himself. But the public nonetheless falls into the trap of judging themselves -- often harshly -- by those so-called scientific standards.

Last month, a new and controversial Kinsey Institute survey reported on just how much in the dark most Americans are about sexual matters. Sexual illiteracy was the term it used -- not sexual confusion. Fifty-five percent of the representative sampling of 1,974 Americans polled, Kinsey director June Reinisch said at a news conference, flunked a test of 18 questions that are indicative of basic sexual knowledge. Among its findings:

Only about one quarter of respondents knew that the typical American first has intercourse at age 16 to 17.

About the same number correctly estimated that 30 percent to 40 percent of married men have had an extramarital affair.

About 21 percent knew that more than a quarter of American men have had a sexual experience with another male as an adolescent or adult.

But critics of the report charge that it provides no accurate basis for appraising one's own sexual relations, nor is its conclusion that Americans are sexual ignoramuses supported by the outcome.

"It didn't take any methodological expertise to say this is a bad study," says Alfie Kohn, a self-described "independent scholar" and author of "You Know What They Say ... : The Truth About Popular Beliefs" (Harper/Collins, $17.95). "It just took somebody to ask, 'Do the data say what the Kinsey directors say it says?' The problem is we don't ask that often enough. It is the passive acceptance of common knowledge which often misleads us."

Kohn takes the Kinsey report to task for basing its findings on a superficial and rather unscientific survey. He wonders about the bearing of some of the Kinsey questions on one's own sexual astuteness. For example, the number of men in America having extramarital affairs? The number of American women who masturbate? "Nobody stopped to say, 'Wait a minute ... half of your questions don't have anything to do with knowledge of sex itself, only with whether you can guess what people on other surveys reported to be their own behaviors,' " says Kohn. "How well did people do on the questions that mattered? They did very well." Eight pertinent questions were answered correctly by most of the respondents.

The accuracy of several "correct answers" on the survey also is questionable, he says. Whether or not "problems with erection are most often started by a physical problem" is still debated among sex researchers. Men who've had homosexual experiences? Women who have had anal intercourse? Kohn says answers for such questions are up for grabs.

"Our decisions and values are often influenced by sources that are questionable," says Kohn. "Bad information and uncritical acceptance of that information is a good part of the problem."

In his book, Kohn tackles several such universally accepted notions. One of them: Women seek intimacy in sex while men seek gratification. Kohn says that fallacy is partly perpetrated by university psychologists who study college students to determine sexual norms for everyone. "Researchers make some of the same mistakes we all do," he says wryly. "On the question of motives for sex, if any one ever finds that college sophomores are atypical of the population, a good deal of college psychology can be flushed down the toilet."

Lillian Rubin blames much of the sexual confusion in America on misleading science that's swallowed without hesitation by media and public alike. "It is done in the name of science but it is totally unscientific," says the sociologist and psychologist whose new book, "Erotic Wars: What Happened to the Sexual Revolution?" (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95) also took Rubin into the hinterlands of sexual reality. "A month ago, when the Kinsey survey was released, there was hardly a newspaper in the country where you couldn't find headlines that Americans were sexually illiterate."

Which simply aggravates the problem, sex being anxiety-ridden for many of us anyway. "There are all the taboos, the private silences around it, coupled with this public noise," says Rubin. "What's right and what's wrong? Are we okay? Why does the sex in my marriage pale compared to what I see on the movie screen? The hardest issue is to listen to our inner voice, because it is so muddied up by public dictate, and that's where much of the confusion and anxiety comes from."

Sexual confusion is further aggravated, she says, by other larger-than-life issues. "The gender revolution remains very incomplete," she says. "The sexual revolution did its job. But we have two people in bed now, often with very different agendas out of bed. That means we remain intimate strangers. We don't only not know what the other guy wants sexually, we have no basis for a partnership on the other issues either. Then you get this enormous conflict which plays itself out in our sexual relations."

Rubin sums it up as "sex in the context of 'You didn't take out the garbage this morning.'

"And then you go to the movies and see Kevin Costner and what's-her-name in the back seat of the limo, and you know something is wrong. But you don't know what it is or how to fix it. It's a testament to our good will toward each other that any of us are having sex anymore."

That couldn't be said of one 74-year-old man that reinforced for Carter and Sokol the conclusion that amid all this sexual confusion are realities that toss scientifically based expectations out the bedroom window. "He was one of those people who literally had had several hundred partners and admitted sex was the driving force in their lives," recalls Sokol. "Yet when we pinned him down, he acknowledged he had been having difficulties with erections and orgasm since he was in his early fifties. But he kept trying anyway, two or three times a day. That's going to bend the curve {on the charts} for the rest of us."

How can anybody be sure what should be happening in our own beds? Rubin advises that we learn to listen to our own inner responses around sex and to shut up the public noise. "That is primary and very difficult," she says, "but it can be done if we pay attention to our inner needs."

Sokol and Carter rate poor communication to be "the major sexual problem." Every single person they interviewed told them he or she was dissatisfied with his or her ability to communicate honestly and openly about sexual matters -- to their mates. "One man we interviewed thought his wife was frigid and had no sexual desire," says Sokol. "But he wasn't taking showers. He didn't understand it and she never told him. She found it was easier to say to him she just wasn't interested in sex than to say, 'You stink, honey.' This went on for 10 or 15 years, and it nearly ruined their relationship.

"It would be ideal if people had checkpoints in the course of their relationship where they were able to discuss their difficulties in a nonthreatening way," says Sokol. "Part of that is understanding that the other person is human, that no one is going to fulfill all of your sexual fantasies, that he is not going to behave like heroes in the movies, that she is not going to be like the Playboy centerfold."

Alfie Kohn takes a different view of resolving sexual confusion: "Confusion is a problem. But the absence of confusion can be equally dangerous. To assume you know something because you've heard it can be at least as problematic as not knowing the answer. If you are going along with what they say, you don't have the motivation to seek out the truth."

Culled from interviews with more than 250 men and women, here are some of the "sexual realities" coauthors Julia Sokol and Steven Carter uncovered:

Almost no married couple is perfectly matched when it comes to frequency of lovemaking.

Acting on one's sexual fantasies usually proves disappointing.

Almost everyone masturbates -- not only the lonely.

Physical affection should not be viewed only as leading to sex.

Some of the most unhappy men and women interviewed were involved in relationships in which the sex was extraordinary.

All men have sexual anxieties. Depending on their age, those anxieties may range from concerns about inexperience to worries about premature ejaculation and unresponsiveness.

Most men have experienced performance failure of some kind -- from ejaculatory control to impotence -- and most women have been misinformed and confused about the nature of male performance problems, which often leads to harsh judgments.

Men believe they know how women achieve orgasm; women say men don't know. Most want men to ask them specifically what to do.

Almost all women have faked orgasm, now and then, for a variety of reasons -- which doesn't mean they are nonorgasmic.

No orgasm for women doesn't equate to no pleasure or no desire; it also doesn't mean women don't want orgasms.

Good sex cannot hold together a bad relationship. But a good marriage can survive and even flourish, despite even problematic sex.

Sexual expectations seldom come from reality. Unrealistic sexual expections ultimately steal the joy of sex.