How Often Do Men and Women Think About Sex?
I'm sure y'all have heard a hundred times over by now the "fact" (in the internet sense, as in widely accepted but nobody has any idea where it came from) that men think about sex every seven seconds, while women think about it approximately once in a blue moon (when we're actually having sex, we're thinking about our shopping lists, of course). This little gem has always been pretty suspect, but it's had surprising longevity, since it fits neatly into the cultural stereotypes of men as insatiable horndogs and women as sexually repressed. So how much do men (and women) really think about sex during an average day? As usual, science is there to answer life's important questions.
A new study published in the January edition of the Journal of Sex Research (available online now), looks at the frequency of sexual thoughts and not surprisingly, finds that not only is that bogus statistic...bogus...but that the differences between men and women aren't as stark as pop culture would have you believe. The study authors asked 163 college students, 91 women and 72 men, to keep track of all their thoughts about sex for a week. Other subjects were asked to keep track of thoughts about food (32 women, 27 men) and sleep (40 women and 21 men), to test whether gender differences were limited to sex or affected more general thoughts about physical needs and desires. The sample size is fairly small, and the subjects were predominantly young, white, and heterosexual, having been drawn from the Ohio State University at Mansfield where the study was conducted. These are pretty typical limitations for this type of study but should nonetheless be taken into account when interpreting the results.
The study subjects kept track of the number of thoughts using a tally counter, which has the advantage of being portable. It also has the advantage of not requiring much concentration - one could imagine that if all you have to do is push a clicker then you'd be more likely to be able to count every stray thought and less likely to analyze those thoughts or stress about their number, things that could affect results in a typical self-reportage study (the subjects did write down their tallies and reset the counters daily, so there is still room for some fudging). For the purposes of the study, thoughts about sex included any fleeting sexual thought or fantasy whether deliberate or intrusive. Retrospective estimates (that is, guesses after the fact) about the frequency of sexual thoughts were also tested, to see if cultural influences might affect the number of sexual thoughts men and women thought they'd had.
Both men and women actually reported similar mean estimates for the frequency with which they thought that they thought about sex - an average of 7.9 times a day for men (range 0-50) and 6.1 for women (range (1-50), though median values (5.0 for men and 3.0 for women) demonstrate that while the range and means were similar the distribution for men skewed slightly higher. In fact, both groups seriously underestimated the frequency of such thoughts. The daily tally counts yielded an average of 34.2 and median of 18.6 (range 1-388) for men and 18.6/9.9 (range 1-140) for women. That puts the frequency of men's sexual thoughts at just below twice the number women experienced - a significant difference but hardly the six thousand and change the 7 seconds statistic would indicate. In comparison, men thought about sleep 1.2-2 times as often as women (depending on whether you go by median or mean) and food 1.2-1.5 times as often as women. In other words, men tended to think about all three physical needs more often than women. The difference for sex is the highest, but with the small sample sizes it's hard to tell if that difference is truly significant. For what it's worth, I suspect it is, not because men are more sexual than women but because society has worked to repress women's sexuality and I'd expect that to show up even at the subconscious level.
In fact, given that cultural pressure for women to be demure, it's surprising that the numbers aren't more drastically different. There is some evidence in the study that these pressures do have some effect. Comparison of individual estimates and tallies showed that men were better at guessing how often they thought about sex than women were (in terms of correlation - they obviously weren't getting the absolute numbers right). The researchers also found that women who were more likely to give "socially desirable," answers to general questions about social interactions had lower tallies for thoughts about sex, implying that women who made more of an effort to fit social scripts of how they should behave were more sexually repressed (or in all fairness it could simply be due to a correlation between sexual expression and personality generally).
As I noted, the sample size in this study is small and culturally homogeneous, but among college students at least, the dramatic difference between men and women's thoughts about sex just isn't there. It would be interesting to see how the numbers look for different demographics. I expect there would be some differences depending on culture, age, etc, but I also suspect the overall finding, that men and women think about sex at comparable frequencies, would hold. It would also be interesting to look at just how many of those thoughts are intentional (fantasies or masturbation fuel, for example) and how many just sort of pop up unexpectedly ("Let's see, I need lettuce, cucumber...well that's a funny shaped cucumber..."). (In reality, or at least in my reality, women actually think about sex while shopping, not the other way around, but that could just be me I guess.) Overall there's plenty of room for follow up but I think we can safely put that 7 seconds myth to bed now.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.