Earlier this year, popular news sites highlighted research from an Ohio State University study (Sex on the Brain?: An Examination of Frequency of Sexual Cognitions as a Function of Gender, Erotophilia, and Social Desirability, Terri D. Fisher, Zachary T. Moore, and Mary-Jo Pittenger, Journal of Sex Research, 49(1), 69-77, 2012) that revealed that the difference between men and women in terms of frequency of thoughts about sex wasn’t as big as previously thought. (Want all the details? Get them here.) Urban legend holds that men think about sex every seven seconds. That’s over 8,000 thoughts per day. Which begs the question, ‘how can men get anything done?’ Anything beyond humping table legs, that is. The reality is that men are not quite that sex-obsessed. With a median daily total for men of less than 19 thoughts per day, that leaves plenty of time for things like taking out the garbage and watching the playoffs.
But there is more to the study than this. The researchers were well aware that stereotyped expectations and social norms could have an enormous impact on study results, and attempted to put some controls in place to measure this impact and account for it. Self esteem for men is strongly tied to sexual prowess, so there is an expectation that men might find themselves over reporting sexual thoughts. This study also tracked the frequency of other need-based thoughts – food and sleep. Sleep does not have strong stereotyped expectations, but there is a gender stereotype regarding thoughts of food. It’s not as strong as sexual thoughts, but men are socially expected to consume and think more about food than women.
For sexual thoughts, the maximum for men in the study per day was 388. For women, the maximum was 140. The men’s median daily count was 18.6. Women’s was 9.9. Not anywhere near the 8,000 legend for men, and a much closer number between men and women than was commonly thought. Medians for thoughts about food and sleep also show that men had these thoughts with greater frequency than women. Also interesting, standard deviation for male participant counts was much higher for men than for women, indicating that there is a huge variance in the frequency of sexual thoughts of men. Oddly, a similar difference in variance existed for thoughts of food, possibly supporting the idea that stereotyped expectations do play a role in the study results.
One area of the study that might also explain the difference in medians is the definition of ‘sexual thought’. The study told participants to record any though “about intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, nudity, sexual desire, sexual fantasies, foreplay, sexual memories, erotic images, or other sexually arousing stimuli.” Previous studies have shown that sexual thoughts are different for men than they are for women. Men tend to have more visual, specific thoughts, where women had more of a fantasy aspect to sexual thoughts and tended to merge romance elements with sexual ones. This kind of difference could lead to women in the study not counting sexual thoughts that didn’t exactly meet the definition. Given how women view sexual fantasy and the volume of romance and erotic literature purchased by women, I feel the gap is narrower than the study shows, or not statistically significant. I believe women do think sexual thoughts just as often as men do, but they are different thoughts.
Also, this research study, as most, used participants 18-25 years old. It has been shown thought that women peak sexually later then men do. Since the study includes male participants who are in their peak age, but doesn’t include women in their peak age, this might impact the results. Other research suggests that in mid-life, men and women are similar in terms of sexual thoughts and fantasies. So the median difference could also be due to study participant age.
At the end of the day, the study results showed that although men seem to think about sex more often than women, they also think about other needs with greater frequency. The study also examined the positive and/or negative orientation toward sex and sexual thoughts, and found a strong correlation in gender. This result supports the idea that societal norms surrounding men and women’s view of sex and acceptable levels of sexuality strongly play into the study results.
Either way, I’m tempted to grab a little counter and do some recording of my own. Any guesses as to what my average will be?