At some point in the mainstream media an interesting statistic emerged—men think about sex once every 7–8 seconds. I have anecdotally heard this stat quoted by students in my human sexuality class. As a sex researcher, I prefer such claims be backed up by peer reviewed, scientific literature. A recent study, published in the Journal of Sex Research has examined this very issue.
The article entitled, “Sex on the Brain?: An Examination of Frequency of Sexual Cognitions as a Function of Gender, Erotophilia, and Social Desirability” assessed how frequently college students (both women and men) thought about sex, utilizing a tally counter. Researchers also examined how frequently students thought about other need-related things such as eating and sleep, making interesting comparisons regarding need-related cognitions across gender. The study found that although men appeared “to think more about sex on a daily basis than do women, they also think more about food and sleep,” suggesting that men have more need-based cognitions in general compared to women. In regard to the gender difference in frequency of need-based cognitions, the research team (which included Dr. Terri Fisher, Zachary T. Moore, and Mary-Jo Pittenger from the Ohio State University-Mansfield) stated that, “it is not clear whether this difference is related to biologically based needs or whether men and women attend to or conceptualize ‘thoughts’ differently.” They go on to say that, “perhaps men have a lower threshold for the labeling or recognition of cognition, or perhaps they actually do spend more time pondering their need states.”
Nonetheless, the findings indicate that the one thought every 7 second statistic is likely based in myth. Researchers did not find any participant who thought about sex (or food/sleep) with such frequency. In fact, individuals’ frequency of sexual thoughts ranged. During the 7-day period of data collection women’s frequency of sexual thoughts ranged from 1 to 140 sexual thoughts per day with an average of 18.6 and a median of 9.9 sexual thoughts per day. Men, however, demonstrated great variability in their counts of sexual cognitions (as well as other need-related thoughts). Men ranged from 1 to 388 sexual thoughts per day with an average of 34.2 and a median of 18.6 sexual thoughts per day. As such, based on the findings from the study, young men spend substantially less time than originally conceptualized consumed with sex-related thoughts. Additionally, researchers note that “with the median suggesting just slightly more than once per waking hour,” men are spending time thinking about other things, unrelated to sex. Finally, findings related to the variability in sexual cognitions suggest that women and men have different baseline levels regarding how frequently they experience need-related thoughts. However, across the board, regardless of gender, those who think more about sex, also have more thoughts about food and sleep.
Putting the findings into context
Although gender differences in frequency of sexual thoughts emerged, researchers stated that the difference may be due, in part, to women’s increased reluctance in reporting such cognitions (related to both sex and food). For example, researchers found that social desirability (i.e. the tendency of respondents to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others) and erotophilia (i.e. being more sexually open via feeling less guilt about sex, talking about sex more openly, and holding more positive attitudes toward sexuality) was highly correlated to women’s thoughts regarding sex (Note: social desirability was also correlated to women’s thoughts regarding food). Researchers believe this suggests that perhaps the women in the study were influenced by stereotypes, social expectations or contemporary culture in their reporting of their thoughts whereas men were likely not influenced. And this makes perfect sense because in our culture, we still endorse stereotypes and standards that are different for women and men in that it is okay for men to be sexually active and permissive, but not women. Furthermore, women are also made to feel increased pressure to be thin and conform to an ideal body size. Perhaps this inherent standard has been internalized by women, including those in the study, such that they did not want to accurately report their frequency of food related thoughts.
Although there were gender differences in regard to frequency of sexual thoughts with men experiencing more than women, I think two myths have been dispelled with these data. First women, too, think about sex quite often! And perhaps women think about sex even more often than is turning up in these data due to factors related to social desirability. Second, although men (and women) may be pre-occupied with sexual thoughts, they are certainly not consumed with sexual thoughts every 7 seconds such that they cannot think of anything else! So the old adage that a man cannot concentrate on what someone is saying because his mind is filled with sexual thoughts seems to be false. Time to come up with other excuses!