Sex: Sexual Distraction

Sex isn’t always an engrossing act: People click through four unsexy thoughts during the average love session. Distractions are common and often benign, according to a new study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, which offers a glimpse of what men and women think about during sex.

Practical concerns such as “I hope I don’t get pregnant” and “Can my roommate hear us?” are a primary distractor for both genders. Perhaps more surprisingly, women and men worry in equal proportions about emotional consequences during the deed.

“It’s a provocative finding,” says Chris Watson, an Ontario psychologist who coauthored the study. “The public may expect women to be the ones with emotional concerns, but we found no gender distinction.” Watson’s team noted that men’s and women’s brains entertain thoughts ranging from “How will this af­fect our relationship?” to “This is immoral!” to “I can’t stop thinking about my ex,” but they didn’t examine how the sexes’ emotional concerns differ in content.

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Researchers also identified two other categories of nonerotic thoughts—“spectatoring,” or stepping outside your body to judge your own performance, and body image concerns (“Do I look fat?”)—and found that spectatoring is more common among men, and women are more plagued by appearance anxiety.

There were no differences in the type of nonerotic thoughts reported by those with and without sexual dysfunction (a broad term encompassing things like premature ejaculation, the inability to orgasm, and low desire). What matters, Watson says, is not the kind of thought but how it’s perceived: Those who instantly react to an unsexy thought with anxiety also have the highest levels of sexual dysfunction. Stress distracts you from the pleasurable present, Watson says, and chastising your wandering mind just multiplies distress.

The trick, then, isn’t to suppress anxiety-provoking thoughts but rather to stay calm when they occur. “Our brains don’t turn off during sex,” Watson says. “Brush off the thought just as you would one that pops up while you’re watching TV.” If fleeting emotional concerns hint at something deeper, reexamine them the next day, fully clothed, to reduce the odds they’ll bug you next time you hit the sack. And in the moment, refocus on the pleasure of the experience.

Role Reversal

While it may not be surprising that women have more body image concerns and men have more performance woes, the gender gap is slightly less drastic than in the past. Watson’s research replicated a 2006 study. More women had performance concerns in the current study than in the earlier experiment. “There could be an emerging expectation that women be more sexually skilled,” Watson says. Men also reported more body image worries this time around; increased focus on male grooming and appearance may be to blame.

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