Recently there has been a lot of attention in the media about a new study on frequency of sexual thoughts among men and women. I thought it would be informative to hear directly from the scientist who led the study describing in her own words the findings and their interpretation. This blog entry is by the lead author of this study, Dr. Terri D. Fisher, Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield.
Most people have heard the popular claim that men think about sex every seven seconds (around 8,000 times a day!), but you might be surprised to learn that there is absolutely no research to back that claim. The frequency of sexual thoughts has been studied in the past, but every study except for one has relied on self-report after the fact (quick—how many times a day do you think about sex?). People aren't very good at assessing information like that, and their reports are likely to be influenced by what they have heard in the past about the frequency of sexual thoughts and by expectations for their gender. Even so, the previous research that examined actual numerical frequency has found daily sexual thought frequencies are not even in the double-digits. In addition, the research has not always consistently revealed gender differences in frequency of sexual thoughts. This is a far cry from what most people (and many psychologists) believe to be true.
A couple of years ago, I was discussing the lack of good research in this area with my Psychology of Human Sexuality students, and indicated that this would be an interesting area in which to do research, if any of them were interested. Independently, two of my undergraduate students, Zachary Moore and Mary-Jo Pittenger, approached me about the undertaking, so we formed a research team to tackle the problem of studying sexual thoughts. We were primarily concerned with sex differences rather than absolute thought frequency because we were going to be using a college student sample, which is certainly not representative of all adults. College students are a good sample to use when attempting to address previous findings, however, because so much sex research has been done with this population. Zach is the one who came up with the idea of using a golf tally counter (or "clicker"). Tally counters are small, inexpensive, and record one thing at a time. Participants can keep them in their pockets, clipped to their belts, in their bags, or in their hands. Zach and Mary-Jo applied for a small undergraduate research grant ($500) from my campus and we used that to purchase the tally counters.
We didn't want the participants to know that we were exclusively focused on sexuality, because that may have influenced who chose to participate in the study. In addition, there are other types of need-based thoughts that people have in the course of the day, and we thought it would be interesting to use the frequency of those thoughts as a comparison for the frequency of sexual thoughts. Therefore, we decided to promote our research to potential participants as a study of college student health. We asked some participants to track their thoughts about sex, others to track their thoughts about food, and still others their thoughts about sleep. They were told to record the total on their tally counter each night and then reset their tally counter for the next day. Prior to providing our participants with their tally counters, we gave them a series of surveys to complete regarding their attitudes toward sex, food, and sleep. We also asked them to estimate how many times in a 24 hour period they thought about sex, food, and sleep.
We collected data from a total of 283 students between the ages of 18 and 25 who kept track of one type of thought (about sex, food, or sleep) for a one week period. They were not allowed to tell anybody what type of thoughts they were recording. We added up the seven daily reports for each person and then divided by seven in order to get the average daily thought frequency. It was immediately apparent that both men and women were quite variable in the frequency with which they engaged in sexual thoughts. The tally counts reported by the men ranged from 1 to 388. The variation for the women was less extreme, but still quite large, ranging from 1 to 140. Because there was so much variation, it makes most sense to talk about the median scores (50th percentile), because medians are less influenced by extreme scores. We found that the median number of sexual thoughts for men was 18.6 and for women it was 9.9. In contrast, the average for men was 34.2 and for women it was 18.6. Statistical tests indicated that the number of thoughts about sex was not statistically larger than the number of thoughts about food and sleep. Men had more thoughts about all three of those areas than did women. These findings paint a rather different picture of men than does the urban legend of thinking about sex many times per minute. The typical men in this sample were thinking about sex once or twice an hour, and statistically no more and no less than they were thinking about eating or sleeping.
Even though our research is the best study to date of frequency of sexual thoughts, our research method was rudimentary. We weren't able to study how long the thoughts lasted or the nature of the thoughts. We also don't know if all of our participants followed the instructions and really clicked every time they had the sort of thought that they were supposed to track. However, even if they didn't, the fact that they were supposed to be clicking probably made them more aware of their thoughts about their assigned topic than they might otherwise have been, and that would have been reflected in their daily reports. We also told them that we would know if they hadn't reset the clicker every day after they had recorded their daily tally. That wasn't really true, and when the study was over, we told them that wasn't true, but we wanted to do what we could to make sure that the participants did what they were supposed to be doing.
We can't know from our study if men really had more thoughts about sex, food, and sleep than women did, or if they were just more likely to recognize and/or record those thoughts. There is some evidence that at least some women were reluctant to report certain types of thoughts. We administered a measure of social desirability, which is the degree to which a person is more concerned about looking good to others rather than telling the truth. Social desirability didn't have any relationship with the recorded frequency of men's thoughts, but women who were higher in social desirability tended to report fewer thoughts about sex and about food. Women's social desirability scores were not related to their reports of thoughts about sleep, however, perhaps because there are no stereotypes about women and sleep the way there are about women and sex (they aren't supposed to think about it as much as men) and women and food (they aren't supposed to eat it as much as men).
Another scale that we administered to the participants measured their degree of comfort with sexuality (erotophilia). Participants with higher erotophilia scores also reported more sexual thoughts. In fact, if you could know only one thing about people in order to best predict how often they think about sex, you would be better off knowing their degree of erotophilia rather than whether they are male or female.
Interestingly, when participants had been asked prior to the start of the study to indicate how many times a day they thought about sex, food, and sleep, the men reported thinking more about sex than did the women, but there were no sex differences for the other two topics. This, of course, is not what we found after the participants actually tracked their thoughts, illustrating the difference between the two methodologies. In addition, the estimated thought frequencies were quite a bit lower than the actual counted frequencies, for all three need-related topics.
Even though this was a study of sex differences, much of the media coverage has focused only on the male findings. The notion that the sex difference is much smaller than people have previously been led to believe has been overlooked. In addition, much of the media coverage of this study has left out the most interesting and valid aspects of our study and has focused only on the frequency statistics. We never intended our research to be used to draw conclusions about the entire population. We were interested only in comparing equivalent groups of women and men. The coverage has also confused or conflated the median and mean data, leading to some confusion. And most importantly, very few reports of this study have stressed the degree to which the men were different from one another regarding their frequency of sexual thoughts. I used to worry that the old notion that men think about sex several times a minute was likely to make men who thought about sex less frequently (which would have been all of the men in our study) feel somehow as if they weren't the same as other men. Now I worry that as the result of how the findings of our study have been promoted in the media ("men think about sex 19 times a day"), men who think about sex more than that or less than that (again, almost all of the men in our study) might feel somehow unusual. If the headlines had to focus only on men, they should have been "college men think about food and sleep as much as they think about sex" or "college men think about sex between 1 and 388 times a day."
The message that I hear from our data is that people are quite different from one another in terms of their frequency of thoughts about sex. Although on average, the men in our study did report more thoughts about sex than did the women, many of the women reported more sexual thoughts than many of the men. The popular notion is that in the realm of sexuality, men and women are very different from each other. However, there is quite a bit of research to suggest that they are more similar than different, even among college students, who are likely at an age at which gender differences in sexuality are maximized.
We obviously need much more research with individuals past the age of 25, but that is much harder to accomplish. After our college student study was complete, I began a second study using a community sample of adults over the age of 25. It was much harder to obtain that sample, and most of the participants did not follow through with the tally counter portion of the study because they had no real incentive to do so. It will take more than a $500 grant to be able to learn what is going on in the minds of people who are not currently in college.
The research discussed above will appear in the January issue of the Journal of Sex Research:
Fisher, T. D., Moore, Z. T., & Pittenger, M. (2012). Sex on the brain? An examination of frequency of sexual cognitions as a function of gender, erotophilia, and social desirability. Journal of Sex Research, 29, 69-77. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2011.565429
Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program. You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook.