By Jay Dixit, published on June 4, 2007 - last reviewed on September 20, 2010
Sex researchers are peculiar beasts. Armed with their tape measures, clipboards, surveys, and hidden cameras, they seek to provide a peephole from which to scrutinize that most private of spheres, human sexuality. What's most surprising is that we let them in—we're more than happy to unzip our pants and bare our private lives. Why do we do it? Maybe it's precisely because sex is so private that we're compelled to share. We know that without sex researchers to disseminate data about our sex lives, we'd be forced to rely upon furtive glances in the men's room, never sure of what to add or subtract to account for the angle; upon locker room stories, never sure how many grains of skeptical salt to apply; upon porn that only leaves us feeling depressed about ourselves. So cheer up, because most of what you think you know is probably wrong. Today, sex researchers step out from behind the curtain and share the real numbers on five areas of men's sexual health. The answers may surprise you.
The idea that men think about sex every seven seconds, like the claim that we only use 10 percent of our brains, is often repeated but rarely sourced. The number doesn't bear up against scrutiny. According to the Kinsey Report (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male), 54 percent of men think about sex every day or several times a day, 43 percent a few times a week or a few times a month, and 4 percent less than once a month. Even though the Kinsey Report relies on men to self-report on how often they think about sex, it's still eye opening to find that just under half of men aren't even thinking about sex once a day. Clearly, the seven-second rule may be a tad hyperbolic.
The stereotype about the sex-starved man and the disinterested woman may be more than just a cliche. As it turns out, the instant a woman enters a secure relationship, her sex drive begins to plummet. Four years in, a German study found, fewer than half of women wanted regular sex. And after 20 years, only 20 percent did.
Among men, libido held steady no matter how long they'd been in the relationship. Researchers provide an evolutionary explanation—women's sex drive is initially high to facilitate pair bonding. Meanwhile, desire for tenderness showed the opposite trend. Ninety percent of women craved tenderness, but of men who'd been in relationships for ten years, only 25 percent said they hoped for the same from their partner.
For as long as there's been such thing as a ruler, men have been putting wood to, um, wood and wondering how they measure up. "There's nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened," Hemingway reassured a panicking F. Scott Fizgerald. "It is basically not a question of the size in repose. It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle."
The trouble is that most of the actual surveys of penis size are unscientific and unreliable. The Kinsey survey relied on men to report their own numbers honestly and accurately—never a good idea. (Curiously, that survey found that gay men reported having longer penises than straight men—a finding never since replicated.)
Since then, there have been numerous attempts to settle on a number: from various Web surveys to the condom company that did a survey in Cancun during spring break ("Excuse me, could you step into my office, I need to check something"). But the most rigorous studies to date found similar results—the Journal of Urology put the average penis size at 5.08 inches, and the International Journal of Impotence Research put it at 5.35 inches.
In Africa alone, AIDS kills some 6,000 people every day. While treatment must be made available for all who need it, some elements of the AIDS epidemic are likely exaggerated. Remember when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called AIDS "the biggest threat to health this nation has ever faced." (Presumably bigger than cancer, heart disease, obesity, and smoking.) And when Oprah told her viewers: "Research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS..." It seemed as if no one was safe, not even non-drug users, straight men, or housewives.
But the truth is that HIV isn't nearly as easy to spread through heterosexual sex as many people think. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, men almost never get HIV from women. A healthy man who has unprotected sex with a non drug-using woman has a one in 5 million chance of getting HIV. If he wears a condom, the odds drop to one in 50 million. And though it's easier for men to infect women, the odds that an HIV-positive man will transmit the virus to a woman through sex are less than one in 1,000.
Judging from the average porn flick, romance novel, or locker room conversation, a Martian landing on Earth would probably assume that intercourse would last somewhere in the vicinity of 40 minutes. But if that Martian were to actually enter into a relationship, he might be in for a big disappointment. Such marathon sessions are the exception to the rule; surveys find that the average sex session lasts from three to ten minutes. Not that any of this should be so surprising—the average hotel porn viewer watches for just 12 minutes.