By Ian Kerner, Ph.D., LMFT
Gentlemen, lest you were alarmed you might be abnormal for not thinking about sex once every seven seconds (more than 8,000 times a day), a new study in the Journal of Sex Research arrives to reassure you.
Men, on average, think about sex far less than that much-hyped interval. (Where that seven-second stat originated is anybody's guess. It's been bandied about for decades and was probably a misquote of the original Alfred Kinsey study on male sexual behavior published in 1948.)
That's why we're fortunate to have Dr. Terri Fisher and her colleagues at Ohio State University, who recently tracked a group of undergraduates (163 females and 120 males between the ages of 18 and 25) as they used a golf-counter to tally their daily thoughts about eating, sleep or sex over the course of a week.
The results: Far from thinking about sex every seven seconds, men thought about it about 19 times a day on average, whereas women thought about sex ten times a day on average. The "on average" part is important to note, as there was lots of variability: Male students recorded between one and 388 daily thoughts about sex, while women thought about sex between one and 140 times per day.
Having sexual thoughts is healthier than not having them.
"People who tend to have no, or a low amount, of sexual thoughts and complain about it may be depressed, controlling or could be so far removed from the flow of sexual expression in their lives that they may be unintentionally blocking thoughts as they are not sure what to do about them," says sex educator Amy Levine.
And in my experience it's not true that people who are hard-up for sex (like singles, presumably) often have more sexual thoughts than people who have access to healthy sex on a regular basis (like couples). It's often the opposite: people who have healthy sex lives are often more "eroticized" overall and generally want more of a good thing, while people who are not having sex sometimes start to care less about it and dismiss sex as a priority. When the latter does think about sex, it may be in a more obsessive way.
"Both sexual deprivation and sexual activity can lead to sexual thinking," argues Dr. Ed Ratush, who specializes in sexual issues. "If someone wants sex but does not have it in their lives, they will think about it, maybe even fixate on it. Conversely, having good sex leads to sexual thoughts because of the actual memory of it, physical and psychological."
One refreshing aspect of this new study is that it normalizes sexual thoughts relative to thoughts about other basic needs such as food and sleep. This shows that the average man is not a slave to his sexual thoughts (thinking about sex over and over and over and over), but rather maintains a healthy balance.
The men also thought about food almost 18 times per day and sleep almost 11 times per day, compared to women's median number of thoughts about eating and sleep, nearly 15 times and about 8.5 times, respectively.
But what constitutes a sexual thought?
"I think that there are way more sexual thoughts passing through our minds than the ones we zero in on, and then what we are designating as 'sexual' matters in this measurement," says Ratush. "It would be interesting to know if the men were measuring thoughts about intimacy or loving thoughts versus sexually explicit thoughts."
While the median numbers in this study tell us that men and women are more similar than not when it comes to quantity of sexual thoughts, is there a gender difference when it comes to the quality of sexual thoughts? And is there a difference in the way men and women process these thoughts?
The study didn't address the content of thoughts, but in my experience, sexual thoughts in men tend to be more directly wired into the arousal system than in women. For example, a guy has a sexual thought, and almost immediately that thought starts to become an action. Women may have just as many sexual thoughts, but they don't seem linked to an actual desire for sex in the same way.
"Men are like driving standard transmission. If you move through the gears in the right order, you will get where you want to go," writes Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of "The Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms."
"Women are like baking a soufflé, the outcome depends on the ingredients and the chef, sure, but it also depends on the reliability of the oven, the altitude, the humidity of the day... more variables, more variability."
Per Nagoski's metaphor, a sexual thought seems to put the gears into action for men, but for women, a sexual thought is just one ingredient in the soufflé.
Yet there are no absolutes, and that conclusion is, perhaps, the real benefit of this study.
Not only do the results help men realize that they're "normal" if they don't think about sex obsessively, but the findings can also give women some fresh insight into their male companions: In contrast to the stereotype that guys are always raring to go, the study suggests that, like women, men are complex creatures who may be preoccupied with plenty of concerns that have nothing to do with sex. Some guys may even be "soufflé," too.
So how often do you think about sex?