How Much Do We Really Think About Sex?

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Popular wisdom says men are the more carnally-obsessed gender, thinking about sex as often as every seven seconds. But research suggests sexual desire is hard to measure— so it’s difficult to know how often anyone’s brain gets an R rating.

Sexy Time - Why It Matters

Marvin Gaye and Salt N Pepa aside, sexual desire’s hard to define. Some researchers think it’s a combination of thoughts and feelings about sex, as well as the motivation to have sex. And studies suggest how often someone thinks or fantasizes about sex might be closely related to sexual desire.

The exact role hormones play in sexual desire is still unclear, but the balance of androgens and estrogens is important to male and female sexual health. Testosterone imbalances in particular can mess up the mojo and decrease sex drive in males. Some research suggests low androgen levels are also linked to low libido in women, but one study found non-hormonal factors like psychiatric history are more important in women with low sexual desire [1] [2].

Certain studies support the popular notion that men think about, and desire, sex more than women do, and claim the difference is based on biological factors. But research suggests psychological factors are also likely at work. A recent study found men do say they think about sex more than women— but also found a person’s erotophilia (positivity and openness about their sexuality) was a better predictor of whose daydreams weren’t quite Disney [3]. But the topic is even more complicated. (With love, isn’t it always?)

Don't Ask, Don't Tell - The Answer/Debate

Many studies on sexual desire rely on self-reporting, and people’s responses are based on a range of factors. Recent research suggests sex role expectations might help explain why men say they think about sex more often than women do [3]. And another study found gender differences in how often people think about sex are getting smaller: Women were fantasizing more frequently than they had been a decade prior— suggesting they might just be getting more comfortable talking about visions of a bad ro-mance [5].

Plus, people aren’t always honest, especially about topics as sensitive and personal as sexuality. In one study, all participants were asked about their sex lives, but half were hooked up to what they thought was a lie detector. Men who weren’t attached to the machine claimed to be having more sex, and to have started younger, while women claimed to have less, and to have started older [6]. (Participants were discussing sexual activity, and not thoughts about sex, but the same findings might apply.) Until we can read minds (or all get real drunk ’n honest) it seems we’ll have to keep on guessing what everyone’s thinking about.

Experts' Take

We asked some sexual health researchers, Dr. Terri Fisher and Greatist Expert Dr. Ian Kerner, for their insights on sexual desire:

Terri Fisher:

Fisher co-authored the study, “Sex on the Brain?: An Examination of Frequency of Sexual Cognitions as a Function of Gender, Erotophilia, and Social Desirability."

“We are not simply passive recipients of hormonal urges— our brains play a role in moderating or modifying the hormonal messages.”

Ian Kerner:

“If men don’t so often think about sex, they don’t have to feel less manly, or think something is wrong with them and … women also shouldn’t really expect men to think about sex as constantly as depicted in the media.”

“If a guy suffers from low testosterone, he’s going to have diminished sexual thoughts, diminished erectile ability, delayed ejaculation, that’s going to be a big issue, but you can’t just say testosterone is the whole thing.”

“People who are in healthy relationships have healthy sex lives and … also tend to have more sexual thoughts.”

The Takeaway

Studies suggest men think about sex more often than women, but men aren’t as sex-obsessed as people might believe. Hormones aren't the only factor behind sex drive. Don’t underestimate the importance of sex role expectations and individual comfort level with sexuality. In general, the more open and positive someone is about their sexuality, the more often they’ll think about sex. We may never know how often people really think about sex because people may report what they think they’re supposed to say.

Do you think there’s a gender difference in how often people think about sex?

Works Cited

  1. Women with low libido: correlation of decreased androgen levels with female sexual function index. Turna, B., Apaydin, E., Semerci, B., et al. Urology Department, Ege University Faculty of Medicine, Bornova, Izmir, Turkey. International Journal of Impotence Resesarch 2005 Mar-Apr;17(2):148-53.
  2. Predictors of sexual desire disorders in women. Brotto, L.A., Petkau, A.J., Labrie, F., et al. Obstetrics/Gynaecology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The Journal of Sexual Medicine 2011 Mar;8(3):742-53. Epub 2010 Dec 8.
  3. Sex on the brain?: an examination of frequency of sexual cognitions as a function of gender, erotophilia, and social desirability. Fisher, T.D., Moore, Z.T., Pittenger, M.J. Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University at Mansfield, OH. Journal of Sex Research 2012 Jan;49(1):69-77. Epub 2011 May 24.
  4. Sex on the brain?: an examination of frequency of sexual cognitions as a function of gender, erotophilia, and social desirability. Fisher, T.D., Moore, Z.T., Pittenger, M.J. Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University at Mansfield, OH. Journal of Sex Research 2012 Jan;49(1):69-77. Epub 2011 May 24.
  5. Gender differences in sexual fantasy and behavior in a college population: a ten-year replication. Hsu, B., Kling, A., Kessler, C., et al. Sepulveda Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, Bakersfield, CA. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 1994 Summer;20(2):103-18.
  6. Truth and consequences: using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self-reported sexuality. Alexander, M.G., Fisher, T.D. Department of Psychology, University of Maine, Orono, ME. Journal of Sex Research. 2003 Feb;40(1):27-35.

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