Men think about sex every seven seconds, right? Not according to a new study that finds men ponder sleep and food as much as they do sex.
The median number of thoughts about sex by college-age men was 18 times a day to women's 10 times a day, the study found. But the men also thought about food and sleep proportionately more.
"In other words, there was nothing special about sexual thoughts," study researcher Terri Fisher, a psychologist at The Ohio State University, Mansfield, told LiveScience. "Males thought more about any of the health-related thoughts compared to females, not just thoughts about sex."
Sex on the brain
The "men think about sex every seven seconds" axiom is an urban legend, Fisher said. But there is little reliable research on how often men and women really do have sexual thoughts. Most studies have asked people to think back across their day or week and try to remember how many sex thoughts they had -- a method that doesn't always provide reliable results. [Top 10 Urban Legends]
Fisher and her colleagues instead asked 163 college women and 120 college men to carry around small golf-stroke tally counters. So they wouldn't be biased to think about sex, the students were told they'd be asked about health-related thoughts, Fisher said. Next, the researchers told 60 percent of the students to click the counter whenever they thought about sex. Others were instructed to tally their thoughts on food and sleep.
"The stereotype is that men think about sex constantly and women rarely [think about it]," Fisher said. But that's not what she and her colleagues found. There was a broad range in the number of sex thoughts, from several participants who recorded one thought a day, to a male participant who recorded 388 thoughts in a day. Factoring in the participant's sleep time, his 388 thoughts broke down to having a sexual thought every 158 seconds, Fisher said, still far fewer than the "every seven seconds" legend would suggest.
Sex, sleep and snacks
On average, Fisher wrote, the men in the study thought about sex slightly more than once each waking hour and women about half that. However, men paid no greater attention to sex than they did food and sleep, Fisher found. That difference could be a real one in which men are just more aware of their physical state at any given time, she said, or it could be that men are more comfortable clicking the tally counter to record their body-centric thoughts.
"There are stereotypes about women and sexuality and about women and food," Fisher said, and women who indicated on questionnaires that they cared more about what others thought about them were less likely to report food and sex-based thoughts. They were equally like to report their sleep-based thoughts, which aren't so subject to stereotypes, Fisher said. The finding suggests that women, but not men, are influenced by social desirability concerns in what they were thinking or what they would admit to thinking.
The study has limitations, including the fact that people tend not to have isolated thoughts. The data also doesn't show whether an individual thought is a one-second passing notion or a full-on 10-minute sexual fantasy. The study was limited to college students, but Fisher currently has research under way on adults ages 25 and up. She said she hopes to get to the truth of the sex difference stories that get passed around in popular culture.
"When people hear about some of these differences, I think sometimes they don't question it because it fits the stereotypes we have of men and women," Fisher said. "When you stop and take a closer look at the origins of some of these alleged differences, they sometimes have no empirical support."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.