Do men think about sex every seven seconds? What about women? Are you an erotophile or an erotophobe? These are a few questions implicitly raised in a research study that generated some recent buzz and got me thinking about the curiosities of research. Published in the Journal for Sex Research, it's called: "Sex on the Brain? An examination of Frequency of Sexual Cognitions as a Function of Gender, Erotophilia and Social Desirability," by Terri D. Fisher, Zachary T. Moore and Mary-Joe Pittenger.
For starters, if your eyes glazed over on that subtitle, here's some help: In layman terms it might as well read: "A look at how often men and women think about sex based on their gender, how sexually uptight they are (or not), and where they fall on the social register." (And for those of you stumped by the sexy research language: According to Wikipedia, erotophiles talk about sex more openly, feel less guilt about it, and have "more positive attitudes toward sexually explicit material." Erotophobes, on the other hand, feel guilty and fearful about sex, have it less frequently and with fewer partners, and don't like the explicit stuff.
The gist of the study, according to Dr. Fisher, was partly to examine "the crazy old myth that men think about sex every seven seconds." That's a lot of sex on the brain. According to Fisher, "no research has ever found anything even remotely approaching that magnitude." Well, that's reassuring. Because if men did think about sex that often, they'd have little space left in their mental hard drives to think about anything other than, well, their hard drives.
To debunk this every enduring (and endearing) myth, research participants were given a tally-counter to click every time they had a thought about sex. The results weren't surprising: Basically, there's not that big a disparity between men and women when it comes to frequency of thinking about sex. (Those interested in the fine points can read a research extract here.) Men thought a bit more about food and sleep, though that could be connected to sex, too, when you think about it. Have Sex. Eat. Sleep. Not necessarily in that order.
It's also not surprising that erotophiles thought about sex less than erotophobes -- at least they clicked less, which doesn't mean they were telling the truth. And that's the problem with research, isn't it? It stands to reason that if you're an erotophobe, even if you think about sex you might not feel comfortable clicking about it. Then again, it's possible that erotophobes secretly think about sex more often than erotophobes, or in stranger ways, precisely because they have issues with it.
Which brings me to a problematic point about research studies. Seems to me we Americans are more obsessed than any nation on earth with quantifying things. That's not based on empirical data, of course. I'd have to do a research study to confirm it. But every month there seems to be a new study about the "science" of love and sex that generally either proves the obvious, tries to quantify the unquantifiable, or leads me, personally, to wonder: So what? Does it matter what chemicals go off in your brain when you're in love or having sex? What are we supposed to do about bio-behavioral modes designed to quantify romantic love and "passion love scales"? Isn't trying to quantify the vast grey zones of subjective human behavior a little like trying to slip a mold of jello through a keyhole and have it come out the other end intact?
I was compelled to contact Dr. Fisher after reading a recent review of "Sex on the Brain" in the New York Times. It concluded that Fisher and her colleagues were unsuccessful getting "older Americans" to follow-up with their research. Turns out "older" Americans simply meant people older than 25. Getting non-college students to participate without compensation -- meaning anyone over, say, 30 -- was a challenge. When it came to the gender of those who participated, however, women were a resounding majority. " Now, what to make of that?," the Times reporter asked.
Yeah, what about that? Replied Fisher: "I would guess that it has something to do with the fact that women have menopause as a signal that they've entered a new phase of life and men don't have a comparable signal like that. Therefore men are perhaps able to self-delude that they're young, whereas women have to recognize the signs."
The signs, of course, are bleeped out daily and pervasively by a multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry that's focused primarily on women. Hard not to be reminded of aging, even if you're only 21, when anti-aging has become something of a crusade in America. Meanwhile, it's safe to conclude that we all, men and women, think about sex on and off, for various reasons and to various degrees, whether we're having sex or not (philes and phobes alike). And somewhere along the way, we want to eat and sleep.