Sex on the Brain, Do Men and Women Differ All That Much?

How Men and Women Think About Sex Differently: Surprising Results

Last week, I interviewed researcher Terri Fisher, Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield about her recent study focused on how often college-aged men and women thought about sex. The study was published in The Journal of Sex Research (link is external)and since this past May, Dr. Fisher has received much attention regarding the outcome of the study. The initial idea she said, came out of the desire to see if the saying that men think about sex every 7 seconds had any basis scientifically since there had not been much in the way of empirical evidence to suggest it was factual.

In order to get her participants to accomplish the task easily and privately, she and her co-authors Zachary T. Moore and Mary-Jo Pittenger asked the male and female subjects to click a golf-counter each time they had thoughts about sex, hunger or sleep. She defined sexual thoughts as those simple enough to register an attraction to someone to full-blown elaborate fantasies. The outcomes revealed surprising results in many ways.

Most men aged 18-25 did think about sex more frequently than women but based on the median scores, men only thought about sex at the most about once an hour and in addition, many women had more sexual thoughts than some of the men. As well, the number of times men thought about sex were equal to the number of times they thought about food and sleep.

Dr. Fisher told me that most journalists “were focusing on the number of times men did think about sex” and that she felt they were missing some of the more “interesting results”. In fact, she said that since many men might feel less “manly or virile” if they don’t have as many sexual thoughts as women the study’s results should encourage men to feel less anxious and more educated about the wide range in libido among both women and men. In addition she added that this study suggests there is nothing more than cultural overlays which put pressure on men to boast about their sexual desire.

gender differences in sexual thoughts, desire difference between men and women,

The results that I found most fascinating about this study concerned the women’s responses. Before the women participants began counting their thoughts they filled out two specific questionnaires to measure how important other people’s opinions were to them (called social desirability) and how comfortable they were with sexuality in general (called Erotophilia). Erotophilia or what I term Sex Esteem, is a healthy comfort level with the natural sexual desires and thoughts that occur in one’s body and mind.

Dr. Fisher found in her results that the women who were most concerned with others’ views of them and the least comfortable with sexuality reported the lowest number of sexual thoughts. I brought up the Center for Disease Control’s recent report on Sexual Violence which stated that almost 70 percent of female victims experienced some form of intimate partner violence for the first time before the age of 25 and that approximately 80 percent of female victims of rape were first raped before age 25.

I asked whether she thought that perhaps the women (who were all between 18-25) who scored low on the two pre-measures and the resulting reported number of low sexual thoughts might not have been victims of sexual violence and therefore either afraid of their own sexual desires and less open to sharing them with others and/or less desirous of sex due to the trauma they had suffered. She had not put these two ideas together but thought it would be an important area of research in the future.

Based on the clients I’ve seen who have had some boundary crossing or violence in their past and who are struggling in their current sexual relationships this area seems critical for our understanding of women’s relationship with their own desire. A history of sexual trauma can wreak havoc on an intimate relationship with symptoms like flashbacks, body hatred, and distrust of one’s own or one’s partners intentions. In these cases it is important to see a sex therapist who has experience with these issues. If you are in New York you can contact me directly through my website and if not you can find a therapist through AASECT or SSTAR.

body image issues, body self-hatred, dieting, sexuality and body issues, teens,

How Much Do I Weigh?
I also thought that Dr. Fisher’s correlations regarding women’s social desirability and their sexual thought frequency confirmed the issues I treat in my therapy practice. Many women with body image issues or eating disorders have difficulty allowing themselves positive sexual pleasure. They either feel their bodies are not worthy enough by their partner and/or they are too preoccupied with thoughts about their calorie count that day to be open to passing sexual thoughts. A wonderful experience to attend is the Women’s Therapy Institute Indwelling, an annual tradition of speakers, performances and films around the body image issues women deal with on a day-to-day basis. The next Indwelling is March 3, 2012 in New York City. Mark your calendar if you’re in the New York area. Otherwise, I’ll be reporting more on this later.

Although this was a study done only with college aged women and men, it gives us a lot to consider when educating children and considering age-old myths or sayings regarding sexuality and gender.