Nov. 29, 2011 -- Men do think about sex more often than women overall, but not all the time -- and the gap is not as wide as you might think, a new study finds.
"The absolute number of sexual thoughts is dramatically less than the urban legend that men think about sex every seven seconds," says study researcher Terri Fisher, PhD, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield.
She isn't sure where that seven-second figure originated. However, it has persisted. So she decided to investigate by asking college students to track their thoughts of sex.
Men had as many as 388 sexual thoughts per day, although the typical man had 19 a day. The typical woman had 10, although at least one woman had 140 per day. That's a far cry from the every-seven-second finding, which would translate to more than 8,000 times during 16 waking hours.
In Fisher's study, the men also had more frequent thoughts about two other biological needs, food and sleep, than women did -- but again, not by much.
There were also plenty of women in the study who thought about all of the above -- some of them a lot.
The study is due to be published in TheJournal of Sex Research.
Tracking Thoughts of Sex, Food, Sleep
Fisher asked the men and women to answer questions about eating, sleeping, and sexual behaviors. The eating and sleeping questions were meant to mask the focus on sexuality.
She assigned the men and women to one of three groups. One group kept track of thoughts of food; another, thoughts of sleep. The largest group, 163 people, tracked their thoughts about sex.
They clicked a golf tally counter when a thought occurred. At the end of the day, they wrote down the total. They kept track for a week.
''The more comfortable they were with their sexuality, the more likely they were to have sexual thoughts and record them," Fisher tells WebMD.
Comfort with their sexuality was a stronger driver than gender, she found.
Food for Thought
"While men were thinking more about sex, they were also thinking more about food and sleep," Fisher says.
Typically, men thought about food nearly 18 times a day, and about sleep nearly 11. Women typically thought about food about 15 times a day, and sleep nearly 9 times.
When it came to thinking about sex, ''the men were hugely different from one another," Fisher says. "The variation was quite large."
Hopefully, she says, the study will show there is a broad range in how often men and women think about sex -- and that it is not just men who have frequent thoughts of sex. "Some women thought about sex much more than men," she tells WebMD.
The study may help both men and women understand that there is a broad range of ''normal," she says.
Thinking About Sex: Perspective
"This is the best study to date looking at frequency of sexual thought," says Janet Hyde, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She reviewed the study but was not involved in it.
Keeping track of thoughts as they occur, instead of recalling them later, helps boost accuracy, she tells WebMD.
"And it shows it's not nearly as big a difference [between men and women] as we thought it was," she says.
The study, she says, "goes a long way toward overturning the stereotype about men being hypersexual and women not being interested in sex."