The idea that men think about sex every seven seconds is one of these things everyone is told when they’re young and never really dives too deep into. It’s just taken as fact: Men are all primal and horny, banging never far from their thoughts.
But like so many endlessly-repeated ideas, once you actually analyze it, it doesn’t make any sense at all. For instance, what does “thinking about sex” even mean? There’s a spectrum, surely. On one end, you have momentarily engaging casually with being aware of sex as a concept, and on the other, there’s running through elaborate, physically challenging acts in your head, beads of sweat forming on your upper lip, eyes bulging, fists clenched, tongue involuntarily rolling around the inside of your mouth.
The “every seven seconds” part also raises questions. What if someone were to spend, say, a minute reminiscing about an enjoyable sexual encounter they once had? Is that one thought, or a series of them? Is it one a second? Does a thought take a second? (No.) Is the whole thing meant to be an average, like one-seventh of men’s time is spent thinking about sex? If so, “every seven seconds” is extremely disingenuous.
And isn’t horniness a bit of a spectrum as well? If you’re thinking, “Wow, I really don’t feel like having sex,” is that thinking about sex? What about if you’re having sex? What about if you’re having sex but actively trying to think about other things — baseball, cold showers, Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day — to make it last longer?
So it’s all nonsense, and potentially unhelpful nonsense — the kind of thing people grasp onto to try to provide themselves with excuses for inexcusable behavior. “It’s not my fault, I’m genetically predisposed to be uncontrollably horny!” — yes it is, take some responsibility for yourself, sir!
Luckily, science has endeavored to answer the question for real, as much as it can be answered.
In 1995, a Kinsey Institute survey asking men and women of all ages how often they thought about sex resulted in 54 percent of men saying they thought about it at least daily, 43 percent opting for a few times a week and the rest less than once a month. The corresponding figures for women were 19 percent daily, 67 percent a few times a week and 14 percent less than once a month. While there’s a pretty large gender disparity there, the numbers in general are strikingly low — i.e., idly thinking about sex a few times a week is a far cry from every seven seconds.
Meanwhile, a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Sex Research, “Sex on the Brain?: An Examination of Frequency of Sexual Cognitions As a Function of Gender, Erotophilia and Social Desirability,” detailed a study in which researchers gave 283 students at the Ohio State University clickers and asked them to record whenever they thought about certain subjects — food for one group, sleep for another and sex for a third. The sex group was specifically told to only click for erotic thoughts, not like if they walked past two squirrels banging or something.
On average, men reported 19 thoughts about sex per day, and women 10 such thoughts. However, men also reported more thoughts about food and sleep, which could say more about what the men deemed significant enough a thought to record than the prevalence of sex in their minds. Some participants recorded only one sex thought a day, while one dude reported 388. (Once every seven seconds would work out to 12,343.)
The more reliable predictor of thinking about sex than the students’ gender was their reported erotophilia, or how much they identified as being into sex. “It’s amazing the way people will spout off these fake statistics that men think about sex nearly constantly and so much more often than women do,” study author Terri Fisher said at the time. “If you had to know one thing about a person to best predict how often they would be thinking about sex, you’d be better off knowing their emotional orientation toward sexuality, as opposed to knowing whether they were male or female.”
Of course, carrying a clicker around with you to report your thoughts on sex creates an unusual situation in which you’re likely to think about thinking about sex more than you might otherwise, which Fisher acknowledges might have knock-on effects. Another study tried to avoid this problem using a method where, at random intervals seven times a day, participants’ phones would prompt them to record what they had just been thinking about.
This paper, “What People Desire, Feel Conflicted About and Try to Resist in Everyday Life,” published in Psychological Science, found men and women weren’t spending anywhere near as much time thinking about sex as they were about things like emails and coffee. Only 4 percent of prompts led to participants reporting having thought about sex in the previous half hour. However, when they did think about sex, they reported those thoughts as being significantly more intense than, for instance, the ones about emails.
In short, the “every seven seconds” idea is utter bullshit, a severely unhelpful dose of nonsense that benefits nobody. If the rule were true, based on a reading speed of 200 words per minute, in the time it took to read this article you’d have thought about sex about 40 times. (If that is true for you, well done, you are extremely horny.) Thus, given how complex and nebulous the thought process is, and the enormous differences in how individuals think about sex, or are even aware of thinking about it, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a definitive answer — it’s basically impossible to work out. Some people think about sex a lot, some don’t, and unfortunately, that’s all there is to it.