Love and Sex in the Age of Big Data
A look at sex stats, including a survey of Coastal Connecticut readers
“Try to pose for yourself this task,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1863, “not to think of a polar bear … and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
This off-hand challenge in Dostoevsky’s travel notes has morphed into what modern researchers call the “ironic process theory.” And it is why, according to Snopes (and other even more reliable sources), there is no valid data for the oft-quoted axiom “Men think about sex every 7 seconds.” Which would mean 8,000 times during a man’s waking hours, over 500 times an hour, leaving little time for calculating where he should park if he wants to catch the 8:04 train, or if today is his anniversary or not.
One of the reasons there’s murky data (or no data at all) is because the methods of collecting data create their own data. Try NOT thinking about sex when you are holding a little sex clicker in your hand or answering a text about sex seven times a day. (Researchers found that when they used this method, every participant thought about sex seven times a day.)
The number of institutes and university departments devoted to research about sexual habits and aberrations is stunning, especially when you are reminded of the shock and outrage surrounding the original Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953. Having so much work dedicated to the subject may be reassuring to information-seeking geeks, but data can be skewed. For one thing, participants in the studies are only those willing to discuss decidedly personal and possibly taboo subjects. Reluctant participants may hold back information; exhibitionists may exaggerate.
That said, research appears to bear out the fact that men think about sex more than woman do. Scientists at the Kinsey Institute of Research for Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University determined that 54% of men (but only 19% of women) think about sex “several times a day.” Louann Briz, author of The Female Brain, says because of basic neurological differences, men think about it every 52 seconds, women only once a day. She does not, however, take into account the female equivalent of thinking about sex: “Do I look fat in this dress?” Which would pretty much even things out.
Additional studies collect data according the age, gender identity, religion, and marital status, and results are all over the place. One thing they almost all agree on, though: respondents who say they are having more frequent sex think about sex more frequently. Or they’re just bragging.
Thinking about sex may lead to, or include, fantasizing about sex, which pretty much everyone admits to in varying degrees. The most common fantasy is watching or participating in woman-on-woman sexual play, which may be explained by the fact that the “dirty pictures” we grew up on have usually been naked or partially-clad women. The short list of fantasies in a number of studies includes dominance and submission, and the titillating ménage a trios. A longer list from the good people at the Journal of Sexual Medicine, arranged alphabetically (thank God), includes bestiality and, perhaps less disturbingly, the wearing of costumes.
Which leads us to the interesting response to this question in a recent Coastal Connecticut magazine reader survey. Almost half of respondents said they have never worn a costume to spice up a sexual experience; less than a quarter said they would with the right person. But what about a wife who wears those stilettos her husband is so turned on by? Or the husband who playfully wears the tool belt he usually keeps in the shed? Dr. Scott Haltzman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University and author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men, says that role-playing, whether or not it involves wearing what we might call a costume, is both common and healthy: it helps dissociate us from our daily lives and enhances sex play.
Brian Zamboni, PhD, clinical psychologist, and sex therapist at University of Minnesota, says that even baby talk or talking dirty is a type of role playing. Need a little help to get started? Consult Lovepanky.com’s “Sexual Role Play for Beginners.”
All this talk about sex and we may have forgotten about what usually goes along with it: marriage. Like the thinking-about-sex-every-7-seconds presumption, the “fact” that 50% of today’s marriages end in divorce is not borne out by statistics. “The New Monogamy”, an article which appeared in Psychology Today, presents a case that that 50% number really belongs to extra-marital affairs, which there appears to be plenty of. To allow for that, author Tammy Nelson introduces the term “flexible monogamy” to perhaps replace “serial monogamy.”
Eli Finkel, in a 2014 New York Times editorial called “The All-or-Nothing Marriage,” makes it clear that sex (or monogamy for that matter) has not always been the bedrock of a successful marriage. Marriage has evolved, Finkel says, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A farming society requires what Finkel calls an “institutional marriage.” A man and woman together create food, shelter, and protection, and they procreate so that society as they know it can continue. When the shift from rural to urban living came about and life was a little easier, man and woman could focus more on a “companionship marriage” and, as, luck might have it, love.
However, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization and self-fulfillment, neither of which necessarily requires a partner. Finkel calls marriages based on this level of the hierarchy the “self-expressive marriage”.
Although census information tells us that married people live longer, healthier lives, there is not much to be said either way for monogamy. Carl Jung once wrote to his more dignified friend Sigmund Freud, “The prerequisite for a good marriage, it seems to me, is the license to be unfaithful.” Zoologists are constantly bursting our bubble about the lifetime commitment of swans and cranes, substituting rats and black vultures as creatures historically more “faithful.” But even those conjugal beasties are guilty of what scientists refer as occasional “extra-pair copulation events.” Turns out that even penguins fool around.
But let’s return to the “flexible monogamy” concept and try to define infidelity. Does fantasizing about someone qualify? How about a platonic friendship that may interfere with the marriage relationship or a “roll in the hay” with no emotional attachment? What was your reaction to former president Jimmy Carter admitting to a Playboy interviewer in 1976 that he had committed adultery “in his heart” many times? How about your reaction to his agreeing to be interviewed by Playboy in the first place?
If we define “infidelity” as actual sex, then research tells us something interesting. David C. Atkins, an associate research professor at the University of Washington’s Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors, studied the infidelity rate among married couples and discovered that although the divorce rate has not risen significantly, particular age groups, including newly married couples and couples over 60, are cheating more often.
Consider this: 24% of our readers admitted to an extra-marital affair, which is about average in the US. Compare that number to the 13% of respondents who said they were divorced. Do the math. Some of us have been unfaithful yet managed to stay married, a trend which research bears out, even, as Atkins reports, among couples over 60.
We’re living longer, staying married longer and, according to dozens of studies including our own informal survey, enjoying sex longer. Shove the AARP magazine off the bed and slip into that French maid’s outfit. Make your fantasies come true or lock them away. It looks like sexual “normal” is lot more fun than we may have thought.