Let’s Talk About Sex (Yes, Again); Body and Mind

Men may or may not think about sex every 15 minutes, but someone seems to think of doing a survey about it just as frequently.

It is the secret sex life of the British male. He has intercourse twice a week and fantasizes in the bath. He thinks about sex on average every 15.3 minutes but says that sex is less important than his car.

He believes humor is more important in a woman than intelligence. The wealthier he is the more likely he is to enjoy sado-masochism and bondage. He has no idea if he is well-endowed. (Men on Sex survey, Esquire magazine, 1992.)

Sex surveys fascinate the British public. It all started in America in 1948 with The Kinsey Report, a serious scientific study, which told a shocked pre-Pill world how many homosexuals there were and the prevalence of oral sex. In the 1960s Dr William Masters and Virginia Johnson published up-dated statistics based on laboratory observations and questionnaires.

By the 1970s magazines once wedded to articles on knitting and cake decoration became devoted to in-the-bedroom statistics. Surveys on sexual behavior now constitute an entire genre of journalism for the tabloids; even Edith Cresson, the former prime minister of France, has joined in, with her estimate that one in four men in Britain is homosexual.

Today, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles the largest, most respectable and rigorous sexual survey ever carried out in Britain is to publish its preliminary findings. The survey is of 19,000 people, evidently randomly selected, and has been funded by the Wellcome Trust. Its main aim is to provide information to help in the prediction and prevention of HIV infection. A subsidiary aim is to build a data base concerning sexual behavior in an advanced society.

But can we believe what sexual surveys (even scientific ones) say? Do they really have any relevance to the British public other than to make them neurotic about their sex lives because they have never dressed up in a Spiderman outfit or covered their partner in ginger biscuits and cream?

Like drinking, smoking and absence from work, sex is one of those things that people are supposed to lie about, basing their answers on an ideal already given to them by previous sex surveys, or by a perceived norm. In a survey reported in the Daily Express in October, 61 per cent of men said that they were first attracted to a woman by her personality. Only 8 per cent of men said they looked for long, slim legs or a pretty face. Psychologists call this “motivational distortion”: women call it fibbing.

Anne Hooper, a sex therapist and counsellor, and the author of Anne Hooper’s Ultimate Sex Guide, was involved in numerous sex surveys when she worked for Forum magazine. “We did a penis survey, a vibrator survey and an oral sex survey and I was surprised by how honest people were prepared to be,” she says. “They seem to feel a certain responsibility. You get a nose for spotting the fantasy responses and the gags. Our penis survey the average size was six inches correlated almost exactly with The Kinsey Report and with medical surveys.”

Ms Hooper believes sex surveys help to dispel peoples’ fears. “In one survey we conducted, only 29 per cent of women said they experience orgasm due to love-making. That figure helps because it makes women who don’t have orgasms during intercourse realize they are not freaks,” she says.

When conducting face-to-face surveys, she says, researchers have to be careful not to appear shocked. “A very respectable woman told me that her problem was that her husband wouldn’t hang her. It is vital to take that unusual story as seriously as the usual. And of course we had to rely on people who offered their services, which is why I am looking forward to the national survey because it is the first totally random survey to be carried out.”

Eleanor Stephens, a psychologist and producer of Channel4’s Love Talk and Men Talk series, thinks that people tend to give the kind of reply they would like to think was true. “Women appear to be more truthful. They are happier exposing their vulnerabilities,” she says. “Men are prone to see sex as competition.”