Statistics about sex, like pretty much every kind of statistic, have a way of spreading around the internet without anyone ever citing a study. Once they’ve been repeated long enough, people start to assume they’re true without questioning the source.
The problem with this when it comes to sex in particular is that we learn so many myths about sex already, and many of the false statistics we read online only contribute to perpetuating them. Even when they’re intended to be empowering, they often fuel gender stereotypes.
Here are some widely cited but unsupported statistics about sex that we need to stop spreading.
The Clitoris Has Twice as Many Nerve Endings as the Penis
You’ll see this statistic all over feminist sites, books and talks. Usually, it’s used as evidence that women are not sexually inferior to men. Some even go as far to say it gives women a greater capacity for pleasure.
Women’s empowerment and sex guru Mama Gena, for example, likes to cite this “fact” as proof that women were just made to have fun. "We were gifted with 8,000 nerve endings dedicated to pleasure. Do you know how many nerve endings men have dedicated to pleasure? 4,000,” she told ABC.
These are nice sentiments, but nobody seems to be able to back up the statistic they’re based on. If they did look for the source, they’d find that it’s from a study on cows. In 1976’s, "The Clitoris," Thomas Lowry wrote that the bovine penises he examined had about 4,035 nerve endings while the clitoris had 7,733.
There doesn’t appear to be any research showing how many nerve endings are in the human clitoris, though. So, theoretically, it’s possible that this statistic could hold up. But it's more likely that the clitoris and the penis have roughly the same number of nerve endings, says Good Vibrations resident sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D. After all, the two organs evolve from the same structure in the womb. Aside from being on a different species, the cow study may also not even be representative of all cows, as it’s unclear how many were studied, she adds.
Even if the clitoris did have twice as many nerve endings as the penis, this would not mean that women’ sexual experiences are more intense. The mouth, hands and feet have more nerve endings than the genitals, but that doesn’t mean they provide more sexual pleasure.
The belief that cis women’s primary sexual organ has twice as many nerve endings as cis men’s might sound empowering, but it encourages the view that women’s sexuality is fundamentally different from men’s.
There seems to be a general belief that female pleasure is more intense than male pleasure, which is often backed up with the clitoris-has-8,000-nerve-endings statistic. This is part of a more general view that women feel things more intensely - that the world is just too much for them to handle. That women are less rational, more animalistic, more prone to drama and hysteria. While men can remain in control of themselves during sex and at all times, the stereotype goes, women are overcome with overwhelming feelings.
You also see this in the mistaken belief that all women have multiple orgasms. It serves to exoticize women’s sexuality as something completely alien to men. We should be emphasizing our sexual similarities (the clitoris and penis really do start off the same) so that men relate to women as human beings, not exotic animals.
40% of Women Suffer From Sexual Dysfunction
You’ll often see this statistic in marketing materials for drugs and procedures meant to cure “female sexual dysfunction,” a hotly debated diagnosis created largely by drug companies so that they had a “problem” to treat. It’s cited, for example, in a press release for the O shot, a vaginal injection that purports to facilitate arousal and orgasm.
The closest thing I could find to a basis for this statistic is a 1999 Journal of the American Medical Association paper, which says that 43% of women experience sexual dysfunction. The article was later updated to disclose that two of the three authors had financial ties to Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that developed Addyi, a drug made to increase female libido.
Unfortunately, as the documentary "Orgasm Inc." points out, “female sexual dysfunction” is a very vaguely defined condition that includes virtually any dissatisfaction with one’s sex life. It could include, for example, women who are upset by not regularly orgasming through penetration, even though 75 percent of women don’t.
One woman featured in "Orgasm Inc." participates in a clinical trial for the Orgasmatron, a device that uses electrodes inserted into women’s spines to help them orgasm. She deems herself “diseased” because she cannot orgasm during intercourse. At the end, when the device fails to help her, she reveals that she’s been able to orgasm through clitoral stimulation all along.
Calling 40 percent of women dysfunctional pathologizes normal sexual behavior and causes women to seek drugs and invasive procedures when often what they really need is for their partners to pay attention to their clitorises.
It also reinforces the notion that women are inherently lacking, an idea that goes back to Aristotle, who wrote in "Generation of Animals" that “women are defective by nature.” It’s almost as if sexual dysfunction is just part of being a woman.
But, of course, it’s not. Much of what we think of as “dysfunction” is a result of unrealistic expectations, poor sexual education and communication, and uncaring partners. The real problem isn’t with female bodies; it’s with the society that is constantly spreading myths and negative ideas about them. No drug or procedure is a substitute for sexual exploration, partner communication, or sex education.
Women Take 20 Minutes to Orgasm
Many sex therapists and writers have claimed in various articles and books that the average woman takes 20 minutes to reach orgasm, yet no study has ever produced this result. In fact, there has been very little research at all on orgasmic timing.
The only credible published study we have on this topic is from sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey, who asked women how long it takes them to orgasm for his 1953 book "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female." He found that they took slightly under four minutes through masturbation (and many of these women deliberately took longer than they needed in order to prolong their self-love sessions) and 10-20 minutes through intercourse (for those who could orgasm through intercourse, that is).
When it is based on data (though honestly, I think it’s often based on nothing), the “women take 20 minutes to orgasm” claim may stem from people rounding up Kinsey’s data on intercourse. However, Kinsey himself said that intercourse is not a good measure of women’s sexual response, since it is not even among the most reliable ways women orgasm.
He wrote, “There is widespread opinion that the female is slower than the male in her sexual responses, but the masturbatory data do not support that opinion. The average male may take something between two and three minutes to reach orgasm unless he deliberately prolongs his activity, and a calculation of the median time required would probably show that he responds not more than some seconds faster than the average female. It is true that the average female responds more slowly than the average male in coitus, but this seems to be due to the ineffectiveness of the usual coital techniques.”
Of course, some people (of all genders) do take 20 minutes or more to orgasm, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sex is not a race! There’s a lot to be gained from slowing down and savoring the experience.
But the problem with the binary of “men orgasm quickly and easily, while women require lots of time and effort” is that it makes the orgasm gap - the tendency for men to orgasm more than women - sound like nature taking its course. That belies the injustices that have led to the gap - namely, that far too many people view sex as an act performed for the sole sake of men’s pleasure, and accordingly, intercourse is considered the most legitimate form of sex.
The idea that women take much longer than men to get aroused (also not true) and orgasm also stems from a tired stereotype of women as less sexual and therefore in need of an emotional connection, romance, or lots of “warming up” in order to be interested in sex.
As sex researcher Shere Hite wrote in her 1976 book "The Hite Report," “It is, obviously, only during inadequate or secondary, insufficient stimulation like intercourse that we take ‘longer’ and need prolonged ‘foreplay.’ … Women don’t need ‘foreplay’ in masturbation to orgasm.”
In other words: Women’s bodies aren’t complicated. We get horny. We cum. Our pleasure is not a burden.
Men Think About Sex Every Seven Seconds
And the “women are romantics, men are horndogs” binary strikes again. There’s an oft-cited figure that men contemplate sex every seven seconds (that’s 8,229 times a day if you count 16 waking hours), but there is “absolutely no research to back that claim,” Dr. Terri D. Fisher, Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield, wrote for Psychology Today. “The previous research that examined actual numerical frequency has found daily sexual thought frequencies are not even in the double-digits. In addition, the research has not always consistently revealed gender differences in frequency of sexual thoughts.”
A study by Mansfield found that men reported a median of 18.6 sexual thoughts per day, while women reported 9.9. However, women who were concerned about their social desirability reported fewer thoughts about sex, suggesting that the reporting may not have been completely accurate. Either way, it’s not like men are thinking about sex every waking minute; 18.6 times per day is once or twice an hour.
Once again, this statistic encourages the view that men and women can never get along because their brains simply do not work the same way, that men will always be occupying themselves with schemes to get laid as often as possible, and women will hopelessly pray that these men will one day buy them roses and romantic dinners.
Even worse, the idea that men are obsessed with sex gets used to justify manipulative and coercive behavior. A man ogles at a woman? That’s just his manly, sexually preoccupied brain at work! He tries to pressure her into sex? Boys will be boys!
Like everyone, men are complex human beings with thoughts and emotions and many desires beyond sex, and women are more than the objects of men’s sexual desires; they have desires as well.
Question the "Facts"
As all these statistics show, it’s important to question any “facts” you hear about sex. There’s lots of misinformation-spreading about sex every day, so just because you read something online doesn’t make it true. It’s especially important to question statistics that fuel stereotypes, because in these cases, learning and educating people about the facts can create a more even playing field for everyone, both in the bedroom and outside it.