Love & Sex

Nobody Can Remember Sex That Well

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Your sex memories might be far from reality. Especially if you're a man.

This morning you might have been met with an overly-salacious rehashing of your friend’s weekend with her boyfriend. You type, "Mhmm," politely into your Gchat bar while quietly picking at granola at your work desk. "This month has literally been the best sex of my life," she exclaims. You get it, you’re happy for her, sure. 

A little dejected, you open up a new tab on your browser and Google, "How often are couples having sex?" Apparently, 40% of American couples have sex 3 to 4 times a week. This is where you could start to feel terrible when you realize you haven’t been laid in x weeks. Or, you could realize that these are people talking about their own sex lives from memory and no objective party has been sitting at the end of their beds in a smart white coat with a stethoscope, measuring the frequency, potency, and satisfaction of everything they do and scribbling all this fastidiously onto their clipboard.

While good sex has been shown to mysteriously (and transiently) wipe your memory clean, there is now some reason to speculate that our memories also might be giving sex (and, perhaps, our performance) a huge grade inflation. Pointing out the inconsistencies when we self-report our sexual memories was the intent of a new study done by the Duke Clinical Research Institute. A group of researchers lead by Dr. Kevin Weinfurt tested the accuracy of month-long recalls for a variety of sexual functions (including kissing, interest in sex, problems with sex, frequency, orgasms, etc.—it’s a sexy list). The 202 sexually-active participants were required to document their daily sexual activity in detail every day for thirty days, and at the end of the month they’d be asked to estimate their overall reaction to each of the sexual determinants or “recall” the past month's exploits. As it turns out, some wear rose-tinted glasses when they look back on their sex lives, while others have Eternal Sunshine-ed their libido.

The study found that when it comes to recalling particular sexual acts, uses of therapeutic aids like lube or Viagra, or any sexual discomfort, both men and women are pretty accurate. If we’re uncomfortable, taking hormones, or perhaps just tried out anal sex for the first time, we’re going to remember it without much bias after a thirty-day period. Our recall starts getting shoddy when we talk about kissing, sexual interest, and orgasm satisfaction. The most interesting part of the study’s results were that when it came to frequency in sexual interest and masturbating, both men and women were over-projecting, and in the case of men, they were overreporting by the end of the month on a huge scale. 

I interviewed Dr. Weinfurt over email to tackle some of the hairier findings of his research. When I asked how people could so accurately remember things like intercourse but misreport about kissing, he explained simply that kissing and other affectionate activities happened so frequently, they didn’t really stand out as much as overt sex. Right, but are men and women’s so-called sexual recall memories that different?

In some ways, they’re nearly identical. Weinfurt explained, "That is, they both "recalled" being more interested and masturbating more than they actually did.  But for these two items, men overreported even more than women.  Men were especially prone to imagining that they were more interested in sex and masturbating more than they actually were."

If men are broadly remembering that they were jerking off and wanting sex much more frequently than they actually were, my initial thought was to jump to key neighborhood culprits, gender stereotypes and culture. Weinfurt also offered that not only are gender norms a factor, but our own personal mythologies about gender and self inform our sexual recall: "We know from other studies in psychology that people's memories for personal experiences tend to be constructed in a way that is consistent with their belief about who they are.  An American man's self-concept might be informed by cultural norms of what men are like, which includes being more interested in sex and more likely to masturbate than women."

Certainly these findings should challenge the way we interpret the face value of a lot of sex studies, but these inaccurate memories of our sex lives might actually affect our ways of thinking of ourselves. If we start seeing ourselves in terms of our over or under reported sex lives, eventually, "these beliefs about ourselves have a self-validating nature," explains Weinfurt. "If I'm an American guy, my poor memory for my actual level of interest in sex allows my self-concept to influence my "recall" of my interest. In turn, my "memory" of frequently being interested in sex then becomes further evidence for the validity of that belief about myself, a typical American guy." We then take those memory-affected projections and pass them along to others, allowing for a culture of sex recall that might be built upon our assumptions about our genders and ourselves just as much as about our own real experiences—a Roshomon-ed conception of sex. Men continue to be portrayed as in a state of imminent masturbation and coitus, while women don't want sex nearly as frequently. That's the way it will be remembered, if we think retroactively and in big strokes.

How we remember our sex lives also depends on our moods. If people were in a terrible mood at the end of the month, they were more likely to underreport how many times they had sex in the month. If either gender were in a good mood, they underreported masturbating, underreported sexual discomforts, overreported erectile function, and finally, overreported their ability to achieve and enjoy orgasms. Which proves, as infuriating as outsiders may find it, when someone is in a good mood, their sex life will retrospectively fall in suit. The next time someone is Gchatting you about how hard they've been coming, take it with a grain of salt.

Does the self-applied bell curve for our sex memories serve us in any way? Of course. If we’re remembering our sex lives as better than they are, eventually our sex is going to be better.*


*Even if it isn’t, we can all selectively remember it like it was.