Sex by numbers, but figures don't add up

LET'S talk about sex. Oh go on, you know you want to. At least, if you're a bloke you do. It's a well-known fact that men think about sex once every seven seconds.

Aidan Semmens

LET'S talk about sex. Oh go on, you know you want to. At least, if you're a bloke you do. It's a well-known fact that men think about sex once every seven seconds.

Or is it? Let's just consider that a moment. I'd say it depends on several things - like how you define the words “known”, “fact”, “sex” and “once”.

I won't pretend to deny that thoughts of a sexual nature cross my mind from time to time. But if it really happened every seven seconds I'd surely find it difficult driving, watching football, cooking the dinner, writing this column, or indeed doing most of the other things I fill my days with.

On the other hand, when I do think about sex, I'm sure it tends to go on a little longer than seven seconds. So does that count as “once”, or what?

And then there's the big question: where on earth did that supposed “fact” originate?

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I can't conceive of any way in which such a conclusion could be arrived at scientifically. So it can only be an example of Benjamin Disraeli's third category of lies.

As he said: “There are three kinds of lies - lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Disraeli was a highly successful politician, so it's a subject he should have known something about.

But it's not just politicians who like to bandy statistics about. We journalists are constantly bombarded with the things, and more often than not we accept them and pass them on uncritically.

They come from all sorts of sources, for all sorts of reasons, with all sorts of hidden - and not so hidden - agendas attached.

But a National Survey (notice the capital initials) funded by the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health and carried out by a National Centre, a London medical school and a university department should surely carry some weight. Shouldn't it?

So let's look at that very august, and often quoted, piece of work The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.

After interviewing more than 12,000 private citizens, aged from 16 to 44, it concluded - among many other things - that an average man has 12.7 sexual partners in a lifetime, while the average woman has 6.5.

It's a statistic I've seen more than once, quoted to demonstrate a variety of different points by people who should know better.

Now I'm no mathematical whizz, but I know that each time one person has sex, someone else is having it with them. And since there are roughly the same number of women as men in Britain, if men really have twice as many sexual partners as women, it can only mean one thing. Half their partners are other men.

Which may, I suppose, be true - but frankly I doubt it.

Much more plausible is that male respondents tend to exaggerate their sexual prowess, while women do so less, or even downplay the facts.

In our sex-crazed society, what was until quite recently the expected thing - having just one lifetime partner - has come to seem abnormal. So those men who haven't slept around may be more likely than others to tell the interviewers to mind their own business.

It also seems likely that a few very active women (prostitutes, for example) account for a high proportion of the female side of the real equation and may have been left out of the accounting.

But whichever way you look at it, the bald unexplained statistic is bunk.

Now, getting away from sex for a moment (your seven seconds is more than up), here's another stat I enjoyed this week.

According to Professor Raymond Tallis, “doctor, philosopher and author”, we laugh 30 times more when with other people than when we're alone. For mad people, apparently, this is reversed.

Gave me a chuckle anyway.

A FEW scraps of charred wood and some stone chips were revealed this week, products of the first proper archaeological dig for 40 years at Stonehenge.

Not much to you and me, maybe, but real treasure to the experts. For they tell us the site was already important - perhaps, they suggest, as a holy healing centre - an incredible 4,000 years before the famous stones were erected.

It only adds to the magic and mystery of a site the whole world knows is special.

The whole world except, it seems, those who live in and run this country.

The state of the place, hemmed in by roads and car-parks, was declared a national disgrace in 1997. It's no better now and can only get worse after the government's decision that burying the nearby A303 in a tunnel would be a waste of money.

Especially with Tesco building a giant warehouse that will send a juggernaut a minute rumbling by.

Tesco wins; 9,000 years of unique and irreplaceable heritage loses. That tells us more than we might want to know about today's Britain.