I love it when science proves what we already know. A study out of Ohio State University has found that — wait for it — people lie about sex. But this isn’t simply a case of researchers rehashing a truth already told by a million romantic comedies and stand-up comics. The study found that men and women fib about their sexual behaviors in order to conform to gendered expectations, and that sex is the one arena where this happens.
Per the usual, researchers had college students fill out a questionnaire — this one concerning how often they engaged in over 100 different behaviors. All of the activities could be categorized, thanks to a previous study, as being generally perceived of as typically male or female. Here’s an interesting twist: Half of the participants were hooked up to a polygraph machine, and told as much. The machine didn’t actually work, but they didn’t know that — the point was to make them feel pressured to tell the truth. What researchers found was that regardless of whether they were hooked up to the lie detector, men and women readily admitted to behaviors that didn’t conform to gender norms. For example, men openly reported engaging in supposedly non-masculine behaviors like writing poetry.
But all that changed when it came to sex. The men hooked up to the polygraph reported fewer sexual partners than did the men who were not told that their honesty would be measured. The opposite was true for women: Those told about the polygraph reported more sexual partners than those who were not. In fact, the lie-detectored ladies reported more sexual partners than did the lie-detectored men. “Sexuality seemed to be the one area where people felt some concern if they didn’t meet the stereotypes of a typical man or a typical woman,” said lead researcher Terri Fisher. In case you are an alien from another planet, let me spell it out for you: Here on Earth, men are portrayed as roving horn dogs led by their “other head,” while women are often thought to be cool-headed-slash-frigid gatekeepers.
Here’s why this study’s findings are especially important: “What is known about gender differences in sexual behavior comes largely from studies involving self-report and therefore may be subject to culturally-based gender expectations and stereotypes that could then result in biased reporting,” explains the study. In other words, you might not know what you think you know about sex differences.