University of Minnesota study: About 9 percent of people have trouble controlling their ‘sexual urges’

Distress caused by sexual urges may be a lot more common than we once thought -- in both men and women.

Distress caused by sexual urges may be a lot more common than we once thought -- in both men and women. Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you’ve ever wondered how many people around you struggle with their sexual impulses, science is here to help -- and the number is higher than you might guess.

University of Minnesota researcher Janna Dickenson just published a study on sexual desires – specifically ones so powerful they cause “distress.” And according to a sample of over 2,300 men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 in 2016, 9 percent of people in the United States have this problem.

That’s more than the number of adults affected by major depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

What does that “distress” look like? Dickenson didn’t respond to interview requests, but she gave a few examples to the Star Tribune. It could be masturbating at work. It could be sexting or watching porn way too often. It also could be -- though, by no means necessarily is -- sexual assault.

The question this study asks is a touchy one, but it’s one we’ve been having a largely uninformed national argument about for years. How many people out there actually have a hard time controlling themselves? What does that mean as we navigate a new era of women holding the Harvey Weinsteins of the world accountable for their inappropriate sexual advances? And is this a problem that overwhelmingly afflicts men?

As it turns out, no, this isn’t a one-gender problem. The study's 9 percent figure breaks down to about 10 percent of men and 7 percent of women.

Outside of Dickenson’s study, there’s been little data on women who struggle with sexual urges. For centuries, the report says, the assumption has been that men are the ones who have to control “irrepressible” sexual desires, leaving women to act as “sexual gatekeepers” and keep them in check. It’s an assumption that has been used, in part, to explain why some 78 percent of all reported sexual assaults are perpetrated by men.

But when you actually look at the numbers, the study says, “gender differences were smaller than previously theorized.”

There are other interesting points in the data. Struggling with sexual urges is more common on the far ends of the economic scale – for low-income workers and the rich. They’re also more common in people who are of racial minorities, or gay, but the researchers are urging people not to jump to conclusions. That might just be the added distress of living a marginalized existence.

In any case, 9 percent is way more adults struggling with their sexual urges than we originally thought. Enough, the study suggests, to warrant “major public health relevance as a sociocultural problem.” Enough to warrant a heads up to health care professionals and to ask them to “find appropriate treatments for both men and women.”

This is just one study taken over the course of one year. There’s plenty more to find out before we’re able to call sexual distress a rising problem, or determine why it is so commonplace. If we want to find out, we’re going to have to start talking about this in a more scientific, less generalized way.

We’re also going to have to stop calling this a curse that only afflicts powerful, abusive men.