Sex Ed

There’s Just One Problem With Suppressing Sexual Thoughts—It Doesn’t Work

June 18, 2018 by Justin Lehmiller


Let’s say you have a sexual fantasy about something—or someone—you’re not “supposed” to do, perhaps because it conflicts with the teachings of your religion. When a thought about this pops into your head, what do you do?

One of the most common responses people have to unwanted thoughts is to actively suppress them. While this may work in the short term as a means of reducing these thoughts, unfortunately, it’s not a very effective strategy for clearing your mind of them. As it turns out, suppressing a given thought just makes us think about it more in the long run.

There’s a large body of research in psychology supporting the idea of a rebound effect following thought suppression and it has been replicated many times [1]. However, there really hasn’t been much research looking specifically at the effects of suppression of sexual thoughts until now. A new set of studies published in the Journal of Sex Research finds that suppression of sexual thoughts does indeed increase subsequent preoccupation with those thoughts [2].

This research is the subject of my latest column over at TONIC and it involved a set of three studies comparing secular and religious adolescents in Israel. In a nutshell, the results indicated that being religious was linked to more suppression of sexual thoughts, which predicted being more preoccupied with those thoughts—and that preoccupation, in turn, predicted lower levels of happiness.

In other words, not other does thought suppression not work, it also seems to make people unhappy in the long run.

Overall, what these findings tell us is that avoidance isn’t a productive or healthy way to deal with unwanted sexual thoughts. For more details on this research, check out the full column over at TONIC.

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[1] Abramowitz, J. S., Tolin, D. F., & Street, G. P. (2001). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression: A meta-analysis of controlled studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(5), 683-703.

[2] Efrati, Y. (2018). God, I Can’t Stop Thinking About Sex! The Rebound Effect in Unsuccessful Suppression of Sexual Thoughts Among Religious Adolescents. The Journal of Sex Research.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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