Between The Sheets

A new sex study indicates unmarried boomers behave more recklessly than teens

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James Leighton / Gallery Stock

A new sex study indicates unmarried boomers behave more recklessly than teens.

As far as sexual behavior goes, we may be worrying about the wrong people. The kids, it turns out, may be all right. It's the boomers who are being all, like, irresponsible and stuff. At least that's the finding of the largest nationally representative survey of the sexual behavior of Americans ever undertaken, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine on Oct. 4.

Most adolescents, defined as those 14 to 17 years old, are not having sex; only about a fifth of them have ever had intercourse. And the last time they did, the vast majority of them used condoms. Boomers, on the other hand, thanks to better health and Bob Dole, are having sex well into old age. But unless they're Hispanic or African American, these older folks are not using condoms nearly as often as teenagers are.

The study, conducted by Indiana University, which has a long and respected history of sex research (it houses the Kinsey Institute), took an intensive look at the sexual habits of 5,865 people, ages 14 to 94, across a spectrum of races and education levels. Some of its findings are not that surprising—men think their female partners have orgasms more often than they actually do, and older people have friends with benefits too—but it offers a picture of teens' sexual behavior that diverges from the stereotype. Among the 17-year-olds surveyed, 40% of males and 31% of females said they have had sexual intercourse. This suggests that more teens may be waiting longer to become sexually active; according to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, 46% of males and 49% of females had had sex by age 17.

The new study also found that among sexually active adolescents, 80% of males and 69% of females reported using a condom during their last sexual encounter, an increase compared with prior surveys. "Condom use and protection is normative among this group," says sex educator Logan Levkoff, who serves on an advisory council at Trojan, which funded the study. "But until we're at 100%, we still have our work to do."

Perhaps sex educators should devote more attention to boomers as well. The study showed that among men 50 or older, 91% did not use a condom when they had sex with a date or casual acquaintance and that 70% didn't even do so when they had sex with someone they just met. Their female peers are more careful in general, but still a majority of them have sex without a condom. A few older people in the study didn't use a condom even when they knew they or their partner had a sexually transmitted disease. "Sadly, I find this not hard to believe," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington (and another member of the Trojan advisory council), adding that figures from AARP show a similar disdain. Because boomers are often re-entering the dating scene after several years of marriage, Schwartz believes some of them missed key public-health messages. "They were spoiled for years, and now they have this prejudice that they're safe," she says.

Looks as if they need a little sex talk. Preferably from their kids.