Sex Atlas

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SHEELA SARVANANDAOnly two things sell well: food and sex. And I never was much of a cook. -- Fernande Grudet (Madame Claude), head of France's biggest prostitution ring in the '60s and '70s.

Dinner conversations at Judith Mackay's Hong Kong home must have been a little spicier than normal over the past five years. As the author of the recently released Penguin Atlas of Human Sexual Behavior, the 56-year-old mother of two grown sons has had nothing but sex on her brain. Literally.

Did you know, for example, that 40% of Japanese men pluck their eyebrows, and that they are the most enthusiastic users of unusual condoms, such as the 1.83m long full-body condom? Or that Hong Kong men like to carry condoms in their... shoes? These are just two of the approximate 20,000 statistics contained in her fascinating and lively 128-page tome on this often-derided, much-lamented subject.

The whole area of why we have sex in the first place I found fascinating, says Mackay, a doctor and senior policy advisor to the World Health Organization. The thing that concerns me is that there's so much negativity about this essentially normal human experience.

Mackay is no virgin at collating and making sense of scattered statistics collected from a variety of sources, having written in the early '90s The State of Health Atlas, a reference of health statistics from across the globe. She has also lectured extensively, and is the recipient of various awards including the U.S. Surgeon General's Medallion in 1989 and the World Health Award in 1997.

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Five years worth of work went into producing her latest tome and the end result is an easy-to-read, even easier-to-understand collection of data from across the spectrum. Maps, graphs and spreads abound, providing the reader with information about everything from sex drive and sexual health to sexual rites and crimes.

There is even a chapter mapping out the future of sex to the year 2050, and readers are regaled with distant--though not necessarily farfetched--predictions, like the decriminalization of homosexuality and the right of same-sex couples in industrialized countries to adopt children. (In today's society, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in eight countries across the globe).

There also are what one suspects to be full flights of fancy in this chapter--the author foresees an orgasm chip implanted in the brain of women within a few decades (a prediction every woman on the planet undoubtedly hopes will materialize) and people having floating identities (think less Britney Spears and more Dalai Lama). Although Mackay admits to exercising creative license with some elements of this chapter, the rest of the book remains deadly serious in its intent: to empower and concern people.. Mackay says reading about the similar predicaments of others could help people with their own problems.

Mackay admits that putting together the ultimate guide to sex (statistics) was far from easy--a labor of love, as it were. Governments too busy in the daily rigmarole of running a country tend not to indulge in the business of collating data on sex--and representative bodies (no pun intended) are few and far between.

Targeted at both the academic and the person in the street, Human Sexual Behavior is one of the most comprehensive sources of sexual data on the market today. The book has already been released in Hong Kong and is slated for release in the United States and other countries on July 3. It aims to provide a little something for everyone.

She cautions that although the data she has collected may not be nationally representative (especially in the case of Internet surveys, where users tend to be a select lot), this does not reflect the search so much as the reality that such data is simply not available.

Fascinating Tidbits

15% of all adults in the U.S. are having half of all the sex; Good-looking people earn 12% more than others

23% of Germans find underarm odor sexually stimulating

In the U.S., one man is circumcised every 26 seconds

Up to 14% of the GDP in Asian countries is generated by prostitution

There are three times as many adult bookstores and video stores as there are McDonald's in the U.S.

The more symmetrical a man's features, the earlier he loses his virginity and the more likely he is to be unfaithful

Symmetry in a woman's features is not correlated to her fidelity

There is no evidence that children brought up by homosexual parents are more likely to become homosexuals

Hidden ovulation in women--whereby women are able to conceal their fertility--may be an evolutionary tactic to keep their man by their side

Japan lifted a ban on the contraceptive pill in 1999 after women protested Viagra's immediate availability to men

In 1999, the 14th century law forbidding marriage between couples with the same surname was finally revoked

In China, ceremonies are held to marry the dead, to prevent loneliness in heaven

In Gambia in 1993, one in three women were neither asked for consent nor knew they were married until the ceremony was over

The death penalty applies for adultery in four countries, and in eight countries for homosexuality