Now for the Truth About Americans and Sex

  • Is there a living, breathing adult who hasn't at times felt the nagging suspicion that in bedrooms across the country, on kitchen tables, in limos and other venues too scintillating to mention, other folks are having more sex, livelier sex, better sex? Maybe even that quiet couple right next door is having more fun in bed, and more often. Such thoughts spring, no doubt, from a primal anxiety deep within the human psyche. It has probably haunted men and women since the serpent pointed Eve toward the forbidden fruit and urged her to get with the program.

    Still, it's hard to imagine a culture more conducive to feelings of sexual inadequacy than America in the 1990s. Tune in to the soaps. Flip through the magazines. Listen to Oprah. Lurk in the seamier corners of cyberspace. What do you see and hear? An endless succession of young, hard bodies preparing for, recovering from or engaging in constant, relentless copulation. Sex is everywhere in America -- and in the ads, films, TV shows and music videos it exports abroad. Although we know that not every zip code is a Beverly Hills, 90210, and not every small town a Peyton Place, the impression that is branded on our collective subconscious is that life in the twilight of the 20th century is a sexual banquet to which everyone else has been invited.

    Just how good is America's sex life? Nobody knows for sure. Don't believe the magazine polls that have Americans mating energetically two or three times a week. Those surveys are inflated from the start by the people who fill them out: Playboy subscribers, for example, who brag about their sex lives in reader-survey cards. Even the famous Kinsey studies -- which caused such a scandal in the late 1940s and early '50s by reporting that half of American men had extramarital affairs -- were deeply flawed. Although Alfred Kinsey was a biologist by training (his expertise was the gall wasp), he compromised science and took his human subjects where he could find them: in boardinghouses, college fraternities, prisons and mental wards. For 14 years he collared hitchhikers who passed through town and quizzed them mercilessly. It was hardly a random cross section.

    Now, more than 40 years after Kinsey, we finally have some answers. A team of researchers based at the University of Chicago has released the long- awaited results of what is probably the first truly scientific survey of who does what with whom in America and just how often they do it.

    The findings -- based on face-to-face interviews with a random sample of nearly 3,500 Americans, ages 18 to 59, selected using techniques honed through decades of political and consumer polling (see box) -- will smash a lot of myths. "Whether the numbers are reassuring or alarming depends on where you sit," warns Edward Laumann, the University of Chicago sociologist who led the research team. While the scientists found that the spirit of the sexual revolution is alive and well in some quarters -- they found that about 17% of American men and 3% of women have had sex with at least 21 partners -- the overall impression is that the sex lives of most Americans are about as exciting as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

    Among the key findings:

    -- Americans fall into three groups. One-third have sex twice a week or more, one-third a few times a month, and one-third a few times a year or not at all.

    -- Americans are largely monogamous. The vast majority (83%) have one or zero sexual partners a year. Over a lifetime, a typical man has six partners; a woman, two.

    -- Married couples have the most sex and are the most likely to have orgasms when they do. Nearly 40% of married people say they have sex twice a week, compared with 25% for singles.

    -- Most Americans don't go in for the kinky stuff. Asked to rank their favorite sex acts, almost everybody (96%) found vaginal sex "very or somewhat appealing." Oral sex ranked a distant third, after an activity that many may not have realized was a sex act: "Watching partner undress."

    -- Adultery is the exception in America, not the rule. Nearly 75% of married men and 85% of married women say they have never been unfaithful.

    -- There are a lot fewer active homosexuals in America than the oft-repeated 1 in 10. Only 2.7% of men and 1.3% of women report that they had homosexual sex in the past year.

    The full results of the new survey are scheduled to be published next week as The Social Organization of Sexuality (University of Chicago; $49.95), a thick, scientific tome co-authored by Laumann, two Chicago colleagues -- Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels -- and John Gagnon, a sociologist from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. A thinner companion volume, Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Little, Brown; $22.95), written with New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata, will be in bookstores this week.

    But when the subject is sex, who wants to wait for the full results? Even before the news broke last week, critics and pundits were happy to put their spin on the study.

    "It doesn't ring true," insisted Jackie Collins, author of The Bitch, The Stud and other potboilers. "Where are the deviants? Where are the flashers? Where are the sex maniacs I see on TV every day?"

    "I'm delighted to hear that all this talk about rampant infidelity was wildly inflated," declared postfeminist writer Camille Paglia. "But if they're saying the sexual revolution never happened, that's ridiculous."

    "Positively, outrageously stupid and unbelievable," growled Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. "I would say five partners a year is the average for men."

    "Totally predictable," deadpanned Erica Jong, author of the 1973 sex fantasy Fear of Flying. "Americans are more interested in money than sex."

    "Our Puritan roots are deep," said Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, striking a philosophical note. "We're fascinated by sex and afraid of it."

    "Two partners? I mean, come on!" sneered Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. "We advise our Cosmo girls that when people ask how many partners you've had, the correct answer is always three, though there may have been more."

    Europeans seemed less surprised -- one way or the other -- by the results of the survey. The low numbers tend to confirm the Continental caricature of Americans as flashy and bold onscreen but prone to paralysis in bed. Besides, the findings were pretty much in line with recent studies conducted in England and France that also found low rates of homosexuality and high rates of marital fidelity. (The French will be gratified by what a comparison of these surveys shows: that the average Frenchman and -woman has sex about twice as often as Americans do.)

    If the study is as accurate as it purports to be, the results will be in line with the experience of most Americans. For many, in fact, they will come as a relief. "A lot of people think something is wrong with them when they don't have sexual feelings," says Toby, a 32-year-old graduate student from Syracuse, New York, who, like 3% of adult Americans (according to the survey), has never had sex. "These findings may be liberating for a lot of people. They may say, 'Thank God, I'm not as weird as I thought.' "

    Scientists, on the whole, praise the study. "Any new research is welcome if it is well done," says Dr. William Masters, co-author of the landmark 1966 study Human Sexual Response. By all accounts, this one was very well done. But, like every statistical survey, it has its weaknesses. Researchers caution that the sample was too limited to reveal much about small subgroups of the population -- gay Hispanics, for example. The omission of people over 59 is regrettable, says Shirley Zussman, past president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists: "The older population is more sexually active than a 19-year-old thinks, and it's good for both 19-year-olds and those over 59 to know that."

    The Chicago scientists admit to another possible defect: "There is no way to get around the fact some people might conceal information," says Stuart Michaels of the Chicago team, whose expertise is designing questions to get at those subjects people are most reluctant to discuss. The biggest hot button, he says, is homosexuality. "This is a stigmatized group. There is probably a lot more homosexual activity going on than we could get people to talk about."

    It was, in large part, to talk about homosexual activity that the study was originally proposed. The project was conceived in 1987 as a response to the aids crisis. To track the spread of the aids virus -- and to mount an effective campaign against it -- government researchers needed good data about how much risky sexual behavior (anal sex, for example) was really going on. But when they looked for scientific data about sex, they found little besides Kinsey and Masters and Johnson.

    So the National Institutes of Heath issued a formal request for a proposal, tactfully giving it the bland title "Social and Behavioral Aspects of Fertility Related Behavior" in an attempt to slip under the radar of right- wing politicians. But the euphemism fooled no one -- least of all Jesse Helms. In the Reagan and Bush era, any government funding for sex research was suspect, and the Senator from North Carolina was soon lobbying to have the project killed. The Chicago team redesigned the study several times to assuage conservative critics, dropping the questions about masturbation and agreeing to curtail the interview once it was clear that a subject was not at high risk of contracting aids. But to no avail. In September 1991 the Senate voted 66 to 34 to cut off funding.

    The vote turned out to be the best thing that could have happened -- at least from the point of view of the insatiably curious. The Chicago team quickly rounded up support from private sources, including the Robert Wood Johnson, Rockefeller and Ford foundations. And freed of political constraints, they were able to take the survey beyond behavior related to aids transmission to tackle the things inquiring minds really want to know: Who is having sex with whom? How often do they do it? And when they are behind closed doors, what exactly do they do?

    The report confirms much of what is generally accepted as conventional wisdom. Kids do have sex earlier now: by 15, half of all black males have done it; by 17, the white kids have caught up to them. There was a lot of free sex in the '60s: the percentage of adults who have racked up 21 or more sex partners is significantly higher among the fortysomething boomers than among other Americans. And aids has put a crimp in some people's sex lives: 76% of those who have had five or more partners in the past year say they have changed their sexual behavior, by either slowing down, getting tested or using condoms faithfully.

    But the report is also packed with delicious surprises. Take masturbation, for example. The myth is that folks are more likely to masturbate if they don't have a sex partner. According to the study, however, the people who masturbate the most are the ones who have the most sex. "If you're having sex a lot, you're thinking about sex a lot," says Gagnon. "It's more like Keynes (wealth begets wealth) and less like Adam Smith (if you spend it on this, you can't spend it on that)."

    Or take oral sex. Not surprisingly, both men and women preferred receiving it to giving it. But who would have guessed that so many white, college- educated men would have done it (about 80%) and so few blacks (51%)? Skip Long, a 33-year-old African American from Raleigh, North Carolina, thinks his race's discomfort with oral sex may owe much to religious teaching and the legacy of slavery: according to local legend, it was something slaves were required to do for their masters. Camille Paglia is convinced that oral sex is % a culturally acquired preference that a generation of college students picked up in the '70s from seeing Linda Lovelace do it in Deep Throat, one of the first -- and last -- X-rated movies that men and women went to see together. "They saw it demonstrated on the screen, and all of a sudden it was on the map," says Paglia. "Next thing you knew, it was in Cosmo with rules about how to do it."

    More intriguing twists emerge when sexual behavior is charted by religious affiliation. Roman Catholics are the most likely to be virgins (4%) and Jews to have the most sex partners (34% have had 10 or more). The women most likely to achieve orgasm each and every time (32%) are, believe it or not, conservative Protestants. But Catholics edge out mainline Protestants in frequency of intercourse. Says Father Andrew Greeley, the sociologist-priest and writer of racy romances: "I think the church will be surprised at how often Catholics have sex and how much they enjoy it."

    But to concentrate on the raw numbers is to miss the study's most important contribution. Wherever possible, the authors put those figures in a social context, drawing on what they know about how people act out social scripts, how they are influenced by their social networks and how they make sexual bargains as if they were trading economic goods and services. "We were trying to make people think about sex in an entirely different way," says Kolata. "We all have this image, first presented by Freud, of sex as a riderless horse, galloping out of control. What we are saying here is that sex is just like any other social behavior: people behave the way they are rewarded for behaving."

    Kolata and her co-authors use these theories to explain why most people marry people who resemble them in terms of age, education, race and social status, and why the pool of available partners seems so small -- especially for professional women in their 30s and 40s. "You can still fall in love across a crowded room," says Gagnon. "It's just that society determines whom you're in the room with."

    That insight, applied to AIDS, leads the Chicago team to a conclusion that is sure to get them into trouble. America's AIDS policy, they say, has been largely misdirected. Although AIDS spread quickly among intravenous drug users and homosexuals, the social circles these groups travel in are so rigidly circumscribed that it is unlikely to spread widely in the heterosexual population. Rather than pretend that AIDS affects everyone, they say, the . government would be better advised to concentrate its efforts on those most at risk.

    That's a conclusion that will not sit well with AIDS activists or with many health-policy makers. "Their message is shocking and flies against the whole history of this epidemic," says Dr. June Osborn, former chair of the National Commission on aids. "They're saying we don't have to worry if we're white, heterosexual adults. That gets the public off the hook and may keep parents from talking to their kids about sex. The fact is, teens are at enormous risk for experimentation."

    Other groups will find plenty here to make a fuss about. Interracial couples are likely to take offense at the authors' characterization of mixed-race marriages as unlikely to succeed. And right-to-life activists who believe abortion is widely used as a cruel form of birth control are likely to be unconvinced by the finding that 72% of the women who have an abortion have only one.

    Elsewhere in the study, the perceptual gulf between the sexes is reminiscent of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen tells his psychiatrist that he and Annie have sex "hardly ever, maybe three times a week," and she tells hers that they do it "constantly; I'd say three times a week." In the Chicago study, 54% of the men say they think about sex every day or several times a day. By contrast, 67% of the women say they think about it only a few times a week or a few times a month. The disconnect is even greater when the subject turns to forced sex. According to the report, 22% of women say they have been forced to do sexual things they didn't want to, usually by someone they loved. But only 3% of men admit to ever forcing themselves on women. Apparently men and women have very different ideas about what constitutes voluntary sex.

    But the basic message of Sex in America is that men and women have found a way to come to terms with each other's sexuality -- and it is called marriage. "Our study," write the authors, "clearly shows that no matter how sexually active people are before and between marriages marriage is such a powerful social institution that, essentially, married people are all alike -- they are faithful to their partners as long as the marriage is intact."

    Americans, it seems, have come full circle. It's easy to forget that as recently as 1948, Norman Mailer was still using the word fug in his novels. There may have been a sexual revolution -- at least for those college-educated whites who came of age with John Updike's swinging Couples, Philip Roth's priapic Portnoy and Jong's Fear of Flying -- but the revolution turned out to have a beginning, a middle and an end. "From the time of the Pill to Rock Hudson's death, people had a sense of freedom," says Judith Krantz, author of Scruples. "That's gone."

    It was the first survey -- Kinsey's -- that got prudish America to talk about sex, read about sex and eventually watch sex at the movies and even try a few things (at least once). Kinsey's methods may have been less than perfect, but he had an eye for the quirky, the fringe, the bizarre. The new report, by contrast, is a remarkably conservative document. It puts the fringe on the fringe and concentrates on the heartland: where life, apparently, is ruled by marriage, monogamy and the missionary position. The irony is that the report Jesse Helms worked so hard to stop has arrived at a conclusion that should make him proud. And it may even make the rest of us a bit less anxious about what's going on in that bedroom next door.



    CAPTION: How often have you had sex in the past year?

    In your lifetime, how many sex partners have you had?

    How many sexual partners have you had since age 18?

    Which of the following did you do in ther past year?

    Have you had sex with someone of your own gender?

    Are you sexually attracted to people of the same gender?