Feb. 1, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 9

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    New book offers analysis of sexual behavior

    The manner in which people conduct their sexual lives is shaped by many previously unrecognized factors, which in turn have profound consequences for their health and quality of life, according to a new book by University scholars.

    The book, Sex, Love, and Health in America: Private Choices and Public Policies, presents a storehouse of surprising and useful insights for individuals and policy leaders on the consequences of sexual experiences, ranging from physical and emotional satisfaction with sex partners and general life satisfaction to the challenges of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

    Edward Laumann
    Edward Laumann
    “Because of the public consequences of these private acts, our society faces the need to create public policies to address these issues,” said Robert Michael, a co-editor of the book.

    This new book is a follow up to two previously published volumes, The Social Organization of Sexuality; Sexual Practices in the United States and Sex in America, both of which were published in 1994. Sex, Love, and Health in America, published by the University Press, contains a fresh analysis of data collected in the National Health and Social Life Survey, the nation’s most comprehensive survey on sexuality.

    “We view sexual practices as an ongoing series of interactions, in which content, pacing and partner choice are based not only on the character of the relationship between the people involved, but also on the social networks in which they live,” said Edward Laumann, one of the editors of the volume, which is made up of a series of individual reports from colleagues who have worked with the National Health and Social Life Survey data.

    Robert Michael
    Robert Michael
    Laumann is the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology. Michael is the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor and Dean of the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies. Here are their findings:

    Abortion: One in six American men and women were found to be responsible for a pregnancy that ended in an abortion. The first pregnancy (especially if it occurred in the teen years) and late pregnancies (especially at ages over the mid-30s) are the most likely to be aborted, with pregnancies in the 20s and early 30s being more likely to go to term.

    The reported rates of miscarriage are somewhat higher than the reported rates of abortion. While African-American women are much less likely to abort their first pregnancy, they have on average more conceptions and are more likely to have had an abortion over their lifetime. Opinions about abortion appear to influence a choice to abort, but marital status and a mother’s career opportunities play an important, independent role in that choice.

    Teen pregnancy: Over the past half century there has been no trend in the birth rate among teenagers under age 18: about 10 percent of teenage women in each recent decade have had a baby by the time they turn 18. What has changed dramatically is the rate at which teen women engage in sex before age 18. Forty years ago, 29 percent engaged in sex before age 18, compared to 63 percent recently. The data also indicates that this has been offset by both a greater use of more effective contraceptives (25 percent used contraception during their first sex act 40 years ago compared to 40 percent recently) and an increase in the use of abortion (a tiny percentage 40 years ago compared to 27 percent of teenagers recently).

    Child/adult sexual experiences: Roughly one in eight women and one in 16 men have had sexual experiences as children with an adult. People who have had such experiences tend to exhibit much higher levels of erotic behavior during adulthood. Women who have had that experience are more than three times as likely to have had more than 10 sex partners in their lifetime, twice as likely to have had a sexually transmitted disease, nearly three times as likely to report high sexual dysfunction during adulthood, and nearly four times as likely to be forced sexually as an adult.

    Men who have had childhood sexual experiences with an adult and those who have had childhood sexual experiences with age mates (other children) are twice as likely to report low levels of overall happiness as adults, nearly twice as likely to be less satisfied with their current sexual partners, and nearly twice as likely to report high sexual dysfunction. The good news is that the vast majority of those with childhood sexual experiences appear to be quite resilient and have survived these experiences with no apparent harmful effects as adults, so far as their sexuality and quality of life are concerned, Laumann said.

    Consequences of the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s: The study documents considerable erosion of organized religion and middle-class status in organizing people’s sexual lives in the wake of the Sexual Revolution. Before 1970, being raised Catholic or having a middle-class mother played a substantial role in reducing a woman’s likelihood of having sex before age 18. Now the principal factors affecting that decision are having an intact family (both biological parents present) when aged 14, late age of menarche, and not having had a sexual experience before the age of sexual maturity. Over the past several decades there has been a trend toward more similarity between men and women in the age at which they first have sex as well as a dramatic increase in the rates of premarital sex.

    Modes of sexual expression: The book characterizes many ways in which people can express themselves sexually, including number of sex partners, frequency of partnered sex, autoeroticism and seeking venues of sexual provocation such as visiting nude bars, X-rated movies and phone sex. It shows that one can accurately describe men and women’s sexual profiles in one of only several possible patterns. About half of the men and women are comfortable monogamists (with partnered sex less than once a week, little masturbation and no seeking of extra venues for sexual stimulation). The remaining half of the population who had at least one sex partner in the past year fall into several sexual profiles, including enthusiastic polygamists (15 percent of men), venturesome cohabitors (35 percent of men), autoerotic singles (23 percent of women) and enthusiastic cohabitors (18 percent of women).

    AIDS/HIV: About 30 percent of the American people reported that they had changed their behavior in some way in response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The common behaviors changed were reducing the number of partners, greater use of condoms and greater care in selecting partners. Across the population, those who are at greater risk of contracting AIDS are more likely to adopt new behaviors that might reduce their chances of contracting the disease. However, there are some high-risk groups, including for example, young unmarried men, who fail to report any effective behavior change.

    Sex, Love, and Health in America also discusses a number of other major issues in American sexuality, including the surprising consequences of male circumcision; the wide-spread prevalence and risk of sexual dysfunction (43 percent of women and 31 percent of men reported having had a substantial sexual problem of at least two months duration in the past 12 months); love and happiness in different types of sexual partnerships (comparing the relative advantages of marriage with other kinds of partnerships); and race/ethnic differences in sexual practices.

    The National Health and Social Life Survey is a nationally representative probability sample of 1,511 men and 1,921 women between the ages of 18 and 59 living in households throughout the United States. The survey was conducted in 1992 by the National Opinion Research Center.