Oct. 13, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 4

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    Results of sex study by University researchers revealed in two books

    s Findings dispute many myths about sexual behavior A landmark study by researchers based at the University provides the first comprehensive and scientifically accurate study of sex in America.

    The findings from this study dispute many myths about sexual behavior. On the national level, the study brings factual information to bear on the nearly daily public-policy debates about sexual practices -- debates that often have been waged with opinion, guesses and incorrect information, the researchers contend.

    The researchers say their findings will help Americans deal with such questions as: How should we combat the spread of AIDS? Would punitive policies reduce the number of abortions? Why are teenagers having sex? Is marriage on its way out?

    The team's findings are being published in two books to be released this month, Sex in America (Little, Brown and Co., New York), the popular-press version of the findings, and The Social Organization of Sexuality (University of Chicago Press), the scholarly look at the survey's results.

    The authors of The Social Organization of Sexuality are Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology; Robert Michael, the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies; John Gagnon, professor of sociology and psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; and Stuart Michaels, Project Manager for the study. The authors of Sex in America are Michael, Laumann, Gagnon and Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times.

    The study grew out of a proposal in 1987 to gather reliable data on adult sexuality in response to a national concern about the spread of AIDS. Scientific groups, decrying the absence of any trustworthy information on sexual behavior, encouraged the federal health agencies to sponsor the study. Conservative forces in Congress and two administrations prevented the study from going forward with government support. Private foundations supported the study, and it was expanded to focus on sexual behavior in general.

    Unlike previous surveys, the University survey used a representative sample of the American population. The study involved 90-minute, face-to-face interviews with 3,432 randomly selected Americans ages 18 to 59. Of those selected, 80 percent, an extremely high percentage for response to any survey, agreed to disclose the facts of their sexual lives. The survey was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center.

    Because the questionnaire included a number of cross checks on the respondents' veracity, the investigators have much confidence that the data provide accurate estimates for such sensitive behavior as sexual practices and preferences, extramarital sex, No. of sexual partners and homosexuality.

    The results reveal an important new way of thinking about sexuality. Sexual behavior is not just determined by instinct, the investigators argue, but is socially determined and socially controlled to a greater extent than previously believed. Friends, family, neighborhoods, religious beliefs and education dramatically influence who Americans choose for sexual partners, how many partners they have and how they behave sexually. The survey data reveal a coherent picture of the way sexual behavior is organized, indicating not just what Americans do sexually, but why.

    In particular, the study finds that Americans have less sex, fewer partners and less exotic sex than other, less reliable studies have indicated. Among the findings of the study are the following:

    Americans have sex about once a week, on average, but a third of adult Americans have sex a few times a year or not at all. The median number of sexual partners over a lifetime for American men is six. For women, the median number is two. More than 80 percent of Americans had only one partner or no partner in the past year and just 3 percent of women and men had five or more partners in the past year.

    Marriage is alive and well. Almost all Americans marry, and 75 percent of married men and 85 percent of married women say they have remained faithful.

    The people who have the most sex and are happiest with their sex lives are monogamous couples.

    Of all the items on a long list of sexual practices, only three were considered appealing by more than a tiny fraction of heterosexual Americans, and of those three, only one stood out. Heterosexuals overwhelmingly find vaginal intercourse appealing, and they include it in almost every sexual encounter. But no other practice is almost universally desired. Watching a partner undress is a distant second in appeal, followed by oral sex. While many people have experienced oral sex, it occurs in a minority of sexual encounters.

    AIDS and HIV infection are likely to remain largely confined to gay men and intravenous drug users, their sexual partners and their children and are unlikely to become epidemic in the general population. This argues for a more focused prevention strategy, with messages and resources directed at those communities at risk, the researchers say.

    Depending on how the question is asked, people have a variety of responses on their sexual preferences. Five percent of men report having had a sexual encounter with another man as an adult, while 2.8 percent say they are homosexual or bisexual. Four percent of women report having had a sexual encounter with another woman as an adult, while 1.5 percent say they are homosexual or bisexual.

    Geography plays an important role in the formation of homosexual communities. About 9 percent of the men and 3 percent of the women living in the nation's largest cities identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual.

    Seventy-two percent of women who have had abortions had only one. Young teenagers are by far the most likely to abort a pregnancy. The findings indicate that abortions are not being used as just another form of birth control. The researchers suggest that this argues against policies that punish women for having abortions in the hopes that such measures will discourage abortions from being casually used.

    To have informed discussions about combating teen sex and teen pregnancy, Americans need to know why teenage girls have sex for the first time, the researchers say. The reasons have changed over the decades. In previous generations, most women said they had sex for the first time because of affection for their partner, and only 13 percent said the reason was peer pressure. In contrast, 37 percent of the younger women who participated in the survey said the reason they had sex for the first time was peer pressure, and only 35 percent said it was out of affection for their partner.

    The study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, California; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the New York Community Trust; the American Foundation for AIDS Research; and the Ford Foundation.

    -- William Harms