May 14, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 16

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    Study shows Americans' strong opinions on sex

    may compromise public health By William Harms
    News Office

    A new University of Chicago study of sex habits in the United States and Britain shows that Americans are more likely than Britons to have multiple sex partners, possibly explaining why rates of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases are much higher in the United States than Britain.

    The study also showed that in the United States, a higher percentage of people remain virgins. Americans are also more likely to hold strong views against non-marital sexual behavior than Britons, according to the article "Private Sexual Behavior, Public Opinion and Public Health Policy Related to Sexually Transmitted Diseases: A U.S.-British Comparison," published May 5 in the American Journal of Public Health

    "There is great public resistance in the United States to addressing forthrightly the risks of having many sexual partners and of engaging in risky sexual practices," said principal author Robert Michael, the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor and Dean of the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies. "That resistance results in large part from the strong opinions that such behavior is preemptively unacceptable, not that it is risky. Our public health may be the high price we pay for our public opinion."

    The study found that while 25 percent of American men feel that pre-marital sex is wrong, only 8 percent of British men held such an opinion. Among women, 33 percent of Americans and 11 percent of Britons felt pre-marital sex is always wrong. Among American men, 89 percent felt that extramarital sex is wrong, while 77 percent of British men held such an opinion. Among women, 94 percent of Americans and 83 percent of Britons felt that extramarital sex is wrong.

    In Britain, public health leaders have been better able to inform people of the risks of sexually transmitted diseases. Information about condoms was more widely available in Britain, for instance, than in the United States. As a result, condom use is greater in Britain, where 23 percent of heterosexual men use them, as opposed to 18 percent of heterosexual American men.

    The 1996 rates of AIDS was 256 per million in the United States and 24 per million in Britain. The 1994 gonorrhea rate in the United States was 246 per 100,000 among people between the ages of 15 to 64. In Britain, the rate was 33 per 100,000 for the same age group.

    The article is the first major study of the differences in sexual activity and public policy toward sexually related public health issues in the two countries. Among its other findings are these:

    * Nearly 9 percent of American men between ages 18 and 24 reported having five or more partners during the previous year, while in Britain, the rate for that age group was 4 percent. Among American women, nearly 7 percent reported having five or more partners, while fewer than 1 percent of the British women reported having that many partners.

    * Over their lifetimes, 13 percent of American men and 8 percent of British men reported having more than 20 sex partners. Among women, the figures were 2 percent for American women and 1 percent for British women.

    * Among American men, nearly 6 percent reported being virgins, while 4 percent of British men reported never having had sexual intercourse. Among women, the figures were 5 percent for Americans and 3 percent for Britons.

    * A total of 19 percent of American men reported having had only one sex partner during their lifetimes, as compared with 21 percent of Britons. Among women, 32 percent of American women reported having only one sex partner, while 40 percent of British women reported having had only one sex partner.

    Differences in sexual activity may explain some of the disparity, the article reported. "There is strong evidence that the risks of contracting a sexually transmitted disease are closely associated with the number of sexual partners," Michael said. The increase of the risk is dramatic as the number of sex partners rises, he said.

    Michael was one of the principal investigators for the landmark 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of Sociology, was also a principal investigator in the 1992 study as well as a co-author of theAmerican Journal of Public Healtharticle.

    Other co-authors are Joel Feinleib, a graduate student at the Harris School; Anne Johnson, a researcher with University College, London Medical School, London; Kaye Wellings, a researcher with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and the late Jane Wadsworth, who was a researcher with the Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary's, London.

    Data from the National Health and Social Life Survey and a similar survey conducted between May 1990 and December 1991 in England, Wales and Scotland was used for the study.