Study of Sex Lives Finds Surprising Conservatism : Research: Despite media sizzle, Americans have sex an average of once a week. Most say they are monogamous.


The media may portray American culture as a cauldron of steaming sexuality, but the private lives of Americans are more like a comforting bowl of warm oatmeal.

A long-awaited landmark study of adult sexuality in the United States has found that the sexual practices of Americans are surprisingly conservative. It is a portrait of a land of faithful partners who have sex conventionally, about once a week.

The research--billed as the most comprehensive look at the subject ever--disputes many widespread myths about sexual practices in the United States, researchers at the University of Chicago said Thursday. They added that the results will help Americans deal with a number of public policy issues related to the spread of AIDS, increasing numbers of abortions, teen-age sexuality and the future of marriage.

Among the findings: Although Americans have sex once a week, on average, a full third have it only a few times a year or not at all. More than 80% had only one sexual partner or no partner at all in the past year, and just 3% had five or more partners during that time. Only 2.8% of men and 1.5% of women said they were homosexual or bisexual, well below some previous estimates.

Fully 72% of women who have undergone abortions have had only one. This disputes the idea, the researchers say, that abortion is routinely used as a form of birth control.


The researchers also conclude that the high degree of monogamy, linked with the observed patterns for selection of sexual partners, make it unlikely that AIDS will spread through the heterosexual population in the epidemic fashion some experts have predicted.

The findings are contained in two new books, one for scientists to be published Monday and one for the public to be published the following Monday.

The new study “is light-years better than Kinsey,” the prototype sexual study published in 1953 by pioneer sex rsearcher Alfred Kinsey, Joseph Catania of UC San Francisco said. “It is a great leap forward,” he said, because it provides the first look at the entire cross-section of Americans rather than at the limited, self-selected populations explored by Kinsey and others.

“The major advance over Kinsey is that they are actually investigating some specific research hypotheses rather than just tabulating numbers,” said behavioral biologist James Weinrich of UC San Diego.

Kinsey counted how many people had sexual experiences in childhood. The new study shows how that affected their adult sexuality.

Sociologist Edward O. Laumann, co-leader of the team that conducted the study, said the results will be “empowering information” to the vast majority of people who may feel sexually inferior after being exposed to the hypercharged eroticism of television, movies and advertising. “These images of hot sex have people saying, ‘What am I missing?’ This will bring the temperature down a bit.”

The study involved 90-minute, face-to-face interviews with 3,432 randomly selected Americans ages 18 to 59, who remained anonymous. Only 20% of those selected for the survey refused, a low percentage for any national survey, the researchers said.

There were questions about all kinds of sex acts, but the single question participants were most reluctant to answer, Laumann said, was “How much money do you make?” Ultimately, that question and one on the frequency of masturbation were placed on a card so that the participant could check off an answer and seal it in an envelope, hiding it from the eyes of the questioner.

Some results should be very encouraging to anyone who honors family values, according to Laumann and his co-leader, sociologist Robert Michael. Almost all Americans marry, and 75% of married men and 85% 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, whether married or not.

The median number of sexual partners American men have over a lifetime is six. For women, the median is two.

Of all the items on a long list of sexual practices, only three were appealing to more than a tiny fraction of heterosexual Americans, and only one of those stood out. Heterosexuals universally find vaginal intercourse appealing and they include it in almost every sexual encounter. Watching a partner undress is a distant second in appeal, followed by oral sex.

About 12% of men and 17% of women in the sample reported having a childhood sexual experience with an adult or an adolescent over age 15. Those who had such an experience as children showed dramatic effects in adulthood, including more sexual partners, participation in more kinds of sex and more sexual activity in general. They also suffered significantly more sexual dysfunction.

The answers to the masturbation question were also surprising. About 60% of men and 40% of women admitted to masturbating occasionally or frequently, and the incidence of the practice increased with increasing education and salary. The lowest rate was among 18- to 24-year-olds, who were not engaged in large amounts of other sexual activities either, and the highest rates were among middle-aged married people with an active and satisfactory sex life in the marriage. “This is just one additional thing they add to the menu,” Laumann said.

The researchers found marked differences in sexual behavior and attitudes between men and women, but perhaps the most dramatic involved coerced sex. Fully 22% of women said they had been coerced into a sexual encounter, while only 3% of men admitted they had ever coerced a woman. “That represents a dramatic difference in the character of how men and women are interpreting events,” Laumann said.

The conservatism explicit in the study is also good news for researchers hoping to block the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the heterosexual population. People tend to mate only within groups of people who are like themselves, Laumann said, and there are relatively few opportunities for sexual diseases to pass from one such group to another. “The risk of a heterosexual AIDS epidemic is (thus) very low,” he said. “It (AIDS) is likely to be confined to the groups where it is now.”

The study was proposed in 1988 by the National Institutes of Health by researchers who hoped to use insights gained to block the spread of AIDS by targeting the populations most at-risk.

Conservatives in government blocked it, however, perhaps fearing that its findings would appear to validate the sexual practices studied, Laumann said.

“There was no recognition that a study could be conducted that would honestly report facts and observations that are subject to different types of interpretation,” he concluded. Funding was eventually obtained from private sources. Backers included the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Andrew Mellon Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, New York Community Trust, AmFAR and Ford Foundation.

How Often?

A landmark study of adult sexuality found that in the last 12 months less than one-third of Americans ages 18 to 59 have had sex with a partner twice a week or more.



A few times per year: 16%

A few times per month: 37%

2 or 3 times a week: 26%

4 or more times a week: 8%

Not at all: 14%



A few times per year: 18%

A few times per month: 36%

2 or 3 times a week: 30%

4 or more times a week: 7%

Not at all: 10%




No sex: 1%

A few times per year: 13%

A few times per month: 43%

2 or 3 times a week: 36%

4 or more times a week: 7%



No sex: 0%

A few times per year: 8%

A few times per month: 36%

2 or 3 times a week: 40%

4 or more times a week: 16%



No sex: 23%

A few times per year: 25%

A few times per month: 26%

2 or 3 times a week: 19%

4 or more times a week: 7%




No sex: 3%

A few times per year: 12%

A few times per month: 47%

2 or 3 times a week: 32%

4 or more times a week: 7%



No sex: 1%

A few times per year: 8%

A few times per month: 35%

2 or 3 times a week: 42%

4 or more times a week: 14%



No sex: 32%

A few times per year: 23%

A few times per month: 24%

2 or 3 times a week: 15%

4 or more times a week: 5%

Source: Sex in America, a Definitive Survey