Study Details Sexuality in America

The Christian Century, November 2, 1994 | Go to article overview

Study Details Sexuality in America


Although nowadays no one seems afraid to ask, a landmark study of sexual behavior in the U.S. tells readers everything they wanted to know about sex, and quite a bit more. In The Social Organization of Sexuality University of Chicago researchers Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael and Stuart Michaels have published the results of what is being called the nation's most authoritative survey of adult sexual behavior. 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?

Earlier studies of sexuality such as the Kinsey reports in 1948 and 1952, the Masters and Johnson study in 1966 and the Hite reports of the '70s and '80s relied strictly on volunteers to collect data. The new study, conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, was based on interview responses from 3,432 randomly selected American women and men between the ages of 18 and 59. As a result of the improved methodology, the survey "is light years better than Kinsey," declared Joseph Cantania of the University of California, an expert on AIDS.

Overall, the study paints a picture of sex in the U.S. that is far less libertine than many might have supposed. In particular, the study finds that Americans have less sex, fewer partners and less exotic sex than has been reported by other, less reliable studies. More than 80 percent of Americans had only one partner--or no partner--in the past year, the report states.

One of the report's more controversial determinations--one that corroborates other recent and more specifically targeted studies--has to do with homosexuality. According to the report, 2.8 percent of men identify themselves as gay or bisexual and 1.4 percent of women identify themselves as lesbian or bisexual. Some gay and lesbian activists commonly put the number of homosexuals in the U.S. at 10 percent (as did Alfred Kinsey)--a figure that the Chicago team says is close to being accurate for gay males in the country's 12 largest urban areas but not for the U.S. as a whole. The researchers acknowledged that their estimates may be lower than the actual numbers since many homosexuals were probably reluctant to talk about their sexual activities and feelings.

Among the study's other findings:

* Americans have sexual relations about once a week, on average, but a thrid of adults have intercourse a few times a year or not at all.

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