Sex in America: A Definitive Survey / Going All the Way: Teenage Girls' Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy

By Entin, Jonathan L | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Sex in America: A Definitive Survey / Going All the Way: Teenage Girls' Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy


Entin, Jonathan L, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann and Gina Kolata. New York: Little, Brown, 1994, $22.95 (cloth); Warner Books, 1995, $12.95 (paper). Going All the Way: Teenage Girls' Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy. Sharon Thompson. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995. $24.00 cloth.

Sex seems ubiquitous in our culture. Examples abound in popular magazines, movies, and television programs; increasingly, the subject has entered the political arena. Not only is the behavior of public officials scrutinized, but such contentious policy questions as abortion, AIDS, welfare reform, and gay rights implicate public attitudes about sex.

Despite our preoccupation with sex, we know surprisingly little about sexual behavior in the United States. These two books seek to address our ignorance. They focus on different segments of the population and reflect very different approaches; the contrasts between them are almost as revealing as the insights they offer.

Sex in America is a popularized report of the most comprehensive sex survey ever undertaken in this country. Journalist Gina Kolata joined her academic co-authors to make the data compiled from 90-minute interviews with more than 3,000 randomly-chosen adults accessible to the general public. (The full report, more than twice as long and entitled The Social Organization of Sexuality, was published simultaneously by the University of Chicago Press.) The findings are presented in engaging prose accompanied by easily understood tables and graphics, leavened with apt quotations and anecdotes from mass media.

The study suggests that Americans are more sexually conventional than is usually assumed. For example, married and cohabiting couples have sex more frequently than others, and they derive more physical and emotional satisfaction from sex than do the supposedly swinging singles. Although there are differences between men and women, sexual behavior and experience do not greatly vary along such socioeconomic lines as religion, race, and education.

Conventionality extends to our choice of sexual partners and practices, too. Sexual partners are overwhelmingly similar in terms of age, education, and race; the same pattern holds for religion, although not quite as strongly. These similarities reflect the different social networks that structure our lives and influence many of the choices we make. Nor is this explanation surprising, because most couples are introduced by friends, relatives, or colleagues. Meanwhile, whatever the sex manuals say, vaginal intercourse is the runaway first preference in sexual activity for all groups (no word on positions or auxiliary apparatus).

Many changes that have occurred seem less dramatic than common wisdom would have it. For instance, adolescents start having sex at earlier ages than their parents and grandparents, but the proportion of 20-year-old virgins is higher today than it was during the halcyon 1950s. And while the number of sexual partners has increased, this largely reflects delays in marriage; married couples of all ages are strikingly monogamous.

Perhaps the study's most surprising finding is the low incidence of homosexuality. Fewer than three percent of respondents identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and no more than five percent report having had a same-gender sexual encounter during adulthood (almost as many others did so only as adolescents). …

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