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Summary of sexual behavior research

The National Opinion Research Centre of America (sponsored by the University of Chicago) conducted a survey in 1988 and 1989 in which they asked questions about men and women's sexual behavior.

There is much more information of value about sexual habits to be gained from this survey (and of course such surveys can show how sexual behavior changes as time goes by).

For example, in 1989, 97 percent of adult Americans over the age of 18 had had sexual intercourse.

The survey reported that those men and women who answered its questions said that they'd had on average 1.2 sexual partners during the year before the survey; and in total they'd had nearly 7.2 partners since age 18.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in these surveys, men claimed to have had considerably more sexual partners than women. This rather negates the findings!

Other findings:

  • About one adult American in twenty said they had no sexual partners during the year before the survey.

  • On average, adults report having sexual intercourse 57 times per year.

  • About 5 percent of men and women said they had been homosexual or bisexual since age 18.

Information about the survey into American sexual behavior

Sexual behavior is not much studied in America, a fact which probably reflects that nation's prurience in such matters.

In 1988 and 1989, the National Opinion Research Centre gave a short, self-administered questionnaire to many recipients of its more regular surveys.

This included questions about how often respondents had sexual intercourse, how many partners they had (and of what sex they were).

These were fairly superficial questions, but they do allow us to draw some conclusions about elements of sexual behavior among the American population.

These are the main points which came out of the survey......

Number of sexual partners

On average, adult Americans said they had had 1.16 sexual partners during the year before the survey was conducted.

As mentioned above, men reported rather more partners than women, due undoubtedly to men over-exaggerating their sexual "prowess" and women reporting fewer sexual partners than they actually have.

(We have discussed this elsewhere on our websites. When you give men and women the opportunity to answer the questions anonymously and in secret, the number of sexual partners claimed by each sex is more or less equal, so the failure to establish this here can probably be put down to poor research methodology.)

As you would expect, married men and women report far fewer sexual partners than unmarried respondents in the year preceding the survey.

And also rather unsurprisingly, widowed men and women reported the fewest sexual partners - on average 0.21; married people reported around 1.0 sexual partner; the divorced said they'd had 1.31 sexual partners; those who had never been married reported 1.84 sexual partners; and those who were separated reported having 2.41 sexual partners. This may reflect the fact that they were dating.

Interestingly, the number of sexual partners declines with age: from 1.76 sexual partners among men and women under 30 years of age to around 0.35 sexual partners among men and women older than 70.

Race, education or region of residence has very little effect on the number of sexual partners that people report, although those living in urban areas have slightly more sexual partners, on average, than those who do not.

As far as sexual dysfunctions were concerned, the percentage of men who reported that they had premature ejaculation was around 33% - but this is self-diagnosed, so it may be a lower estimate than the true percentage of men in the population who ejaculated quickly.

The proportion of men seeking retarded ejaculation treatment in some form (i.e. those are men with trouble reaching orgasm during sex) was around 8% - 1 in 12 - which fits with anecdotal evidence submitted in emails to the authors of this site.

About 22 percent of adult Americans (where this is defined as being over 18 years of age) claimed to have had no sexual partners during the year preceding the survey.

This seems rather higher than one would expect, although the results do seem to have been validly transcribed from the survey responses - whether respondents were answering the questions truthfully is another issue!

Abstinence was more commonly reported by women than men - which may reflect prevailing social issues in America - while abstinence occurred least often among the currently married (nine percent of whom reported not having sexual intercourse in the year preceding the survey), and most often among the widowed (86 percent).

Whether you believe it or not, 13 percent of those younger than 30 years of age reported abstaining from sex while only seven percent among those aged 30-39 had done so.

Abstinence is higher among the less-well educated, but is unrelated to race and other social factors.

The number of sexual partners that people reported since age 18 is an interesting result.

All in all, adults said they'd had an average of 7.15 sexual partners since age 18, although this overall number disguises a slightly ludicrous difference between men and women in the number of sexual partners they claimed: 12.3 vs. 3.3!

Leaving this dissembling aside, and assuming that the other data has any basis in reality, there is a complicated relationship between age and number of sexual partners.

Among those men and women younger than 30 the respondents' claimed number of lifetime sexual partners is 6.1; among those aged 40-49, it is 9.7; however, among those older than 70 the number is 3.5.

This must represent a combination of greater experience with age for those born in the last few decades and a different social culture for the older generations where having multiple sexual partners was less accessible or even possible.

And what of the issue of faithfulness within marriage? Particularly in America this is considered almost a foundation of society.

When asked about this, 75% of Americans said that they thought having sex with someone other than one's spouse always wrong.

So it's clear that despite any progress which has been made in changing attitudes since the swinging 60s, and despite pseudoscientific articles that suggest infidelity is a normal state for the animal kingdom including man it turns out that at least in theory, faithfulness is still seen as a virtue.

In reality, this may or may not be true: only one and a half percent of married people actually said that they'd had sexual relationships with somebody other than their spouse in the year before they were asked the question in the survey.

And neither men nor women differed significantly in the level of infidelity that they admitted to. This didn't change with age, or with the length of the marriage. (Although lack of faithfulness was slightly higher among blacks than whites, it was also higher amongst less educated and in large suburban areas.)

Whether or not these figures are actually true is another question, of course.

Such is the social power of the taboos against unfaithfulness, it's quite likely that people may not be willing to admit to infidelity in such surveys unless they are absolutely sure of confidentiality.

Furthermore we don't have any basic information on how faithful people are during their entire married life.

And there's no data to demonstrate the relationship between number of sexual partners before marriage and the tendency to faithfulness within marriage. About half of married adults said they had had no more sexual partners than marital partners.

That's a mind-boggling claim - and it doesn't fit with the commonly held belief that the average number of sexual partners for a man is between 6 and 12 (a similar number appears to be true for women) very few people have between 6 and 12 marital partners!

All in all, therefore, this data is highly suspect, and strongly suggests that people give answers that they believe the survey questioners wish to hear.

Sexual orientation shows a similar deference to social norms: 98.4% of men and women who were sexually active in the year before the survey said that they had been exclusively heterosexual.

Gay men and women themselves would probably admit that the true percentage of gay men and lesbians in the wider community is not the 10% that has been claimed, even if this represents the number of people with potentiality for same sex attraction, but even so it seems hard to believe that the true percentage of gay people is as low as 1.6% of the population.

Information about sexual orientation since the age of 18 reveals that only 3% of the population say they have had no sexual partners since the age of 18.

When all of the data is combined, it turns out around 91% of adults can be fairly reliably estimated to have been in exclusively heterosexual relationships
since the age of 18.

And it seems that around 93% of men and women have been exclusively heterosexual during their entire life, and just over 5% show clear evidence of having been exclusively gay all their lives.

The balance is made up by a small number of people who have not been in any way sexually active during their adult lives.

Perhaps much more interesting for us is data concerning the frequency of sexual intercourse. It turns out that on average, men and women reported having sex 57 times in the year before the survey was conducted.

Unfortunately there was a difference between the number of acts of intercourse reported by men 66 and women 51.

This tendency matches the tendency that women have to underreport the number of sexual partners they have had, and presumably reflects some deeply held belief that freely expressed sexual behavior reflects on a woman's morality in some way.

It's unsurprising to hear that the number of times that a couple engage in sexual intercourse declines from an average of 105 sexual liaisons involving intercourse per year at age 30 to around 80 times a year for those under 40 to around 8 times a year for those who are over 70 years of age.

There is a slight association between the frequency of sexual intercourse and the educational level that an individual has achieved.

The least educated people have a lower frequency of sexual intercourse, whilst those who have postgraduate education seem to have the most sex.

There is little relationship between race, community, and region and frequency of sexual intercourse at least for western societies like the United States.

Overall however, sexual behavior doesn't seem to have any really close relationship to factors such as class or subculture.

Even variations across educational levels, although identifiable, are modest. Nonetheless culture does play a major role in shaping our sexual behavior.

For one thing, in some societies, marriage remains a fundamental tenet of the regulation of sexual behavior: it involves monogamy, at least in theory, as a moral ideal, and excludes gay men and woman, and bisexuals who have never been married, from the body of society.

Older people report that they have very significantly fewer partners across their lifetime than people born more recently: this matches the increase in numbers of partnerships and couples living together, and the acceptance of premarital sex.

As to the decline in intercourse with age, it's most likely to be a biological effect: it's well-known that men in particular lose interest in sex from the age of 50, almost universally experiencing a decline in the frequency of intercourse.

For those women who were raised in a culture where it was regarded as the man's responsibility to lead and initiate sex, it's reasonable to assume that women will follow their men's behavior, and show corresponding decline in sexual frequency.