Sex: Relax. If you do it--with your mate--around twice a week, according to a major new study, you basically wrote the book of love.
THE HUGE ELECTRONIC SCREEN above New York's Times Square shows steamy flashes of the latest music videos. At corner newsstands, vendors display practically as much nudity as they do news. On the side era passing bus. a bunch of male models drop their trousers to show off Tommy Hilfiger's designer drawers. Up Broadway, in the strip clubs. the fleshy bump 'n' grind is still one of the longest-running shows in town. But it's strictly show business. all of it. This is, as author Gay Talese calls it, "sex without fingerprints." Sheer fantasy.
According to a major new study of American sexuality, the nation may be entertaining a sexual fantasy, too, a cultural and commercial obsession. Bombarded by sexual messages and images, we are driven to see ourselves as the world's Mighty Sexin' Power Rangers. But in our private reality, the study says, Americans .just aren't that sexually active or experimental--and couldn't be more pleased about it. For instance, the study found that two thirds of both men and women have sex with a partner several times a month or less. Close to a third of all adults have sex a few times a year ur not at all, and more than 80 percent of Americans have had no more than one sexual partner in the past year. Most of us spend an hour or less doing it each time.
Myth number two holds that sex--or at least the frequent and deeply gratifying kind--belongs mostly to those who are single, unattached and adventuresome between the sheets. In fact, it's in marriage, the only coupling in which sex is fully sanctioned by society, where the highest rates of physical satisfaction were reported (88 percent). Lovers who live together were a close second. And the lowest rates by far (54 percent) are among people who were neither married nor living with someone. "The marriage effect is so dramatic that it swamps all other aspects of our data," report the authors of "Sex in America: A Definitive Survey" (Little, Brown), written by John H. Gagnon, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, with the University of Chicago's Robert T. Michael and Edward O. humann and New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata.
Not only is sex more fulfilling for married folks and live-in lovers, it's also more abundant. Thirty-six percent of married men say they have sex two to three times a week basically, the national comfort zone-and the rate is even higher (40 percent) for those who cohabit. Only 19 percent of live-alone males reached that frequency. Twice as many married women as live-alone females reported living in that zone. A key reason sex is more plentiful in marriage and among couples living together, says Kolata, has less to do with romance and more to do with the logistics of sex. The time and energy spent in finding someone to have sex with is costly. For the married and cohabitating, sexual partners are often no farther away than a pillow's length. But Kolata, who has been married for 22 years, says she believes there is something more: "love, commitment and caring" between sexual partners. That something more seems to be working. Eighty percent of the women and roughly three quarters of the men said they had been completely faithful in their marriages.
The study's debunking of Americans as a hypersexed people came as good news to David Dunton, 64, of Cambridge, Mass., who has been married for 40 years. "We've been waiting for 15 years for things to swing back to some kind of sanity," he says. Dunton says he was beginning to wonder if "there is no modesty anymore."
"Sex in America" draws much of its strength from its method. Researchers interviewed 3,432 people in a national, random sample in 1992. Unlike most major sex studies in the past, including those done by Alfred Kinsey in the late 1980s and 1950s, and Masters and Johnson much later, the National Health and Social Life Survey, as it is called. did not use volunteers. Those who ask to become part of a sex study tend to have sexual appetites, attitudes and habits that aren't like those of most Americans.
"This report points out, I think quite starkly, the cultural confusion that exists about sexuality in America." says Debra Haffer executive director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. a New York-based clearinghouse on human sexuality. That sharp contrast between America's sexual fantasies and facts has some. like Gagnon, speculating about whether the greatest change wrought by the sexual revolution was not so much in changing behavior but in expanding the erotic "word of symbols and fantasies." And against such a backdrop of swirling sexual imagery that is. says Gagnon. as scrambled as a Jackson Pollock canvas. Americans developed a collective performance anxiety. Part of thee $2.3 million study's message to people who feel left out of the sexual party is: relax a little. "I think this report may help people with their there internal performance pressures." says Haffer. Even the orgasm, the gateway to bliss in a goal-driven society, is demystified. Only 29 percent of women always had orgasms while having sex with their lovers: 75 percent of men said they did. Yet 40 percent of Americans said they are extremely pleased, physically and emotionally, with their sex lives. So, not having an orgasm does not mean bad sex, and having one does not guarantee satisfaction--even for self-absorbed guys. Another reason for Americans to feel at ease is that the pleasure picture is not much different in the rest of the Western world: we do it as much as anyone--including the French.
Nevertheless, the study gives some surprising data about female orgasm. For example, 26 percent of white women said they always had orgasms while 88 percent of black women and 34 of Hispanic women said they always did. Married women have a significantly higher rate of orgasm than single women. Among religious women. the study found that conservative Protestants had the highest rates of orgasm.
The study also confirms recent statistics that the number of homosexuals in society is considerably less than the 10 percent once widely believed. The survey found that 2.1 percent of Americans (2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women) consider themselves gay. But some gays, like Richard. 58, of Los Angles, doubt the relatively low count. A lot of homosexuals may be reluctant to state their sexual preference because "it's not necessarily safe to come out in these times," says Richard, who asked that only his first name be used.
Whether homosexual or heterosexual, Americans choose sexual partners who are much like themselves in terms of race, age (anything more than a five-year gap is a rarity), education and religious background. Just 2 percent of men with college degrees bad sex with a woman who had not finished high school, for example. Ninety percent of couples are of the same race or ethnicity. According to the survey, black women--97 percent--are the most likely to choose a sex partner of the same race. Chavonne Rogers, a black, 25-year-old insurance-claims representative in Chicago. says she's never dated anyone Who wasn't black. "Relationships are complicated enough in their own right," she said, even when they're not interracial.
Besides not straying from their groups, most Americans are conventional in their sexual practices, too. For example, the overwhelming majority--97 percent--of respondents reported that they had vaginal intercourse the last time they had sex, ranking it first among the sex acts they found "appealing." Surprising to some of the researchers, lovers watching each other undress came in second, easily winning over, for instance, group sex and "watching others do sexual things." Oral sex (both giving and receiving) was high on both men's and women's lists. Referring to the study, Gay Talese, who in 1980 wrote "Thy Neighbor's Wife." an exploration of American sexual mores. said much of the nation seems to still dwell in the sedate, suburban world of John Cheever stories. "It's quiet and it's mellow," he says.
Back in Cambridge, Joan Dunton, David's wife of 40 years, said she's sure the survey's findings are "absolutely true." Her evidence? The 59-year-old mother of one says she is happy, as are most of her friends, whom she describes as married, monogamous and satisfied. "Everybody bed-hopping isn't as big as people think." There goes another fantasy--but who wants to live in a fantasy anyway?
SEX PARTNERS SINCE AGE 18 Men Women 21 or more 17% 3% 10 to 20 16 6 5 to 10 23 20 2 to 4 21 36 One 20 31 None 3 3
SOURCE: THE NATIONAL HEALTH AND SOCIAL LIFE SURVEY
ORGASMS DURING SEX WITH PRIMARY PARTNER Men Women Always 75% 29% Usually 20 42 Sometimes 3 21 Rarely 11 4 Never 11 4
SOURCE: THE NATIONAL HEALTH AND SOCIAL LIFE SURVEY
Having sex soon after meeting a partner is not the path to the altar, though it does lead to many long-term relationships. Of couples that did get married, almost half said they didn't have sex within a year of their meeting.
First sex in less than one month Married 10% Living together 35 Short-term 37 relationship First sex after one year Married 47% Living together 22 Short-term 26 relationship
SOURCE: THE NATIONAL HEALTH AND SOCIAL SURVEY
Married couples Living together Single persons 4 or more 7% 16 7 times/week 7% 14 5 2 or 3 36 40 19 times/week 32 22 42 A few times 43 36 26 per month 47 35 24 A few times 13 8 25 per year 12 5 23 Not at all 1 0 23 3 1 32
SOURCE: THE NATIONAL HEALTH AND SOCIAL LIFE SURVEY, CONDUCTED FEBRUARY TO SEPTEMBER 1992, WITH 3,432 RESPONDENTS