“America reveals its sexual secrets,” said_ The Guardian_ , reporting on the publication of the most comprehensive survey of American sex lives in 20 years. The study of nearly 6,000 Americans between the ages of 14 and 90 aims to provide a ‘contemporary snapshot’ of sexual behaviours, condom use and sexual health.
As The Guardian reports, it is likely that some of these findings apply to the UK.
The main findings indicate that there is great variability in the “sexual repertoires” of US adults, with adults of all ages engaging in healthy and varied sex lives.
Probably one of the survey’s most important findings is that condoms are only used in one in four acts of vaginal intercourse, and in one in three acts of vaginal intercourse among singles.
Encouragingly, the highest rate of condom use was among the 14-17-year-old age group, suggesting a changing attitude towards safe sex in this generation. Adults above the age of 40 have the lowest rate of condom use, which suggests that the promotion of condoms remains a public health priority.
The survey was carried out by a multidisciplinary team from Indiana University in the US. The initial findings have been published in nine separate research articles in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sexual Medicine .
The survey was funded by Church & Dwight Co, maker of sexual health products, including condoms, vibrating rings and pregnancy testing kits.
The Guardian and The Daily Mail reported the study.
The survey is thought to be the largest national study of its kind in the US, involving 5,865 adolescents and adults between 14 and 94 years old. The aim was to provide a ‘contemporary snapshot’ of sexual behaviours, condom and contraceptive use and sexual health in the US.
The authors say that the US faces significant challenges in terms of the population’s sexual and reproductive health, particularly the impact of HIV, high rates of other sexually transmitted infections and high numbers of unplanned pregnancies. Because of this, up-to-date information about sexual behaviour and condom use is urgently needed by health professionals, as well as being of interest to scientists and the general public.
They point out that the first large-scale systematic study of human sexual behaviour, by Dr Alfred Kinsey, was published over 60 years ago. Since then, there have been many studies of different aspects of sexual behaviour. The authors argue that up-to-date data reflecting changes in social attitudes is needed.
Participants were randomly selected using several different methods that aimed to produce a nationally representative sample of adolescents and adults in the US. Participants received a brief recruitment message giving some information about the survery and inviting them to take part. The participants then carried out the survey online.
As the authors point out, this approach had some limitations. It was “quantitative rather than qualitative” in nature, meaning that the context and background to the respondents could not be assessed in any detail. As it was not based on in-depth interviews, it lacks the “rich contextual insights” provided, for example, by the Kinsey Report.
In terms of sexual health, probably one of the survey’s most important findings is that condoms are only used in one in four acts of vaginal intercourse, and in one in three acts of vaginal intercourse among singles. The researchers suggest that efforts to promote condom use among sexually active individuals should remain a public health priority.
The main findings for condom use are:
There was great variability in the “sexual repertoires” of US adults, with 41 different combinations of sexual activity described, comprised of five basic acts:
The report suggests that while vaginal intercourse is still the most common sexual behaviour, many “sexual events” do not involve intercourse and include only partnered masturbation or oral sex. It also suggests that many older adults continue to have active sex lives, with a range of different behaviours and partner types: for example, between the ages of 60 and 69 years, 38% of men and 25% of women indicate they had been given oral sex by a partner of the opposite sex in the past year.
At any given point in time, most adolescents (14-15 years) were not engaging in partnered sexual behaviour. While 40% of 17-year-old males reported vaginal intercourse in the past year, only 27% reported the same in the past 90 days.
This large, representative survey is one of the most comprehensive studies of US sexual behaviour and condom use in almost two decades.
Its findings are important for health professionals and policy makers responsible for and involved in promoting sexual health and sex education, as well as interesting for the public. However, it should be noted that, unlike Kinsey’s research, the findings are not based on in-depth interviews but on internet research and therefore may be less reliable.
Though the survey was of a sample of the US population, it seems likely that the main findings that many sexually active adults do not use condoms and engage in a wide variety of sexual behaviours also applies to the UK.