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Sex, American Style: Trend to the Traditional

February 19, 1990|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — Americans are sexually "circumspect and traditional" and not "permissive and libertine as portrayed in movies and fiction," researchers said here Sunday.

New surveys reported at a meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science suggest that Americans begin sexual activity at a later age than is assumed, have fewer sexual partners over the course of their lives, display greater marital fidelity and are less likely to have homosexual encounters.

Among the findings: One in five adults said they had no sex partners during the previous year; only 1.5% of married people reported having a sexual encounter outside of the marriage over the same period; only about 1% of Americans have been exclusively homosexual during their adult lives; the average age at which young males have their first sexual experience is rising, and their condom use has increased dramatically.

The new results paint a picture of a nation growing more concerned about the increased dangers due to AIDS and other communicable diseases and altering their behavior accordingly.

"The window of vulnerability for the sexual spread of AIDS is smaller than we thought it was," according to sociologist Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Corp. (NORC), who headed one of the new studies. "The vast majority of Americans are not at high risk," he said.

Another report also suggested that a proposed national survey of the incidence of AIDS infection can successfully be carried out.

"Sexual behavior may be the most important of all human activities," Smith said, but "probably less systematic scientific research has been carried out on the sexual behavior of Americans than any other topic of importance."

To remedy that lack, Smith and James A. Davis added questions about sexual behavior to NORC's General Social Surveys, which are collected among about 1,500 people each year. Although the surveys are conducted by interviewers, the sex questions were answered on paper by the respondents and placed in a sealed envelope to assure anonymity and reporting accuracy.

The results provide the first comprehensive picture of sexual behavior among Americans chosen at random, Smith said, and to many people the results may be surprising.

The average American, according to the survey, had 1.2 sexual partners in the past 12 months, and had sex an average of 57 times, or about once per week. "We don't know what night of the week, but it sounds like the stereotypical Saturday night," Smith said. Men reported an average of 66 times, while women reported 51. Smith said his team was confident that men were exaggerating somewhat and that women were under-reporting.

Surprisingly, a full 22% of Americans said they had no sex at all during the preceding 12 months. The rate of abstinence was lowest among the married (9.2%), intermediate among the never married, separated and divorced (20% to 26%) and highest among the widowed (85.9%).

About 91% to 93% of the respondents said they had been exclusively heterosexual since the age of 18. Two percent said they had been sexually inactive since the age of 18, between 5% and 6% said they had been bisexual, and only 1% said they had been exclusively homosexual. The last figure is especially surprising, because some estimates put the incidence of homosexuality as high as 10%.

A full 98.5% said they had been exclusively heterosexual in the preceding year, but the figures do not include homosexuals who were not sexually active.

The average American has had 7.15 sexual partners since the age of 18, according to the study. The fewest total partners (3.01) were reported by the widowed, followed by the currently married (5.72), the never married (8.67), the separated (11.75) and the divorced (13.3).

Though most married people were faithful to their spouses during the preceding year, about 70% of men said that they had had at least one sexual partner in addition to their wife during their married lives. By contrast, only 35% of women said that they had a partner outside of the marriage.

Finally, according to the study, only 6.8% of Americans had sexual activities in the preceding year that put them at high risk of contracting AIDS. Some 2.4% had five or more partners in the preceding year, 3.2% had sexual intercourse with a complete stranger, and 0.7% of males had a homosexual encounter.

Sociologist Freya L. Sonenstein of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., found some encouraging results in a separate study of never-married adolescent males, which was conducted in 1979 and again in 1988. In 1979, 26.2% of the males had at least one sexual encounter by their 15th birthday. By 1988, that proportion had dropped to 19.3%. In both surveys, however, the number who had a sexual encounter by their 16th birthday was about 38%.

Among males aged 17 to 19, more had had sex in 1988 than in 1979, but the average number of partners was lower. In this age group, 75.5% had had intercourse at least once in the 1988 survey, compared to 65.7% in 1979. But among the sexually active males, the average number of lifetime sexual partners dropped from 7.34 in 1979 to 6.0 in 1988.

And, the survey showed, condom use has increased substantially. In 1979, 19.9% reported using condoms; by 1988, that number had grown to 54.3%.

Much more information about the incidence of various types of sexual behavior, as well as accurate information about the incidence of AIDS infection, may come from a proposed government survey called the National Household Seroprevalence Study. In the proposed study, people around the country would be asked to answer various questions about their sexual behavior, and would be asked to give a blood sample for AIDS testing.

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