How We Have Sex: Study Offers Glimpse Into American Sex Lives

How We Have Sex: Study Offers Glimpse Into American Sex Lives
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In 2015, a team of researchers primarily based out of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the University of Indiana surveyed 2,021 American adults about their sexual behaviors. Participants completed an extensive, fifteen-minute questionnaire in the comfort of their own homes under total anonymity. Their responses, made public recently in the journal PLoS ONE, reveal the sexual behaviors and preferences of American adults in greater detail than ever before.

Lead author Professor Debra Herbenick and her team summarized the findings:

"Most (>80%) reported lifetime masturbation, vaginal sex, and oral sex. Lifetime anal sex was reported by 43% of men (insertive) and 37% of women (receptive). Common lifetime sexual behaviors included wearing sexy lingerie/underwear (75% women, 26% men)... reading erotic stories (57% of participants), public sex (≥43%), role-playing (≥22%), tying/being tied up (≥20%), spanking (≥30%), and watching sexually explicit videos/DVDs (60% women, 82% men). Having engaged in threesomes (10% women, 18% men) and playful whipping (≥13%) were less common. Lifetime group sex, sex parties, taking a sexuality class/workshop, and going to BDSM parties were uncommon (each <8%)."

Other intriguing findings included:

  • One in four men reported sucking a partner's feet or toes in their lifetime, while only one in ten women reported doing so.
  • A quarter of men and women had sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to others. Almost half of women aged 18-39 had done so.
  • A third of men and half of women had used a dildo or vibrator in their lifetimes. Twenty percent of women reported using one in the last month.
  • 80% of men and women reported having sex in a hotel to be somewhat or very appealing.
  • 30% of men and 25% of women were interested in having their anuses stimulated by a partner's fingers.
  • 77% of men and 58% of women found giving oral sex to be somewhat or very appealing.

1,046 women and 975 men participated in the survey. The average age of a participant was 47.1 years. The vast majority, 91.4 percent, identified as straight, and 54.2 percent reported being married. Roughly sixty percent had attended college.

As with any sex survey, it's impossible to guarantee the accuracy of the results. Sex has a long tradition of stigmatization in society and this affects what people are willing to open up about, even in an anonymous survey. Moreover, the survey was not a random sampling; subjects could choose whether or not they wanted to take part. Thus, the study group may not be representative of the American populace.

Despite the limitations, the authors insist that the study provides "baseline rates for a wide array of sexual behaviors among adults in the general populations in the United States for which such estimates have been previously absent."

Source: Herbenick D, Bowling J, Fu T-C(, Dodge B, Guerra-Reyes L, Sanders S (2017) Sexual diversity in the United States: Results from a nationally representative probability sample of adult women and men. PLoS ONE 12(7): e0181198. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181198

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