New sex survey pulls back the curtain on Americans' private lives
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The federal government's latest survey on sexual behavior in the United States contains evidence for just about every theory, supposition and hope that people hold about the secret world of Americans' sex lives.
Most adults are monogamous. Lots of teenagers are having sex. Lots are also heeding abstinence messages. Oral sex may be a gateway -- and, for some teens, also a stopping point -- on the way to vaginal sex. Women have more same-sex liaisons than men -- or, at least, are more comfortable talking about them.
Those findings and more came from interviews with 13,495 men and women in the latest round of the National Survey of Family Growth, conducted from 2006 to 2008 and released Thursday.
Among the notable findings were these:
• In the 15-to-24 age group, 29 percent of females and 27 percent of males report never having had sexual contact with another person -- higher percentages in both cases than in 2002, when the survey was last conducted. In the older 25-to-44 age group, however, 98 percent of females and 97 percent of males report having had vaginal intercourse, with approximately 90 percent having oral sex as well. Slightly more than one-third (36 percent) of women and 44 percent of men report having had anal sex.
• Across the entire age-span surveyed -- ages 15 through 44 -- 13 percent of women reported some "same-sex sexual behavior" in their lifetime, compared with 5 percent of men. For women, the fraction was up slightly from 2002, and for men, down slightly.
• Many more men (21 percent) than women (8 percent) report having at least 15 sex partners in their lifetime. Hispanic women were less likely to report same-sex activity (6 percent) than black (11 percent) or white (15 percent) women.
The purpose of the survey, conducted seven times since 1973, is to provide basic data for public health policy. It is especially useful in charting behaviors that affect risk of sexually transmitted diseases and family planning.
There is no overarching message from the myriad findings. But Anjani Chandra, the demographer who authored the analysis released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics, noted that "for some people, it may be news that these behaviors exist at all in the general population."
That nearly one-third of people in their late teens or early twenties report no sexual activity "leaps out" of the findings, said Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, an advocacy organization in Washington.
"The public's general perception is that, when it comes to young people and sex, the news is bad and likely to get worse," he said. But the new report provides at least indirect evidence that "many, many young people have been very receptive to the message of delaying sexual activity."
He called the nearly 40 percent reduction in teen pregnancy since the 1990s, which experts believe is a product of both increased condom use and increased abstinence, "extraordinary progress on a social issue that many once considered intractable."
The survey provides evidence that some teenagers limit sex to oral activity only to preserve their virginity or because oral sex is viewed as risk-free. Public health officials say the latter is a misconception because certain sexually transmitted infections, such as herpes and human papilloma virus, can be transmitted by oral-genital contact.
Among teenagers ages 15 to 17, seven percent of females and 10 percent of males report having oral sex, but no vaginal sex. Not surprisingly, however, that fraction declines rapidly. In the 20-to-24 age group, only 3 percent of females and 4 percent of males report oral-only sexual activity.
First Published March 4, 2011 12:00 am