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Health & Sex

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Sizing Up Sex Lives

Everything you always wanted to know about sex surveys.

What We Hear

Initially, one woman declined to answer the question about monogamy, then talked freely at the end of the interview. She had a husband and two boyfriends, and no one knew but her. To her, having multiple partners made sense. One boyfriend was a millionaire and her sex buddy. Her other boyfriend made her re-evaluate her marriage and whether she wanted to stay in it.

In a study on how couples initiate or refuse sex, one young heterosexual couple reported that they kept two little human figurines on their fireplace mantle. When one wanted to have sex, he or she would move them close together. If not so inclined, the other partner would separate them again. This system may sound odd, but the couple found something that works for them.

A New Respect

Traditionally, government agencies and other organizations that fund research have tended to consider studies looking at pleasure, including those that examine our sexual behavior, as trivial. But the AIDS epidemic has caused big changes in sex research and led to increased funding.

When more research of this type is done, we all benefit in many ways. We learn about -- and debunk -- common misconceptions. A woman may think nearly everyone else is having sex twice a day, and a survey will prove that notion wrong. Or, a man might read that having sex every three months in a committed relationship is far below average frequency -- and concede that perhaps his partner has a right to complain. Sex research can also tell parents when their children are likely to become sexually active and remind them of the need for sex education.

Sex studies not only let people know how they measure up to their neighbors and friends, sexually speaking -- they can also help them to understand what's normal and what's not. From that foundation of knowledge, couples might then build more intimate, satisfying, and safe sexual relationships.

Pepper Schwartz, PhD, is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. She has conducted more than 10 large-scale sex research studies and is the author of 11 books, including American Couples: Money, Work and Sex, a large, comparative study of relationships.

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