Oct. 27, 2000 (Boston) -- Anyone else who makes phone calls to complete strangers to ask them about their sex lives would probably get arrested. But when you're with the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, surveying heterosexual women about their relationships is all in a day's work.
What Kinsey researchers found in a computerized telephone survey of about 1,000 heterosexual women is that mood, general well-being, and relationship factors seem to be the most important contributors to their sexual well-being, reports John Bancroft, MD, director of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind. He presented the survey findings here this week at a meeting on female sexual function.
Bancroft and colleagues found that, in general, women say their partner's sexual satisfaction is more important to them than their own orgasms. Women also said that it was more important to them that they feel emotionally close to their partners and that they feel comfortable talking about sexual activities with their partners.
When he asked, "What do women want?" Sigmund Freud may have been crying out in frustration at his inability to understand women and their sexual and emotional needs. But Freud, unlike the Kinsey researchers, didn't have the advantage of computer technology and automated telephone dialing to help him find out.
The Kinsey researchers conducted a random telephone survey that eventually yielded 1,030 women who were willing to take part. The women were all between 20 and 65 years of age, and all had said they had been in heterosexual relationships with their current partners for at least six months. About two-thirds of the respondents were white, and one-third were black. Because survey participants needed to have English as their first language, there were not enough Hispanic women to be included in the study sample, Bancroft says.
According to the survey respondents, factors that primarily determined women's sexual well-being were, in order of importance:
- General well-being -- defined as having energy, being calm, and being in a good mood
- Subjective sexual experience -- emotional reactions during lovemaking
- Attractiveness of their partners
- Sexual response -- bodily changes, including orgasm, that occur during lovemaking
- Frequency of sexual activity with their partner
- Their partner's sensitivity to their needs
- Their own health
- Their partner's health
They also found some interesting but quite controversial differences when they analyzed survey responses along racial lines. They found that sexual response was the most important predictor for sexual well-being among all black women in the survey, but it was only seventh among all white respondents. "The black women were more likely to report feeling positive about their own sexuality. The white women attached considerable importance to 'feeling emotionally close' to their partner; the black women felt that 'feeling comfortable talking about sex" was more important to their sexual happiness," says Bancroft in a written statement.
Although the racial differences should be interpreted with caution, Bancroft says, they "are consistent with the idea that women's sexuality is substantially shaped by socio-cultural factors, and that white and black women in the United States have experienced different socio-cultural histories."
That conclusion drew a few sharp notes of criticism from Bancroft's audience, however. One physician cautioned "that one has to be careful that the study isn't overinterpreted to come up with racist conclusions." Another physician pointed out that because the survey asked women only about their experiences over the previous month, the survey represented only "a snapshot of sexual experiences," whereas over time, relationships come and go, ardor waxes and wanes, and women's moods, sexual needs, and energies change as well.
Bancroft acknowledges that whatever their race, there is a great deal of variability from one woman to the next in the factors that they consider to be important to their sexual happiness. He says that the researchers will continue to analyze the data they have gathered thus far to see if it is possible to further categorize women based on their sexual well-being, regardless of race. "For example," he says in a written statement, "we'll be interested to see how those women who do attach great importance to experiencing orgasm differ from those who don't."