The study by Indiana University researchers is the largest survey on U.S. sex habits in more than two decades.
A key finding was that nearly 80% of boys and 60% of girls under the age of 18 said that they had used condoms during sex. That’s nearly twice the rate at which young adults used condoms, and nearly four times that of adults over 40.
“Condom use has become a normative behavior among adolescents,” says Dennis Fortenberry, MD, a professor of pediatrics in the Indiana University School of Medicine and leader of the adolescent portion of the survey. “And we need to support continuing efforts to maintain these high levels of condom use.”
Older Americans, on the other hand, need to learn better habits. “There’s increasing concern about STIs among people over 50,” says Michael Reece, PhD, director of Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion (CSHP) and a study leader.
Studying America’s Sex Habits
The CSHP began conducting the online surveys in the spring of 2009. Nearly 6,000 people -- from ages 14 to 94 -- answered questions for the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), which was funded by Church & Dwight Co. Inc., maker of Trojan condoms.
Determining how often people used condoms was a primary focus of the effort. Having reliable data on who uses condoms and who doesn’t will help public health officials target their efforts to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV in particular, Reece says. Until now, he says, nationally representative data has not been available.
“This will be very helpful for community-based organizations in developing HIV prevention programs,” says Reece. In the past, he says, such studies “were not easily accessible to the community. We wanted to do this differently.”
Presented in nine papers published in The Journal of Sexual Health, the results reveal the increasing diversity of Americans’ sexual repertoire.
Reece said that one of the most fascinating things that the survey shows is the changing nature of what it means to have sex.
“The assumption has been that sex means vaginal intercourse,” he says.
But to survey participants, sex meant anything from solo and partnered masturbation to oral and anal sex, and researchers counted more than 40 combinations of such sex acts in a given “sexual event.” And according to one of the published papers, more variety equals more orgasms for both men and women.
Despite the size of the survey, plenty of questions remain, and plenty of sexual territory remains unexplored by researchers.
“I’d love for us to have data on how people incorporate technology into their sex lives,” says Reece, who would like to investigate what role Facebook may play as well as such recent phenomena as “sexting” -- sending sexually explicit messages or photos via cell phone.
He would also like to see surveys conducted on the same national scale far more frequently.
“I’d love to see it done every five years, though that’s probably unrealistic,” he says. Because sex has such an impact on public health, “we shouldn’t be waiting 20 years.”