Intended for healthcare professionals

Medicine And Books

The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States; Sex in America: A Definitive Survey

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 25 February 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:540
  1. Kaye Wellings

    The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States

    The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, Edward O Lauman University of Chicago Press, pounds sterling39.95, pp 752 ISBN 0 226 46957 3

    Sex in America: A Definitive Survey

    Sex in America: A Definitive Survey, Robert T Michael, John H Gagnon, Edward O Laumann, Gina Kolata Little, Brown, pounds sterling16.99, pp 288 ISBN 0 316 91191 7

    The findings reported in these two books—one a weighty academic tome, the other a lighter version aimed at a lay readership—represent the latest addition to a growing body of research into human sexual behaviour, which has gained its impetus from the need for data to help predict and prevent further spread of HIV.

    Yet even now, when AIDS has made sexual behaviour a necessary subject for scientific inquiry, there is still a good deal of nervousness about it. The history of the project that resulted in these books reads uncannily like that of the British survey. Planned by an academic team, it originally received scientific approval and a recommendation of funding from the Department of Health and Human Services but foundered on opposition from the Bush administration and was eventually rescued by private funding—though on a much smaller scale than planned.

    Much of the apprehension surrounding surveys of sexual behaviour must be associated with the difficulty of maintaining moral values in the face of evidence that vast numbers of people behave differently. Such qualms seem to be largely unfounded. Like its European counterparts, this survey shows a nation committed to both the principle and practice of monogamy. The overall impression is certainly one of greater variety than hitherto, but there is no support for the idea of a nation in the grip of unbridled sexual urges or libertine influence. Sexual behaviour in the US may be diverse, but for the most part it is fairly conservative.

    People have sex with people like themselves. Ninety per cent of couples are of the same race, religion, and social class and within roughly the same age group. The survey shows a country with little interracial sexual mixing: fewer than 1% of single white men have black girlfriends. The norm is to have several sex partners in a lifetime, but the pattern for much of life is to be with just one. Ninety per cent of Americans are married before they are 30, and, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, marriage regulates sexual behaviour with remarkable efficiency. Despite the popular myth that there is a great deal of adultery in marriage, this study—in common with the British one—didn't find it. And there is much less sexual activity going on than we might think. Only a third of American men have sex as often as twice a week.

    For most of us this is deeply comforting. Imagining other people's sexual lifestyles produces in us reactions of green eyed envy or red faced shame. We worry either that our own sex lives are boring and that everyone else is having endlessly adventurous sex or else that other people's practices and predilections are normal while our own are perverse. A generally unacknowledged but not insignificant function of sex surveys is to reassure. When Kinsey's findings were published nearly half a century ago Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Sexual habits, unlike eating and drinking, for the most part go unobserved, and we rely on researchers to provide a window on what others are doing.

    Despite the national stereotypes, sexual behaviour in the United States looks much the same as it does in France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Around one in 20 men report some homosexual activity—not the oft quoted one in 10. The divergence from Kinsey's figures is almost certainly attributable to the sampling techniques used. The random samples used in the newer surveys of sexual behaviour are far more likely to be representative of the American population than the self selected samples used in the past. Those who volunteer to disclose details of their sex life may have more or less sex than the rest of us and may be more or less happy with it, but they cannot be relied on to be typical.

    The defects of this survey are more to do with the size of the sample than its structure. A sample of 3159 Americans aged 18-59, even though representative, is not large enough to give us a detailed picture of sexual behaviour in the United States. Of the 1422 men interviewed, only 71 reported homosexual sex, and this is too small a number for any but the simplest analysis to be carried out. That the survey took place at all is to be applauded, but with adequate funding it could have produced more valuable findings.—KAYE WELLINGS, director, sexual health programme, department of public health and policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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