Who's Having Sex in America?
What we do in our bedrooms is private—so private that most people don't talk about it. But it doesn't prevent us from being curious about what others are doing. Researchers at the National Opinion Research Center spent a quarter of a century delving into these intriguing questions. Now, thanks to their efforts, we have a better idea about the sex lives of Americans during the 1980s and 1990s. Further studies will be needed to determine whether the findings still apply.
Beginning in 1972, researchers at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) began conducting surveys, asking American adults very personal questions. These surveys were part of a larger study known as the General Social Survey (GSS), which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation at the University of Chicago. Every other year, about 3,000 people participate in the survey on sexual behavior.
The GSS is a large database of information. Researchers John Robinson, from the University of Maryland, and Geoffrey Godbey, from Pennsylvania State University, used this database to conduct a large-scale statistical analysis. What they've discovered are some interesting correlations between sexual frequency and socioeconomic status.
If you're having sex about once a week, you're right in there with most of us. The GSS indicates that most US adults are having sex about once a week—58 episodes per year to be exact. In Smith's own analysis, titled "American Sexual Behavior," it appears that this number has been fairly consistent since 1988. And we aren't wasting much time either—the average encounter lasts about 30 minutes.
The research confirms what we might already guess: the number of sexual encounters declines with age. Fairly consistent frequency is the case when we're in our 20s and early 30s. Then, it drops about 20% a decade through age 64. Once we can start collecting social security, it really plummets. Americans aged 65-74 have a 60% drop, followed by another 50% for those over 75.
In terms of numbers, Smith's analysis suggests that the average frequency for Americans aged 18-39 is 84 times per year, declining steadily to about 63 times per year for those in their 40s. And for those over 70, it's about 10 times per year.
So, Who's Having the Most Sex?
Who's having the most sex? According to the survey, it's 25-year old, high-school educated, married, extremely left- or right-leaning, Catholic jazz fans, who earn $10,000 a year and smoke and drink regularly. Robinson and Godbey's analysis shows that membership in any of these groups is correlated with above average sexual frequency.
Their analysis also shows that 15% of adults are having half of the sexual encounters. And slightly more than 40% are having over 85% of them. A small, but active, 5% report having sex at least three times a week. And it isn't just the people with lots of spare time and energy. Those people who work a 60-hour (or more) week have about 10% more sex on average.
Guessing that married people, particularly those with preschool children, have less sex on average? Wrong. They still report more sex than single people or those who work fewer hours. Not surprisingly, the report suggests that the regular availability of a partner explains why married people have more sex than singles. But Smith points out another demographic truth, "Unmarried people accumulate more sexual partners than married people do."
Know a devoted jazz fan? Chances are that person is having more sex than the rest of us. Robinson and Godbey's report finds that jazz aficionados are 30% more sexually active than other people. Even better if you're Jewish or agnostic: both of these groups are 20% more active than their Christian counterparts.
Extreme liberals are having more sex than extreme conservatives. But the GSS indicates they are both having more sex than political moderates and much more than those who classify themselves as conservative or slightly conservative.
Americans with the lowest income don't let the lack of money get in the way: this survey suggests that they have more sex to compensate. Joining them, but at the other extreme of the income curve, are those whose incomes are in the top one-tenth: they average about 5% more sexual frequency.
Those who participate in the extracurriculars of life report more sex, too. So, even if you're working more than 60 hours a week, when you throw in participation in social and sporting activities, sexual frequency is still above average. And this is true even when the favored activity is watching TV!
Engaging in either smoking or drinking is linked to more sex. Smokers report a 10% increase in activity; drinking 20%. And those who do both have twice as much sex as someone who does neither.
Twenty percent of American adults—one in five—have been celibate for over a year. Most of the people in this group are widows or older women. Women especially seem to be less sexual active with age. After 55, women report a 50% drop in activity. After 75, activity falls 90% or more. A very small group of people over 75 are having most of the sex in their age-group: 8% have 85% of all activity.
The more education one has, the fewer the sexual episodes. While it isn't a drastic reduction—on average about 50 encounters a year—Robinson and Godbey's analysis indicates that those with high school diplomas and a few years of college have the most sex.
Those who attend church regularly report less sexual activity, too. But Catholics are more sexually active than Protestants on average (with Presbyterians and Lutherans reporting less sex than Baptists).
American Sexual Behavior, Smith's own analysis, which is drawn on GSS data and the work of other social scientists, provides other findings:
- Frequency is greatest among the currently married. The never-married and divorced have lower rates. The widowed have by far the lowest rates.
- The frequency among married people is about 111 times/year for those under 30 to about 15 times/year for those 70 and older.
- While 7% of married couples haven't had sex within the last year, about 16% haven't in the last month.
- Even among couples who rate their marriages as very happy, frequency of intercourse declines with age.
Scientific studies suggest that extramarital relations (affairs) are less prevalent than pop and pseudo-scientific accounts contend. His work estimates that 3%-4% of currently married people have had an affair in the last year; and about 15%-17% ever have. Those aged 40–49 have the highest rate: 21% report ever having an affair.
Smith points out another demographic fact, "Among married people, men do report a higher level of extramarital relationships than women do." The rate is twice as high for men as women. In 1996, about 5% of men and 2.5% of women reported having an affair within the last year. The figures for ever having an affair are 22% vs. 14%.
What Does This All Mean?
Robinson and Godbey's analysis of the GSS findings report that while having more sex isn't indicative of more family or job satisfaction, those reporting the most sex are more likely to have a happy life and marriage, particularly among women. Perhaps the most meaningful conclusion? Those most likely to have the most sex also report a more positive outlook on life.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States
Robinson J, Godbey G. No sex, please …we're college graduates. American Demographics. February 1998.
Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. University of Chicago Press; 1995.
Last reviewed October 2007 by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
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