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Dirty talk? New sex survey's surprising stats

At the time of the first Kinsey study on sexuality, H. L. Mencken wrote, "All that humorless document really proves is (a) that all men lie when they are asked about their adventures in amour, and (b) that pedagogues are singularly naïve and credulous creatures."

Now, 60 years later, I want to pick up the fight Mencken started. In the Journal of Sexual Medicine (where I assume Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" made its debut), the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the largest survey of Americans' sex habits since 1994, appeared today. Run by Indiana University's Center for Sexual Health Promotion and sponsored by Trojan the survey of the sexual habits of Americans runs to 137 pages, full of statistics. But I think the famous curmudgeon still has a point.

Even though 60 years, a decade of free love and several decades of heavily-discounted love have followed the Kinsey study, if you look at the statistics, there's a good number of Americans who aren't -- well -- getting any. And those are just the ones who admit to it.

I read the methodology. I got the impression that this methodology consisted essentially of "Asking people questions about their sex lives over the phone." I once answered a questionnaire about my sex life, but it was over the phone, so I limited all my responses to vague things like "yes," "no," "eighteen to thirty-six times," and "Rob Lowe," and when I hung up I told my roommate that it was about Breast Cancer Awareness. I would just love to have been in the room with those more than 5,000 scientifically and randomly selected individuals as they answered the questions. Do you realize the amount of overreporting that might have happened if the fraternity brothers of Kevin (participant, say, 582) realized what he was doing? "Two," he would say, then glance nervously around the room, "...hundred times a week!"

"What's your current status?" it asks. "Single," Carl says. "Single?" "Uh, engaged," Carl corrects, as his girlfriend of two years creeps up behind him with a bat.

And even assuming no overreporting whatsoever, there are still anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of Americans who aren't active at all, even in the anti-Christine O'Donnell sense of the word. Oscar Wilde said that to love oneself was the beginning of a lifelong romance. This wasn't what he meant, but is Americans' long national honeymoon with themselves at an end? Or hasn't it begun? Sure, this is farther along than the Victorian era, when no one would answer yes to such a question on a phone survey, primarily because there were no phones in the Victorian era.

But overall, the number of unsexed Americans is startling high. George Orwell, in 1984, posited that people would become frenzied with hatred and productivity if they remained sexually inactive long enough. I'm not saying he's right, but it does seem as though there's a suspiciously large number of rallies going on. And they're not limited to any one side of the political spectrum. Those take organization! Abstinence makes you very productive. Sure, Hugh Hefner managed to create an extremely powerful, multinational following, but it took him his entire life! Jesus (abstinent) did the same thing in 33 years.

My biggest question, after reading through the data, was why "woods" kept coming up as a location of "most recent sexual event." Let alone the fact that "sexual event" sounds like some sort of convention -- "Are you attending the sexual event?" "I hope so!" -- who are all these people going at it in the woods? All I can say is that that sounds like an episode of Criminal Minds I watched recently. I'm glad they survived to answer the questionnaire!

Still, beyond the woods, there's the thicket of popular opinion. Our culture is sex-saturated, or so the Cosmopolitan Magazine that I read over the shoulder of the woman seated next to me on the airplane informed me. Except that sometimes it isn't. Just look at this recent article in Elle magazine about young, hip married couples who had shifted into a platonic relationship without anyone's noticing or objecting.

Sure, the study does shed some interesting light on what Americans perceive to be their sex lives. Ten percent of them have sex with friends. Two percent of them have transactional sex. It's illuminating. But a large number of Americans, well, don't. This allows everyone time to do things like make phone calls on behalf of Christine O'Donnell, write detailed memoirs, or painstakingly hand-craft a flock of paper cranes and position them to replicate the Battle of Waterloo, startling potential dates when they visit our apartments.

H. L. Mencken, earlier this century believed that most people were virtuous -- or at least restrained -- for want of sufficient funds and time to do anything else. Extramarital affairs, he suggested, were too costly. "It is, indeed, the secret scandal of Christendom, at least in the Protestant regions, that most men are faithful to their wives. You will travel a long way before you find a married man who will admit that he is, but the facts are the facts."

Has that changed? The cast of Jersey Shore seems to be determined to prove that we are cheaper now than we have been for centuries, so maybe it has.

Or maybe the stigma's on the other foot now. In the 1950s, no one wanted to talk about sex because our nation was earnestly trying to convince its neighbors that no one here was having any. But today, the opposite is true. Everyone's doing it! Every month! Right? Unless you're 30 percent of men 20 to 24, or 37 percent of women from 30 to 39! That's essentially the population of New York City! What if they're all concentrated there?

Maybe Mencken was right. Maybe the only thing Americans are willing to do now that they weren't for the Kinsey study is talk a big game. "There is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror," Somerset Maugham once wrote. He might have been correct. There are several extended pages filled with a detailed variety of permutations calculated to startle even that Duke senior. But what if the surprise is the infrequency?

Well, what do you think? Why don't you tell me over the phone?

By Alexandra Petri  | October 4, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  Sex Survey  
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