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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
Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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...forget Mencken WE and the world at large are filled with surprise and horror, every time WE dial-up Rough Sketch...

Posted by: RichNomore | October 4, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

...go to the light Dana, return to your demension, a doppleganger has taken your place, and WE are begging for forgiveness for ever criticizing your posts...

Posted by: RichNomore | October 4, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

...go to the light Dana, return to your dimension, a doppleganger has taken your place, and WE are begging for forgiveness for ever criticizing your posts...

Posted by: RichNomore | October 4, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

...go to the light Dana, return to your dimension, a doppleganger has taken your place, and WE are begging for forgiveness for ever criticizing your posts...

Posted by: RichNomore | October 4, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Da*n Harvard. Stop handing out cards, save US, save yourselves...

Posted by: RichNomore | October 4, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Petri -

Are we to assume that, despite your blatantly inaccurate statements -- made twice in this story last week: -- that James O'Keefe "dressed up as a pimp to interview members of ACORN" (though NEVER DID, as documented here: you are simply NOT going to correct your story? That you are going to leave inaccurate coverage here in the pages of the Washington Post for the historic record?


I (and many others) alerted you to this twice-repeated inaccuracy days and days ago, and you've yet to do the right thing and issue a correction. Do you plan to or not? If not, why not?

Posted by: BradFriedman | October 4, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Why dont you try inserting (patdon the pun) bill clinton or john edwards instead of Christine Odonnell? Oh, they are democrats. never mind

Posted by: j751 | October 4, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

I don't think that H.L Mencken was even alive earlier this century, much less writing his beliefs earlier this century.

Posted by: jophibow | October 4, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Over the phone? Really? Nooo...

Posted by: chunche | October 4, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

After looking at Alexandra Petri's picture, I was reminded what Trent Lott said about Hillary Clinton.

Many guys just don't want to deal with women on an intimate basis anymore. They're not gay, but they ARE tired of being bashed by crazed frizzy haired no bra, no nuke feminazis.

Thirty years ago women were complaining that men just looked at them as being sex objects.

Now considerably less firm and much more gray, they complain that men are ignoring them.

Too bad.

Posted by: jbartelloni | October 4, 2010 7:42 PM | Report abuse

"RichNomore" is a nutbasket!

I don't know who this survey asked but I can guarantee you the men lied about how often and the women lied about how few.

I agree with you though Americans in general are prude. We put on a good front that we like to get busy but most of us don't. I believe that everyone needs to get laid and often. The entire planet would no doubt be in a better mood.

Posted by: Rabbitsmoker | October 4, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

After reading some the conservative post, with so much anger in them, I feel safe in believing that those on the right don't get enough. Maybe this is what is behind the Teahadist movement.

Posted by: hansenthered | October 4, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

At first glance survey reports like this are usually designed to titillate folks, or draw attention to one's own sexually oriented magazine.

Now we have a condom company paying for the survey yet they're drawing down on the cachet purchased by Kinsey at the high price of young children at the hands of a prisoner he queried extensively.

What to believe?

Well, Dana, for the first time in his life is actually casting doubt on the utility of the statistics in such a report ~ and it has little to do with Trojan or Kinsey ~ more to do with Dana.

Yes, Dana, age takes with it the ability to sleep with a different woman twice each night ~ as if you could actually find such creatures eh! Even the Bada Bing club had the same old women every night eh!

One of the other lesser known discoveries by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University (discovered while I was a student in fact) was that there are a LARGE percentage of the population who will NEVER answer such surveys ~ and surveyors regularly drop the N/A(nswer) folks from the results ~ even if they are as much as 3/4 of the people in the selected ample.

Trojan, with a different interest than Vogue or Playboy, seems to have left a good number of the N/A results in ~ so Good On 'Em Eh?!

There's hope for everybody in that sort of approach.

Posted by: muawiyah | October 4, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Eh, there are some of us who believe sex isn't that important in the greater scheme of things and really have better things to do with our time. I don't want kids, it's not that "entertaining" and "fun" for me, so there's no point in sex. Does that make me a prude? Perhaps. It certainly doesn't make me angry. Nor does it seem to make me more productive. In the end...whatever.

Posted by: akchild | October 5, 2010 7:26 AM | Report abuse

More explicit reporting needed. The study says Americans use 41 methods of having sex. I can think of 36 that I know. What are the other five?

Posted by: edwardallen54 | October 5, 2010 7:47 AM | Report abuse

The survey says, “People are often curious about others’ sex lives,” said Debby Herbenick, associate director of the CSHP." I don't think so! I think its gross to imagine other people having sex and I do not want to know about it! At times I feel sex itself is gross. OK, there are people who study it and want to know the latest trends but like another poster said, how many want to take part in your survey or reveal what they do or how often they do it? That makes your survey results inaccurate anyway! With the economy in state it is in, sex is the last thing on many people's minds. I've learned that the best sex is private and quiet, like what took place in the 19th century - under the covers, in the dark or by moonlight or candlelight, with two people snuggling and truly making love and keeping it between them.

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | October 5, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

The survey questions were answered over the Internet, not the phone. If those selected did not have Internet access, it was provided to them free of charge. That is one of the largest differences between this study and others.

Posted by: zentjc | October 5, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Isn't anyone going to talk about the elephant in the room?

European sex and American sex varies in one huge (some people would say small) way; the majority of American men (about 80%) are circumcised, whereas in Europe, circumcised men are in the minority.

This report says that 85% of men said the last person they slept with had an orgasm, while just 64% agreed.

I wonder how this would compare with results in Europe?

Some studies say there isn't a difference, but others, such as the Sorrells study, say that the foreskin is actually the most sensitive part of the penis, and not the head as popularly believed.

The fact of the matter is, the head of the penis becomes hard and callous in circumcised men in a process called "keratinization," further desensitizing them. This doesn't exactly encourage men to wear condoms, which further put a barrier between the penis and the vagina altering sensation.

It is undeniable; there is a huge gap between what the women and men say.

Could it be that women in America are getting sore from their circumcised partners, they want the situation to come to an end soon, and so instead of bruising their partner's feelings they fake an orgasm to get it over with?

It would be nice to see a comparative study in Europe, where men sport their anatomically correct genitalia. Would the gap be closer, further apart, or the same?

And what about other factors, like STDs? We hear all these "studies" that come from Africa, but what is the situation in the US? Is HIV/AIDS further spread among the circumcised, or the anatomically correct? Why was the study silent on this? Were they simply too afraid to find out that circumcision isn't doing anything to prevent HIV in America, confounding the WHO and certain interest groups' current efforts to circumcise the whole of Africa?

What's the deal? Circumcision is a common phenomenon in this country. It shouldn't be too taboo to ignore. The study seems to have talked about everything BUT.

Also, the rates of infant circumcision have been falling since the 80%s. In 2006, the infant circ rate was pegged at about 56%, and according to the CDC, it was 33% in 2009. There are a lot of intact teens having sex along with their circumcised peers. Isn't anyone going to talk about that? Is there a difference? Is there not? Are women "prefering" one over the other? Why the silence?

Typical American "science." Never giving you the full picture.

Posted by: kogejoe | October 6, 2010 6:55 AM | Report abuse

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