The popularity of unconventional sex raises questions about what’s “deviant.” Here’s a headline that’s impossible to resist: “Huge New Survey Documents How and How Often Americans Have Sex.” Who wouldn’t read that?
There’s a bit of voyeur in all of us. We’re fascinated by everyone else’s sexuality. We want to know what’s “normal,” “average,” and “typical, ” i.e. conventional, so we can compare ourselves to the supposed norm.
When modern sex research began after World War II, many thought that the only “normal” sex involved heterosexual married vaginal intercourse. But over the past 70 years, as researchers have delved ever deeper into sexuality, they’ve discovered that the successful, mentally healthy population actually exhibits tremendous sexual diversity. Turns out our sexuality is as unique as our fingerprints. Erotically, everyone is their own person.
If there’s no real conventional, no normal, we should be very careful about labeling anything “deviant.” Deviance implies a significant departure from “normal,” which doesn’t really exist.
Now, the legal system defines some sexual variations as crimes, notably: sexual assault, adult sex with children, genital flashing in public, and in most places, exchanging sex for money, particularly street solicitation. Otherwise, the boundary separating acceptable from not appears increasingly fuzzy.
Sex As Playground
We all play in distinctly individual ways. Today, what passes for “conventional” lovemaking involves kissing, cuddling, oral sex, and vaginal intercourse. Most Americans have played in other ways:
- UCLA researchers asked parents to keep diaries noting anything sexual in the lives of their 200 sons and daughters from birth through age eighteen. Parents witness only a fraction of child sex play, but these parents saw three-quarters of their children masturbating, and reported that half engaged in sex play with peers, typically touching each other’s genitals. The researchers found zero correlation to later psychological distress.
- In a classic 1951 anthropological study of 191 cultures worldwide, the researchers concluded, “If the adults of a society permit it, young children engage in practically every type of sexual behavior found in adults, including oral-genital play and attempted copulation.”
- Among Americans, age 14 to 94, 94 percent of men and 85 percent of women admit having masturbated at least once, and three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women admit having self-sexed during the previous year.
- More than half of American women own at least one vibrator.
- Most Americans lose their virginity during their late teens, now typically from age 17 to 18 (one to two years later than today’s grandparents did).
- Premarital sex has become almost universal. On their wedding nights, 95 percent of Americans are not virgins.
- Since Kinsey’s studies in the late 1940s, credible estimates of heterosexual Americans’ lifetime infidelity have been all over the map— for men, 12 to 72 percent, for women, 7 to 54 percent. The most comprehensive estimate comes from University of Wisconsin investigators, who analyzed 500 studies published over sixty-four years (1943 to 2007). Their estimates for at least one episode of infidelity: 25 percent of married men and 15 percent of married women.
- At some point in life, 15 to 20 percent of American men patronize sex workers.
- Eleven percent of Americans—some 30 million people—are not exclusively heterosexual, but gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
- By age fifty, 40 percent of Americans have experimented with anal play: oral-anal (analingus), sphincter massage, fingering, or penis-anus intercourse.
- Many Americans with chronic conditions or disabilities can’t play conventionally and make love in other ways.
- Many elderly lovers can’t accomplish intercourse and make love in other ways.
- Approximately 20 percent of Americans have engaged in consensual non-monogamy: polyamory, threesomes, swinging, and group sex play.
- Kinky sex is more popular than many believe. Indiana University researchers surveyed 2,021 American adults and discovered that many enjoyed elements of BDSM: spanking (30 percent), Dominant/submissive role-playing (22 percent), restraint (20 percent), and whipping/flogging (13 percent) (Chapter 41). The investigators also found that 43 percent had played sexually in public.
- In fantasy, unconventional sex is even more popular. The number one erotic fantasy is sex with someone other than one’s regular partner. More than half of Americans admit fantasies involving BDSM.
- In fantasy, unconventional sex is even more prevalent. One of the most common erotic fantasies is doing it with someone other than your main squeeze. X percent of women have rape fantasies. X percent dream about kinky sex. In fantasy, everything is permitted, nothing is wrong, and the sky is the limit (as long as you can distinguish between fantasy and reality).
Sexual Inclinations: Not Predictable
As education increases, Americans tend to be more amenable to sexual experimentation. And compared with religious conservatives and fundamentalists, religious liberals and those who profess no religious affiliation also tend to be more willing to try unconventional sex. But the demographics of sex obscure a greater truth. Anyone can be into anything. Most social conservatives oppose abortion, premarital sex, school sex education, homosexuality, and non-monogamy. But plenty of conservatives enjoy anal play, sex toys, BDSM, threesomes, and swinging. There’s even an evangelical swing group, Liberated Christians in Phoenix, Arizona.
If sociologists know your zip code, education, occupation, religion, and income, they can predict with reasonable accuracy your politics and the media you view. But they would know little or nothing about your sexuality. Each of us is sexually unique. Anybody can be into anything. The bottom line is pleasure—and people enjoy themselves in a remarkable variety of ways.
You may also be interested in reading New Sexual Moves: “You Want To Try What?!”
Okami, P et al. “Sexual Experiences in Early Childhood: 18-Year Longitudinal Data for the UCLA Family Lifestyles Project,” Journal of Sex Research (1997) 4:339.
Ford, CS and FA Beach. Patterns of Sexual Behavior. Harper & Row, NY, 1951.
“Seventeen Is the Average Age at First Sexual Intercourse” (PDF). American Sexual Behavior. newstrategist.com.
Fisher, H.E. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Henry Hold, NY, 2004.
Herbenick, D. et al. “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women Ages 14-94,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2010) 7(suppl 5):255.
Herbenick, D. et al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use By Women in the United States: Results from a Nationally Representative Study,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2009) 6:1857.
Copen, C.E. et al. “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Orientation Among Adults Aged18-44 in the United States: Data from the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth,” National Health Statistics Report (2016) 7:1.
Gates, G.J. “How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender?” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2011.