Looking Into People’s Bedrooms: New Sex Research

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior that just came out of Indiana U. It was a massive project and describes the sexual experiences and condom-use behaviors of 5,865 adolescents and adults ages 14 to 94. The initial findings have already produced 9 different research articles and I’m sure that there will be plenty more as more folks crunch the numbers. (If you like to geek out on the original research, rather than what all of the media pundits are saying, you can download it from this site.)

There’s a lot of really fascinating data there and it’s going to take a while for sexologists and educators to digest it. For example, young women in the 18-19 year old group were twice as likely as those in the 16-17 group to report oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Does that have implications for safer sex and sex education messages? Possibly.

I’m always interested in how data in these sorts of reports do or don’t match up. It seems that among 14-17 year olds, 80% of boys and 69% of girls reported using condoms during their most recent experience of last penis/vagina intercourse. Now, I think it’s great that so many people are using condoms. And I also have to wonder why there’s such a big difference between the numbers. Is it that some women don’t know if their partner puts a condom on? Is it that slut-shaming messages (e.g. buying condoms makes you a slut) prompt some women to not admit to practicing safer sex? Are boys having sex with older partners? Maybe there’s something else at play here. But whatever it is, having the numbers makes it easier to figure out what our next questions might be.

It’s worth noting that condom use is much higher among younger people. In fact, only 14.2% of people in their 50’s and 6.3% of people in their 60’s used a condom the last time they had intercourse. Clearly, we need safer sex messages and education for older folks- just because you’re not a teenager anymore doesn’t mean you’re immune to STIs.

The choices that men and women made with respect  to their partners’ sexual histories is also interesting. Men who didn’t know their female partner’s recent (past 6 months) history or knew that their partner had other recent partners used condoms about 50% of the time, while men whose partners said that there hadn’t been anyone else recently used them 16.7% of the time. Meanwhile, women who didn’t know their male partner’s recent history used condoms almost 40% of the time, but women who knew that their partner had had other partners and women who knew that their partner hadn’t had other partners used them about 20% of the time. (p. 366)

Sound confusing? What this means is that women were just as  likely to not use condoms if they knew that their partner had no recent sexual partners as they were if the fella had had other partners and told them about it. Perhaps it’s the emotional intimacy of sharing a sexual history that changes what some women will do. I certainly don’t want to fall into a gender essentialist trap, and I’m sure that there are other possible reasons. That would make for an amazing doctoral research project: “Motivations and Decision Making: Condom Use and Safer Sex Choices Among Women”.

It’s also good to have some data to back up some of the things that sex educators have been saying for a long time, based on anecdotal evidence. For example, orgasm is much more likely for people who include a variety of sexual activities during each sexual session, especially for women.

All in all, this research will keep folks busy for years. Now that we have some of this data, we can start looking for interesting things to explore further. As an educator, what I find interesting is why people do what they do and the meanings they make of it. Although this study focuses on who, what, where, and how, folks who are interested in why will find a lot to inspire them. And the implications for policy, marketing, and education are huge. It’ll take a while to digest it all.

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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