Faking It? New Sex Study May Rat You Out

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"If I've heard that once from women, I've heard it a thousand times: "Why does he have to do that? Why aren't I enough?" says Schwartz, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "I try to tell them that you can like a five-course meal, but sometimes you want a snack. Wanting to [masturbate] says nothing about the quality or sexiness of the relationship, and these stats are a great way to say, 'See, it's OK.'"

Women were slightly less likely to give themselves a hand at any given point during their lives but still masturbated in substantial numbers. Nearly half of women in their 20s had masturbated alone in the past month, and this prevalence declined slowly to 20 percent for women in their 60s.

Calling in Sexual Backup

Anal sex was another big surprise for researchers, with many more survey participants, especially those in long-term, committed relationships, incorporating this sexual practice into their bedroom lives.

"In the early 1990s, about 20 to 25 percent of people had reported ever having anal sex," Herbenick says, "but now we find as much as 40 percent, and more than that for men and women in their 20s and 30s."

On the surface this stat shows that many couples are experimenting more and widening their sexual repertoire, Schwartz says, but it also highlights the need for more public health education about this sexual practice.

"If you're interested in experimentation, sooner or later you get to the anus. It's a sexy place, but it's a dangerous place as well and can increase the risk for bacterial, viral and sexually transmitted infections when incorporated into sex."

Those in the public health sphere "can't afford to be prissy about it," says Schwartz, "because it's not everyone's favorite thing to talk about."

Changing Landscape of Sex

So what has changed in America to influence some of these shifts in sexual behavior? Researchers can only speculate for now, but Herbenick says that the Internet plays an obvious role in how Americans perceive and become educated about sex.

Easier access to pornography as well as accurate and inaccurate information on sexual practices online has blown open the discussion of sex, allowing those young and old to learn about different sexual practices and techniques, and to learn more about sexual health. What was once relegated to a gym class "facts of life" discussion is now readily available (with pictures and possibly video) online, she says.

That doesn't mean this country doesn't need better public health education about sex, experts say. More people are using condoms, for example, but they still play a part in only one in three sexual acts, and many of those remaining two acts could benefit from condom use, Reece says. There are still many lessons yet to be learned about proper safety and communication during sex.

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