A Sexy American Majority

At least nine out of 10 Americans, men and women alike, have had premarital sex, says a new report. And premarital sex isn't new -- the high rates include the sexual habits of women born in the 1940s, challenging the idea that sexual behaviors used to be more restrained.

Sex has apparently become something of a young American habit. "It's hard to stop the evolution of that urge," said Judy Kuriansky, a sex therapist, media personality and adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University Teachers College in New York.

The report, published by the private Guttmacher Institute in New York, challenges the thinking behind government-funded programs that rely primarily on abstinence-only teachings. The study, released Tuesday, appears in the new issue of Public Health Reports.

"This is reality-check research," said the study's author, Lawrence Finer in the report. "Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades."

Premarital and Safe Sex Not Uncommon

This isn't the only reality-check piece of research about sex and sexual behavior to surface in recent weeks. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health says improved contraception, not abstinence, is responsible for a drop in teen pregnancies.

Teen pregnancy rates have been dropping in the United States since the early 1990s, because the teens who do have sex are having safer sex, according to the new AJPH study.

The latest Guttmacher study uses data from interviews with more than 38,000 people -- 33,000 women -- in 1982, 1988, 1995 and 2002 that were collected for the federal National Survey of Family Growth. The survey examined sexual behavior before marriage, and how it has changed over time.

By age 44, 99 percent of respondents have had sex, and 95 percent have had sex before marriage. Even among those who had abstained from sex until age 20, 81 percent have had premarital sex by age 44.

The likelihood of premarital sex among Americans hasn't changed since the 1950s, said Finer. But singles are sexually active for longer periods of time than they once were before marriage, because people now wait longer to get married.

Government Programs Challenged, Again

"The data clearly show that the majority of older teens and adults have already had sex before marriage, which calls into question the federal government's funding of abstinence-until-marriage programs for 12- to 29-year-olds," Finer said.

Currently, the U.S. government supports only abstinence-only education for teens. The Department of Health and Human Services' $50 million abstinence education program recommends that those between the ages of 12 and 29 be exposed to programs that support decisions to delay sexual activity until marriage. Those government programs don't seem to match the available data. If Americans have been engaging in premarital sex, as the Guttmacher report suggests, it might be wise to teach young people how to practice sex safely.

"It would seem to me if nine in 10 people are having premarital sex and the government has been running these programs already, that in itself suggests that abstinence education might not be the way to go," said Gina Ogden, a sex therapist and author of "The Heart and Soul of Sex."

Abstinence Good for Some

Of course, abstinence can work well for some people. "Abstinence is great in that there are a number of risks of sexual intercourse. Sexually transmitted diseases are an obvious risk, but there are also emotional risks to having sexual intercourse because it is such a loaded, emotional experience," said Ogden.

Abstinence programs, however, may not always target the appropriate ideas. "Abstinence-only programs are fear-based. They are less concerned with STDs and emotional health and more concerned with impressing a certain moral standard," she said.

Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, defended the suggestion that the abstinence-only programs deliberately demoralize sexual behaviors. "The Bush administration does not believe the government should be regulating or stigmatizing the behavior of adults," he said in a statement.

Government-funded abstinence-only programs speak to a minority of Americans, since the majority of Americans practice premarital sex.

America's Youth Embraces Study Trend

Regardless of what programs the government supports, many young adults believe in premarital sex. "It's fine, great and recommended," said Bret Silverberg, 24, of Sharon, Mass.

"I think sex is a normal, habitual life experience. Marriage should not play a large part in the decision to have a sex life," he said.

Religion may not always play a large part in the decision to have a sex life either. "I think most Catholics do [have sex] before marriage," said Maria Hagerty, 24, of New York.

"If you are devout, it's a question to confront. But I think most people follow social norms before religious ones," she said. Maria was raised devoutly Catholic, "but I am no longer practicing."

Survey's Social Impact

Even if premarital sex is the social norm, as this report suggests, it probably won't throw the country into a new sexual revolution. It certainly hasn't yet, and this trend has been ongoing for a while. "It's a constant reforming of statistics -- the tenor goes up and down," said Kuriansky.

"It's become a much more common phenomenon," said Kuriansky. But between these reports and the abstinence supporters, "there is a sort of law of physics," she said. "When surveys like this appear, the groups who promote pledges for virginity tend to speak up a bit, and make themselves heard."

There is reason to remind young people, and any people, that abstinence is an option. "I don't think sex is something that people should treat lightly," said Kuriansky. "That's what concerns me."

But safe sex education is important too, because sex can be an important emotional and physical part of a relationship. "To some extent, sex is a very important part of a marriage relationship, and people can have serious problems after marriage if they haven't explored that aspect of their relationship when they get married," Kurianksy said.

For more details on the report: Guttmacher Institute. http://www.guttmacher.org/