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."
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.
"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."