Oct. 21, 2004 -- Sometimes, it's just about sex.
Usually not: The vast majority of Americans are monogamous and happy about it, expressing satisfaction with their sex lives and a broad preference for emotional commitment in sexual relationships. Most by far prefer marriage to the single life.
But there's more to sex in America in 2004 than that 1950s picture suggests. A groundbreaking ABC News "Primetime Live" survey finds a range of eye-popping sexual activities, fantasies and attitudes in this country, confirming some conventional wisdom, exploding some myths -- and venturing where few scientific surveys have gone before.
Among the results: Fifty-seven percent of Americans have had sex outdoors or in a public place. Half talk with their partners about their sexual fantasies. Forty-two percent call themselves sexually adventurous. Twenty-nine percent have had sex on a first date, and about as many have had an "unexpected sexual encounter with someone new." Fifteen percent of men -- and three in 10 single men age 30 and older -- have paid for sex. About half of women say they've faked an orgasm.
Faked orgasm (women)48
Paid for sex (men)15
Paid for sex (single men, 30+)30
Two-thirds of sexually active Americans sometimes "wear something sexy" to enhancetheir sex lives, and 30 percent say they and their partner have watched sexually explicitvideos. One in five -- around 40 million people -- say they've looked at porn Web sites.As many, men and women about equally, have had "rebound" sex to get over a failedrelationship.
In some cases, where activity is less common, fantasy takes over. Among people who aremarried or living in a committed relationship (or formerly married), 16 percent havecheated on their partner (nearly twice as many men as women) -- while more, 30 percent,have fantasized about it. Fourteen percent of adults (and twice as many single men) havehad sex in a threesome, while an additional 21 percent have fantasized about that. Twelvepercent have had sex at their workplace, and it's been a fantasy for one in 10 more.
There are other signs of yearning: Among the 55 percent who describe their sexualactivity as "traditional," about three in 10 would like to be more adventurous. And more-- four in 10, especially men -- would like more adventurousness in their partners.
The survey also finds huge differences in sexual attitudes between men and women. Itunderscores the wages of sin: Divorced or separated men are twice as likely to have beenunfaithful in their marriage. And it demolishes the notion that singles are swinging: Evenamong young singles (under 30), nearly half aren't dating at all, and among those whoare dating, eight in 10 are dating one person exclusively. Monogamy, again, rules theroost.
Moreover, the survey finds that satisfaction with sex does matter. A statistical analysisidentifies some of the factors independently related to satisfaction with sex, marriage andlife more broadly. Among other findings, it shows that activities such as discussingfantasies with a partner contribute to an exciting sex life, that an exciting sex lifecontributes to a happy marriage and that a happy marriage contributes to life satisfaction.
These and other findings in this random-sample telephone poll of 1,501 adults paint aremarkable and intimate portrait of sex in America in the 21st century. Many of the frankand personal questions, from foreplay to fantasy, have rarely if ever been asked before ina representative national survey. Other results comport with previous sex research. The survey is the basis for an exclusive report on sexual attitudes and behavior for the ABC News program "Primetime Live" that aired on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 10 p.m. ET. A second program, based on a separate survey of sexual attitudes and behavior among teenagers, will air at a later date.
If women are from Venus, men are -- well -- men. Seventy percent of men think about sex every day -- double the rate among women. Indeed, 43 percent of men think about sex several times a day; just 13 percent of women do that. Eighty-three percent of men enjoy sex "a great deal"; that falls to 59 percent of women. Women, though, are equally likely to express satisfaction with their sex lives.
Overall, women report an average of six sex partners in their lifetimes; men, 20. But abetter gauge of sexual activity for most people is the median, the midpoint between thehigh and low: Women report a median of three sex partners; men, a median of eight.
The averages are higher because a small number of individuals -- especially men -- reporta very large number of partners. Five percent of the men in this sample reported havinghad 99 or more sex partners, including four who reported 200, three who reported 300and one who reported 400. Among women, one percent reported 99 or more partners; thehigh was 100 (reported by two women).
While there are differences between the sexes, the data are internally coherent; for example, people who report more sex partners, men and women alike, are more apt to describe themselves as adventurous sexually and to say they enjoy sex a great deal.
In another difference between the sexes, 42 percent of men report having had had sex on a first date; that drops to 17 percent of women. Again the data are coherent; women who report having had first-date sex also are much more likely to call themselves sexually adventurous, and they report many more sex partners across their lives -- an average of 19, compared with an average of four for other women.
A third of adults would like to have more sex than they do now -- but more men, aboutfour in 10, than women, 28 percent. Men, as noted, are more apt to have cheated, muchmore apt to fantasize about it, and more than twice as likely as women to say it'sacceptable to have casual sex without an emotional relationship -- "just doing it for thesex." (That's OK with 35 percent of men, compared with 15 percent of women.)
Women also are about half as likely as men to say they've had sex in a threesome,unexpectedly with someone new, or at work; and they're less likely to fantasize aboutthese. A third of men have fantasized about a threesome and 20 percent have fantasizedabout an unexpected encounter; it's nine and 10 percent of women, respectively.
Women are more conservative about sex in other ways. They're more apt than men to saythere's too much sex on TV, 84 percent to 62 percent. They're less likely than men tocondone sex before marriage, 54 to 68 percent. And 61 percent of sexually active women,compared with 50 percent of men, call themselves sexually traditional, not adventurous.
In other personal predilections, men are twice as likely as women to sleep in the nude (31 percent of men, 14 percent of women), and women are much more likely to prefer to have sex with the lights off (51 percent of women, 27 percent of men).
In the online realm, men are more than three times as likely as women to have looked at asexually explicit Web site, and doing so spikes among men under 30. Relatively few --but 11 percent of young men -- have participated in sex chat rooms. Women are muchmore likely to regard either of these activities as "being unfaithful."
Three-quarters of sexually active men say they "always" have an orgasm, while just 30 percent of women say the same. An additional 45 percent of women say they have an orgasm "most of the time," but not always.
As noted, nearly half of women report having faked an orgasm, but they aren't the onlythespians: Eleven percent of men say they've done so too. Asked why they faked it, menand women alike speak mainly about either pleasing their partner or getting done.
Faking orgasms suggests dissatisfaction for some women; it's higher among womenwho've cheated on a spouse, are dissatisfied with their sex lives and are less than verysatisfied with their marriages. But for others that doesn't necessarily hold: Sexuallyadventurous women are among the most likely always to have orgasms, yet also amongthe most likely to have faked them.
Women who are more likely always to have an orgasm are more apt to enjoy sex a greatdeal, think about it often, be satisfied with their sex lives and say their sex lives are veryexciting. Always having an orgasm is least common among women age 40 and older,longtime marrieds, those who are less than very satisfied with their sex lives and withtheir marriage, and those who don't enjoy sex a great deal.
The orgasm gap between the sexes likely explains why men are more apt than women toenjoy sex a great deal. Among people who always have orgasms -- disproportionately men -- nearly nine in 10 enjoy sex a great deal. Among those who don't always or usuallyhave orgasms -- mainly women -- top-level enjoyment drops to 46 percent.
Men and women are more in sync in other areas. Eight in 10 sexually activemen and women alike say they have about "the right amount" of sexual foreplay. Andthey offer identical median estimates of the amount of time they spend having sex,including foreplay: 45 minutes.
Three-quarters of men and women alike are unworried about contracting AIDS or anothersexually transmitted disease; widespread monogamy is the likely reason.
In another area of accord, three-quarters of men and women alike say it's more enjoyableto be married than dating. Sexual activity is a likely reason: Just 35 percent of singles arecurrently involved in a sexual relationship (rising to 51 percent of young singles),compared with 83 percent of couples (and 91 percent of couples excluding seniors).
There is room for improvement. Among people who've had sex in the last year, nearlynine in 10 describe their sex lives as exciting -- but far fewer, just over a third, call it "very exciting." Similarly, while more than seven in 10 women and men alike say they're satisfied with their sex lives, fewer -- about half -- say they're "very" satisfied. Still, that's greater than high-level satisfaction with jobs or finances, and about equal to the satisfaction people express with their health and social lives.
Americans give higher satisfaction ratings to their family lives (68 percent "very"satisfied), but the highest of all to their marriages or committed relationships. Indeednearly everyone in a married or committed relationship is satisfied with it -- 97 percent --including eight in 10 who are "very satisfied," men and women alike.
The big picture, sexually speaking, is as follows: Ninety-seven percent of adult Americans have ever had sexual intercourse; three percent are virgins. Seventy-eight percent have had sex in the last year (86 percent of men and 70 percent of women). And 64 percent are currently involved in a sexual relationship. (Excluding senior citizens, it's 72 percent.)
Among those who've had sex in the last year, the vast majority -- 86 percent -- have had a single sex partner in that time period. Far fewer adults, however, have had a single sexpartner in their entire lifetime -- a quarter of women, and 12 percent of men.Coupling is the norm: More than eight in 10 Americans are either married (52 percent),living with a partner in a committed relationship (eight percent), widowed (eight percent), or gave wedlock a whirl but are now separated or divorced (15 percent). Seventeenpercent -- mainly younger adults -- never have married.
Americans say they first had sex at an average age of 18 (17 for men, 18 for women). Seniors report an average first-time age of 19; for adults under 25, it's 16. In a difference between the sexes, half of women, compared with 37 percent of men, say that in retrospect that was too young to start. One percent say they first had sex at age 30 or later; one female respondent said it was at age 50, another at 42 and a man at 39.
Those who have sex do so with some regularity: Among those currently in a sexual relationship, 85 percent have sex about once a week or more, including 41 percent several times weekly and eight percent have sex daily. And people like it: Eighty-four percent of all women and 95 percent of men enjoy sex, although, as noted, men are much (24 points) more apt to enjoy it "a great deal."
The times clearly have changed in terms of sexual mores. Fifty-five percent of adults say homosexuality is "OK for some people"; in a 1982 Gallup poll, by contrast, just 34 percent called it an acceptable lifestyle. Sixty-one percent say premarital sex is OK -- compared with just 21 percent in a Gallup poll in 1969. Seniors are the only group in which a majority still says premarital sex is not acceptable; among young singles, by contrast, 76 percent say it's OK.
Young singles (under age 30) are less inhibited insome ways, but it isn't quite "Sex and the City" out there. Indeed, young singles have sexless frequently than people in a committed relationship (naturally -- they lack a readypartner). As noted, they're less likely to be in a sexual relationship.
Young singles are no more satisfied than couples sexually and no more likely to call theirsex lives very exciting. Instead it's married (or living-together) young adults who aremost apt to call their sex lives very satisfying and very exciting.
Young singles also are no more likely than anyone else to have had sex on a first date, or to watch sex movies. Compared to all adults, more young singles are virgins (16 percent), particularly young single women.
Sexually active young singles don't have more lifetime sex partners (they're still young);they report a median of two partners in the last year, compared with a median of one forother adults. Forty-seven percent of young singles are concerned about contracting AIDSor some other sexually transmitted disease, twice the level of concern among other adults.(Concern about AIDS and other STDs peaks, at 59 percent, among anyone who's had twoor more sex partners in the last year.)
There are other ways young singles differ: More, about four in 10, say sex without anemotional relationship is OK. And more (especially young single men) report having hadunexpected sex and outdoor sex.
Young adults more broadly, whether single or in a relationship,are more progressive sexually. They're more apt to talk with partners about their sexualfantasies; 71 percent do, compared with 45 percent of their elders. They're more likely todescribe themselves and their partners as sexually adventurous. They're more apt to lookat sexually explicit Web sites (particularly young men -- 53 percent have done so,compared with 26 percent of young women).
Attitudinally, 65 percent of young adults say homosexuality is OK for some people, and71 percent of young adults condone premarital sex (peaking, as noted, at 76 percent ofyoung singles). Seniors are least likely, by far, to agree.
Young adults (again, single and committed alike) also are more apt to have had reboundsex (33 percent, compared with 19 percent of their elders). And 16 percent have had"revenge sex," that is, "just to get back at someone else" -- double the rate among olderadults.
One thing young adults surely have is stamina: Adults 30 and older have a medianestimate of 45 minutes spent having sex, including foreplay; among those under age 30,it's a median of 60 minutes.
Older singles (age 30 and up), for their part, are much less likely to be involved in asexual relationship (29 percent) and much less satisfied with their sex lives. As notedabove, older single men are more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner; and threein 10 of them have paid for sex. Older single men report a lifetime median of 12 sexpartners (and an average of 34), the highest for any group; older single women, bycontrast, report a median of four partners (and an average of eight).
There's one other notable finding about single men: Regardless of age, 28 percent ofthem say they've had sex in a threesome, double the rate for all adults.
There also are some ways in which late middle-agers stand out: Among adults age 50 to64, 22 percent have cheated on their partner, more than in any other age group. Twenty-six percent of men in this age group have paid for sex. And most of the small group of men who report very large numbers of sex partners fall into this age category.
There is clear evidence in this survey that sex loses its spark over time. Among couples who've been together less than three years, 58 percent call their sex lives very exciting. At more than 10 years, only half as many, 29 percent, say so.
Similarly, 79 percent of new couples are "very" satisfied with their sex lives, comparedwith 52 percent of long-term couples. And 87 percent of new couples enjoy sex "a greatdeal"; among long-term couples it's 17 points lower.
Not surprisingly, frequency of sex drops as well -- at least several times a week for 72percent of new couples, but just for 32 percent of long-term couples.
Adventurousness can be a firestarter. People who call themselves adventurous sexuallyare 10 points more apt to be very satisfied with their sex lives, 20 points more apt toenjoy sex a great deal and nearly 30 points more apt to call their sex lives very exciting.They're also much more likely to have sex at least several times a week -- 62 percent ofthe adventurous do so, compared with 36 percent of sexual traditionalists.
Similarly, couples who sometimes "wear something sexy" are more likely, by 12 to 16points, to enjoy sex a great deal, to be very satisfied with it and to call it very exciting.Talking about fantasies and watching explicit videos are related to more excitement insexual relationships, but less so to satisfaction or enjoyment.
Satisfaction, in particular, matters: People who are satisfied with their sex lives areconsiderably more likely in turn to be satisfied with their overall relationship.
Specifically, among those who are very satisfied with the sex, 90 percent are also verysatisfied with their marriage or committed relationship overall. Among those who are justsomewhat satisfied with their sex lives, fewer, 71 percent, are very satisfied with theirrelationship. And among those who aren't satisfied with the sex, fewer still -- 53 percent -- are very satisfied with their marriage or partnership.
Moreover, people who aren't satisfied with their sexual relationship are by far the mostlikely to cheat on their spouse or partner. Thirty-six percent have done so.
All told, 16 percent of adults say they've strayed from a committed relationship, including 14 percent who've had sex outside of that relationship, and twopercent who've had sexual activity but not intercourse. Twenty-one percent of men saythey've cheated, as have 11 percent of women.
As noted, people who are not satisfied with their sex lives are most likely to have strayed,as are single men over 30 (that includes divorced, separated and widowed men, as well asnever-marrieds). People 50 and older in general are more likely than younger adults tohave cheated.
There's a division in motivation among cheaters: Forty-five percent (mostly men) say itwas mainly to fulfill a physical desire, while 33 percent (more apt to be women) say itwas mainly to fulfill an emotional need.
Nearly seven in 10 cheaters say they stepped out with a friend; 39 percent with someonethey just met, 37 percent with a co-worker and 15 percent with a neighbor (multipleanswers were accepted). Men and women have cheated with a friend about equally; menare more apt to have cheated with a co-worker or someone they'd just met.
Cheaters are busy: They've had an average of 29 sex partners in their lifetimes (and amedian of 12). They're more uninhibited and more permissive -- more likely to havewatched sexually explicit videos, to have paid for sex, and to have had revenge orrebound sex; and more apt to approve of premarital sex and to say it's OK to have sex without an emotional relationship (45 percent of cheaters say so, compared with 19percent of others).
In terms of their sexual adventurousness, more than two-thirds of cheaters have had sexoutdoors, three in 10 have had sex at work (more than double the overall rate), three in 10report having had sex in a threesome (twice the rate for all adults) and another quarterhave fantasized about it. Also, half of cheaters say they've had "an unexpected sexualencounter with someone new," double the rate among all adults -- suggesting that somecheating may be spontaneous rather than planned.
As the results suggest, fantasy plays a role in many Americans' sex lives. Among sexually active adults, 51 percent (men and women alike) say they talk withtheir partner about their fantasies in order to enhance their sex lives. And as noted, menare more likely to fantasize about threesomes, an unexpected sexual encounter withsomeone new, or cheating on their spouses.
Looking at pornographic Web sites likewise attracts more men. Fewer men or womenfantasize about sex outdoors (likely because so many have done it), or sex at work.
The role of fantasy in a happy sex life is not clear-cut. Discussing fantasies does lenditself to excitement: Forty-four percent of couples who talk about their fantasies call theirsex lives very exciting, compared with 28 percent of those who don't. People who discusstheir fantasies with their partner are also 10 points more apt to enjoy sex a great deal. Butthey're just six points more apt to be very satisfied with their sex life, and no more likelyto be satisfied with their marriage or committed relationship.
A regression analysis (measuring the effect of one factor by controlling for the influence of others) finds that factors related to Americans' satisfaction with their sex lives include how exciting they rate their sex lives, their frequency of sex (especially for married men), how regularly they experience orgasms, whether they're married or in a committed relationship and, only for people in a relationship, their lifetime number of sexpartners (more partners is related to less satisfaction).
Positive contributors to an "exciting" sex life include wearing something sexy, discussingfantasies, age (excitement diminishes with age), being married or in a committedrelationship, and frequency of orgasms.
On the negative side, sexual excitement declines with the duration of a marriage orcommitted relationship -- losing the spark. Nonetheless, people who are married or in acommitted relationship still are more likely to be satisfied with their sex lives than thosewho are not in such a relationship, controlling for other factors such as age and frequencyof sex.
Items missing from the list of contributors to a satisfying (rather than exciting) sex lifealso are notable; age, for example, is not a significant predictor. (That's limited of courseto people who are active sexually, which excludes most senior citizens.)
Another regression analysis finds that Americans' satisfaction with their sex lives is asignificant predictor of their satisfaction with their marriages or committed relationships.Satisfaction with family lives, and to a lesser degree with finances and social lives, alsopredict satisfaction with marriage, while satisfaction with health and work do not.
While directionality is hard to establish, it seems more plausible that satisfaction with sexfuels satisfaction with marriage than the reverse. That's because more people are verysatisfied with their marriages than are very satisfied with their sex lives. If satisfactionwith marriage drove satisfaction with sex, this gap would not exist.
A third regression finds that satisfaction with marriage is a predictor of satisfaction withlife overall, along with satisfaction with finances (the strongest predictor) and withhealth, family life and social life and work. Satisfaction with sex does not directly predictsatisfaction with life overall, but it does so indirectly through its positive influence onsatisfaction with marriage.
Religiosity guides sexual attitudes and behavior, with stark contrasts particularly between weekly churchgoers (a third of adults) and those who attend church infrequently or not at all (the "unchurched," about half).
Attitudinally, most weekly churchgoers say premarital sex and homosexuality are notacceptable; most infrequent attenders hold the opposite view. Ten percent of weeklychurchgoers say sex without an emotional attachment is acceptable; it's 36 percent amongthe unchurched.
Behaviorally, weekly churchgoers are less likely than the unchurched to watch sexuallyexplicit movies, to have had sex on a first date, to have looked at a pornographic Website, had rebound sex, had a threesome or had sex outdoors. They're less likely to saythey've cheated on a spouse. And weekly churchgoers have had half as many lifetime sexpartners (an average of eight, median three) as have the unchurched (average of 16,median seven).
At the same time, more than four in 10 weekly churchgoers discuss their sexual fantasieswith their partners to enhance their sex lives, think about sex daily, and have had sexoutdoors; and just over a third describe themselves as sexually adventurous. Weeklychurchgoers are as satisfied as the unchurched with their sex lives, and 10 points morelikely to be very satisfied with their marriage or relationship.
There are some differences by region, largely informed by religiosity -- Southerners are more apt to be weekly churchgoers. Seventy-one percent in the Northeast and two-thirds in the West say sex before marriage is OK; fewer Southerners, 54 percent, agree. Northeasterners and Westerners are more apt to call themselves adventurous sexually and to say homosexuality is OK. And when it comes to being very satisfied with their sex lives, only in the Midwest does a majority give the thumbs up.
Political ideology follows a similar pattern as religious observance -- like weekly churchgoers, conservatives are more conservative sexually, liberals less so. That makes sense, not least because conservatives are more frequent churchgoers.
Conservatives are far less likely to accept premarital sex or homosexuality, and half aslikely as liberals to say sex without an emotional attachment is OK. They're less apt tohave had rebound sex, to call themselves sexually adventurous, to watch sexually explicitmovies, to discuss their fantasies, to have had sex outdoors, to have had sex on a first dateor to have visited a porn site. At the same time, conservatives are slightly more likelythan others to be very satisfied with their relationship and sex lives. Liberals, for theirpart, are more apt to be sexually adventurous.
In a presidential election year, it's tough not to look at political groups, even thoughdifferences here likely are standing in for other factors, such as sex, age, marital statusand religiosity. With that proviso, Republicans are around 10 points more likely thanDemocrats to think about sex daily, to be very satisfied with their marriages and sex livesand to wear something sexy to spice things up; and less likely to say they've cheated.In a more directly political context, Republicans are less apt to say premarital sex is OK,and 20 points less likely to say homosexuality is OK for some people.
There's a trove of other data in this survey. One result debunks the notion that parents of young children have sex less often; in fact the opposite is so, probably because parents of young kids are themselves young, and sexually active young adults have sex more often.
"Blondes have more fun" also goes the way of myth, at least sexually speaking: Blondesare no more apt than others to express satisfaction or excitement with their sex lives.Indeed blondes are a little less likely than other women to always have an orgasm, and alittle more likely to have faked it.
Americans say they're more likely to have sex late at night (44 percent) than any othertime of day. Three-quarters have no preference as to weekend or weekday sex, while 22percent do say they're more apt to have sex on weekends. ("Twice on Sundays," onerespondent quipped.)
About a fifth of adults, 22 percent, sleep in the nude. As noted, men are more than twiceas apt as women to do so. People who are less inhibited generally also are more apt to sleep in the buff, including those (disproportionately men) who describe themselves assexually adventurous, who've had more than 10 sex partners in their lives, who've hadsex on a first date, who fantasize and who call their sex lives very exciting.
Asked their sexual orientation, five percent describe themselves as either homosexual orbisexual. As noted, there's a broad difference among groups on whether homosexuality is"OK for some people." Overall 55 percent say it is, including 65 percent of young adults(and 70 percent of young singles), compared with 40 percent of seniors.
Finally, a sex survey can't be complete without a mention of Viagra and similar drugs.Six percent of sexually active Americans say they or their partner take such medications,with its use rising sharply after age 50. Among men 50 and over, 17 percent -- one in six-- get a little help.
This ABC News "Primetime Live" survey was conducted by telephone, by female interviewers only, Aug. 2-9, 2004, among a random national sample of 1,501 adults. The results have a 2.5-point error margin for all respondents; as in any poll, sampling error is higher for subgroups. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
This survey was conducted in one-on-one telephone interviews with a representative sample of adult Americans who agreed to participate in a study of sexual attitudes and behavior. From the point initial respondents were informed of the subject matter, 92 percent went on to complete the entire questionnaire. The demographic composition of the sample closely matches that of ABC News surveys on other subjects, and the data reflect a high level of consistency across questions, and also with previous research.
The poll was conducted after a review of previous surveys, scientific and non-scientific, on sexual attitudes and behaviors. Many of the questions cover areas rarely if ever examined in national random-sample survey research. Some of the best-known surveys on sex -- the Kinsey (1948 and 1953), Masters & Johnson (1966) and Hite (1976) reports -- were not based on representative, random samples of the adult population.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.