Pretzel nation: Many combinations of sex

By Brian Alexander
|  Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010  |  Updated 4:00 PM EDT
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Americans are often portrayed as being bland sexual mopes, compared to say, the French. But according to a new study, we actually routinelychoose from more spicy combinations than you can find on a Mexican take-out menu. The researchers who conducted the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior even came up with a number: 41.

We don’t necessarily indulge in all 41 possible combinations in every episode — who has the time? — but many of us, the survey says, do a bit of this and a fair amount of that, including stuff our mothers and our priests and a few politicians (yes, you, Ms. Christine O’Donnell ) tell us we should never, ever do. In fact, the panel of researchers told a conference call with reporters, the number is no doubt higher than 41, but the survey did not ask, for example, about use of sex toys and porn.

The study, of 5,865 people between the ages of 14 and 94, focused on five sex acts: penile-vaginal intercourse, solo masturbation, partnered masturbation, oral sex and anal sex.

True, the most common menu at the last sexual encounter among both men and women was limited to one sex act: 32.9 percent of men and 39 percent of women aged 18-59 only engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse. But over 6 percent of men aged 25-29 used all five techniques the last time they had sex. About 16 percent of women 18-24 used four as did about 8 percent of women aged 50-59. And remember, that was just the last time, which could include quickies before leaving for work, not necessarily what they like to do when they’re really swinging for the fences. 

Story: New survey reveals our steamy secrets

What Americans are doing, and how we are doing it, matters because our sex lives have changed even over the past 20 years. Those changes should influence social health, sex education, and public information campaigns. This evolution also points out the crying need for government and academic bodies to fund such studies  -- not businesses, no matter how well intentioned, with an interest in the results. The new sex survey was done by researchers at Indiana University and paid for by Church & Dwight, manufacturer of Trojan condoms.

Sadly, researchers often have little choice but to turn to corporate money. A generation ago, in 1988, sociologists from the University of Chicago, led by Edward O. Laumann, designed a massive study called the National Health and Social Life Survey. They thought they had funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct it. But, as the researchers later wrote, even a heavily edited survey “that focused more narrowly on disease pathways was never given approval throughout the four years of the [George H.W.] Bush administration.” In fact, despite widespread worry over AIDS, a skittish Congress passed a law expressly forbidding funding the study.

Can you imagine the stink if the NIH paid for this new study, which asked kids about their sex lives?  

To some, ignorance is bliss. That's all the better to maintain the image of this country as a land of heterosexual married couples locked in a missionary embrace. The Laumann study helped put the lie to that view and this new survey shows we’ve expanded our menus even further.

Oral sex is now universal, the new study showed. Eighty-eight percent of men aged 30-39 have performed oral sex on a woman. Almost 69 percent did it in the past year. Eighteen percent of boys aged 16-17 have given a girl oral sex in the past year. More than 10 percent of men in three age groups have given oral sex to another man.

The Laumann study found that about 12 percent of women aged 25-29 had experienced anal sex in the previous year. Now it’s doubled. The new study found that 21 percent of women in that age group had anal sex in the last year. By the time girls are 19, the new study shows, 20 percent have had anal sex at least once.

Great pleasure, great responsibility
There is a strong incentive to add different acts to one encounter. For many women, more is better. Women reported they were much more likely to have an orgasm if their partners used more than one technique; 54 percent of women reported having an orgasm the last time they had sex when they engaged only in one act, but 89 percent of women who performed five sex acts during their last encounter had an orgasm. (Most men, just so you know, can pretty much have an orgasm any way.)

All this can be fun, of course, but as our repertoire has expanded, we’ve created more disease pathways. HPV, the cause of cervical cancer and genital warts, can be transmitted to the anus and mouth. In fact, the rise in oral sex corresponds with a rise in the rate of oropharyngeal cancer. Infection goes the other way, too. There are more cases of genitals being infected with herpes type 1, the cold sore type. There is also a rise in the rate of anal cancers which can also be caused by HPV.

But nobody talks much about any of these (where was the discussion of possible anal cancer causes when Farah Fawcett was dying?), except perhaps those who think we have no business expanding our sexual menus in the first place. Anybody who thinks we’ll be going back, though, will be  disappointed. Rather, studies like this one prove we must adjust health messages to fit our practices, like encouraging adoption of the HPV vaccine, and making sure everyone, in all age groups, gets the message that with great pleasure comes great responsibility.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

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