sells a second time
Edward O. Laumann and Robert T. Michael published The Social
Organization of Sexuality (Chicago) in 1994, they conducted
about 100 interviews with the media. But they still weren't done
talking about sex. As soon as their latest book, Sex, Love,
and Health in America: Private Choices and Public Policies
(Chicago), hit bookstores in January, the media came calling again.
It's a familiar routine for the professorial pair. Both
books use material from the 1992 National Health and Social Life
Survey (NHSLS), the first comprehensive study of American sexuality
based on a random sampling of the population. Their first book
surprised the public with seemingly conservative findings, such
as married people having more and better sex than singles.
Sex, Love, and Health in America, co-editors Laumann and
Michael explore the data in greater depth, turning up still more
surprises, few of which are especially kinky. "People walk
around with all kinds of claims [about sex] that are just not
true, or they don't take into account all the factors that are
involved," says Laumann, the George H. Mead distinguished
service professor and chair of sociology. "This book is an
objective description, as much as we can make it." The book,
to which current and former U of C graduate students contributed
several chapters, makes a number of key points:
49 percent of men and 54 percent of women are "comfortable
monogamists," who have partnered sex less than once a
week, seldom masturbate, and do not seek unconventional stimulation.
One in six Americans reports having a pregnancy or causing
a pregnancy that ended in abortion. First pregnancies, especially
in the teen years, and late pregnancies, especially among
women in their late 30s or older, are most likely to be aborted.
in eight women and one in 16 men had a childhood sexual experience
with an adult, defined as "any genital fondling or oral,
vaginal, or anal sex before age 14 with a partner who was
at least four years older than the respondent and no younger
than age 14." People with such experiences exhibited
more interest in sexual activity and had more sexual partners
as adolescents and adults.
one in six Americans contracts a sexually transmitted disease
(STD) during his or her lifetime.
such findings make some people blush and others leer, the researchers
have been pleased by the attention-and respect-paid to their work
by the press and the public. "I've never had a bad question,"
says Michael, the Hastings Moore distinguished service professor
and dean of the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy
Studies. "I just am really proud of the America I've run
respectful coverage matters, because he and Laumann want their
research to reach both individuals and policy makers so that people
can make decisions based on facts, not suppositions. Often, their
work contradicts popular wisdom. For instance, Laumann's analysis
suggests that child-adult sexual contact does not always have
long-term negative effects on children. In fact, he says, about
80 percent of these children don't suffer any qualitative decline
in their sexuality or quality of life as adults. "People,"
he says, "are quite resilient."
authors take a life-course perspective on such findings, and Laumann
posits that the long-term effects of early sexual experience are
cumulative and that interventions at key turning points-postponing
intercourse until after age 15, for example-prevent adverse outcomes
such as STDs and sexual dysfunction.
surprise finding is that white people tend to have viral STDs,
while African Americans have bacterial STDs. The reason, Laumann
found, is that once an STD is "seeded," it tends to
be passed around among members of a core group who have more sexual
partners and engage in more sexual activity than the rest of the
population. White and African-American core groups are almost
course, sex and politics have always gone hand in hand. Michael
recognizes that the book's statistics may be used to create and
revise public policy in areas such as abortion laws. The research
shows that 75 percent of all abortions are American women's first,
indicating that women do not use abortion as birth control. It
also shows that well-educated, well-off young women are more likely
to have abortions than poor teens. "Depending on your passion,"
says Michael, referring to the politicians and other leaders who
determine abortion legislation, "knowing how folks use abortion
when it is legal is important to helping you achieve your end."
this book, the two researchers say they've finished mining the
NHSLS data as it currently stands. Michael is now studying adolescent
behavior in general, while Laumann has organized human sexuality
studies in both China and Chicago, where he has added health care,
jealousy, and violence to the mix of issues.
Laumann and Michael would like to update the decade-old NHSLS
data, Michael says that potential funders seem less interested
in learning more about the public's sex habits now that the specter
of AIDS looms less alarmingly in the U.S. Still, Laumann and Michael
say the environment for serious sexual research has improved:
their success in obtaining a national random sampling countered
academics' doubts about people's willingness to discuss sex with
strangers, while the survey's relatively conservative results
soothed the politicians who nixed funding for the NHSLS a decade
ago. (Ultimately, several private foundations supported the survey.)
aren't as uptight about sex as their politicians and their funders,"
Michael says. "That's good news."-Kimberly