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Sex sells a second time

PHOTO:  Edward O. Laumann (seated) and Robert T. Michael (right).When 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.

In 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:

  • About 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.

  • One 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.

  • About one in six Americans contracts a sexually transmitted disease (STD) during his or her lifetime.

While 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 into."

The 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."

The 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.

Another 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 totally segregated.

Of 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."

With 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.

While 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.)

"People aren't as uptight about sex as their politicians and their funders," Michael says. "That's good news."-Kimberly Sweet


  APRIL 2001

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