How's Your Love Life?

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

This just in, from a global study on sexual well-being released last month: More than half of Americans are unhappy with their sex lives.

Or are they? Last year, another international survey reported that more than two out of three are quite satisfied.

So it goes in the relatively new world of research on sexual satisfaction. For all that we know now about the problems associated with sex -- HIV/AIDS, erectile dysfunction and unwanted pregnancies, to name three -- we understand very little about how sex contributes to our quality of life.

What is the connection between sex and emotions? How important is sex to happiness? Sixty years after Indiana University professor Alfred Kinsey made sexuality a topic for serious study, we are still groping in the dark when it comes to how much we enjoy it.

There are reasons for this.

Religious leaders who founded this country viewed sex primarily as a means of procreation, not pleasure, and wanted it confined it to marriage -- the latter belief still championed in some quarters.

The medical establishment also is responsible, according to Edward Laumann, a University of Chicago sociologist well-known in the sex research field. Doctors generally don't ask sexual health questions, and medical schools don't teach students how to take a sexual history, he says. Sex comes up only when it presents itself as a disease or disorder. Public schools are also constrained in what they teach.

There is also the question of who will pay for such research. Sex sells everything from fancy cars to rock stars, but the federal government has never been keen to spend tax dollars on figuring out its appeal. And when nonprofit foundations ante up, it's often to learn more about contraception and STDs.

The truth is, Americans want to know about the pleasures of sex but then again, they don't. We're like children who are told to cover our eyes while Aunt Sally pulls out the birthday presents she has brought for us: We comply, but sneak a guilty peek through our fingers -- frequently at reports sponsored by commercial interests that want everyone to have sex and lots of it.

Take, for example, the finding that 52 percent of Americans 16 and older are not fully satisfied with their sex lives. It comes from a survey of 26,000 people, ages 16 and older, in 26 countries by Harris Interactive, a reputable polling firm. The survey was sponsored by Durex, a manufacturer of condoms, lubricants and sex toys, which hired scientists to go over the results and then published the findings.

"The survey . . . helps us to understand what people want from a better sexual experience," says Stephen Mare, a Durex brand manager. "We also have a responsibility to communicate the safer-sex message and encourage discussion about sexual health and effective sex education."

Last year's more optimistic report on sexual well-being, based on the responses of 27,000 people, ages 40 to 80, in 29 countries, was headed by Laumann. His financial backer? Pfizer, which makes the virility drug Viagra. (Laumann says he and his co-authors directed and interpreted the research without input from Pfizer, something that cannot be said about the Durex report.)

"There's a gap between how much the public wants to know and how much society is willing to put its money where its mouth is," says Erick Janssen, director of education and research training at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

"We're all curious and have questions, but what we hear in the media and what we talk about is often not based on solid science."

It's worth a peek from time to time, however, at what the surveys say:

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· According to Durex, Americans aren't having that much sex, compared with residents in the 25 other countries. The global average was 103 times a year, compared with Americans' 85 times.

Greeks had the most sex -- 164 times a year -- followed by Brazilians with 145 times. Only the Japanese, people in Hong Kong and Nigerians had less sex than Americans.

Laumann is somewhat skeptical about such figures; surveys like Durex's almost always overestimate sexual activity, he says. Laumann's work shows consistent, and lower, frequency rates worldwide except in East Asia, where they are even lower.

* * *

· Men around the world are more satisfied with sex than women are, Laumann's study of middle-aged and older people concluded. Women 40 and older are less satisfied across all socioeconomic groups -- a particularly interesting finding, Laumann says, because women usually report more positive emotions than men do.

Women may not be bothered by this, Laumann cautions, because they're not as interested in sex as men are unless they're in a relationship. Then they're very interested.

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· In both surveys, the stronger the emotional connection, the better the sex. This is true from the beginning of a relationship for women, and increasingly true for men as a relationship continues.

One mark of a good relationship is the degree to which sexual partners work to please each other in bed, Laumann says. But it is also more than that: In a similar survey Laumann and others did in China -- where people are not, in general, very satisfied with their sex lives -- women reported more orgasms if their male partners were "considerate and affectionate" in daily life.

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· This need to feel cared for may help explain one Durex result: People ages 16 to 24, many of whom lead busy, even frenetic lives, were more likely than their older counterparts to say they'd like more time alone with their partners, as well as more romance and tenderness.

Virtually every scientist who has sought major money for sex research has a story or two to tell, particularly if he or she solicited federal health agencies.

Laumann remembers the first time he was invited to apply for funds by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He decided to call his proposal "Social and Behavioral Aspects of Fertility-Related Behavior"; the word "sex" did not appear in the first three pages. He got funded.

Reservations about exploring sexual well-being in particular are strong, but that is going to have to change, Laumann says, because behaviors are changing.

The age of first intercourse has declined, and the age of first marriage is increasing; thus, young Americans will be having sex for more years outside marriage than in the past. Also, older Americans are living longer, and drugs are enhancing their sexual function.

Sex isn't important for everyone or for everyone all the time. But for those who consider it significant, there's a lot to consider. Janssen at Indiana says research is not likely to improve a lot -- nor will it attract impartial funders -- until decision-makers are convinced that sexual satisfaction is about more than an orgasm count.

"We need to know more about how sexual satisfaction affects your productivity, your ability to love someone else and just generally function in life," he says. ·

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