More than half of women--and some 40 percent of men -- in the metropolitan area would be willing to trade "the act" for cuddling and tender treatment, according to a Washington Post public opinion poll of their views on sex.

In general, the poll suggests that all adults, 18 years and older, are about evenly divided on this question -- contrary to the results of the celebrated survey by Ann Landers, which hinted at a strong polarization between the sexes. Moreover, these trends seem to hold up across the board. A large proportion of men and women -- though not always the majority -- favor close, tender contact over intercourse regardless of age, marital status, sexual satisfaction and amount of communication between partners.

These results "certainly underscore our great hunger for intimacy which is unfulfilled," says Dr. Helen S. Kaplan, a sex researcher and therapist in New York. "Sex is such an urgent hunger that it demands to be fulfilled. Intimacy is a slower hunger, so we neglect it, but it catches up with us.

"We are so busy with everything else that we don't have time for intimacy. Yet intimacy is a wonderful buffer against stressors of the outside world. There's nothing as good as being very quiet and being held by the one that you love."

The telephone poll surveyed 1,048 adults residing in the District, Maryland and Virginia, who were interviewed from Jan. 23 through 27. Forty-eight percent of those interviewed were men, 52 percent women. The poll has a theoretical margin of error of about 3 percentage points.

Based on the results of this poll, women are more likely than men in all situations to favor intimacy and closeness over intercourse. Even as women age, the poll suggests, they remain consistent in their willingness to be satisfied with cuddling. About six out of 10 women in all three age groups said they would be content to forgo intercourse. Four out of 10 would not.

For men, the differences in age groups are more striking. Half of younger men -- those 18 to 34 -- choose cuddling over intercourse. These men may "be more aware, more able to admit their needs," says Singer. Only 38 percent of men 35 to 54 would make that decision. And fewer than 34 percent of males 55 and older would settle for cuddling.

But when the question was changed and people were asked about their preferences with a hypothetical "ideal sexual partner," the responses changed significantly for both men and women. Only about 42 percent of all adults would prefer cuddling in that case. The rest would prefer intercourse.

The biggest shifts are for middle-aged women and younger men. Women aged 34 to 55 think an ideal sexual partner would make a big difference in what they want. Under those circumstances, almost six out of 10 would favor intercourse over cuddling, the exact opposite of what these women say they want in their current lives. But give younger women their ideal partner, and their preference for intercourse decreases slightly. Half of these women would still choose tender contact without intercourse.

Younger men, on the other hand, think that an ideal sexual partner would make a difference: Almost two thirds would want sex over cuddling, compared with only about half under present conditions. But among men 35 and older, roughly two thirds prefer intercourse regardless of the sexual partner.

As both communication about sex and satisfaction with one's sexual partner increases, people are slightly more likely to prefer "the act" over cuddling. Yet 44 percent of those interviewed in the poll who said they were "very satisfied" with their sexual partners would still opt for tenderness and cuddling rather than intercourse.

Extrapolated to the population as a whole, almost half a million people in the metropolitan area who report being very satisfied with their sexual partners would still be content to forget about the act.

Why do so many people prefer cuddling to intercourse? "We breed sexual pleasure out of people if we can," says John Money, a psychologist, who heads the psycho-hormonal research unit at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. "I think that is what these people are telling you."

Society sends subtle but very clear messages that intercourse is a "below-the-belt" act, Money says. Take the titillating sex often depicted on television. Kissing, hugging and close contact are all clearly shown, Money says, but when it comes to "the act," the scene fades, leaving the impression that "sex below the belt is filthy."

Other sex researchers suggest that the poll results may be a function of the way the questions were posed. The more important question, says Syracuse University psychologist Clive Davis, is: "What would you really prefer, cuddling, 'the act' or both?" To test that theory, Davis and his students recently conducted a random survey of 500 adults 21 and older in the Syracuse area.

"The vast majority of men and women chose the 'both' option," reports Davis, who is president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. "Very, very few would want to give up one or the other."

The real key to answering this question is research, says June Machover Reinisch, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. "Nobody has good data on any of these questions," she says. "There has not been a national, random interview survey done ever. We all work from biased samples. There's a great need for a real national study of Americans."