Sex Ed

What Are Americans Doing Beneath The Sheets These Days?

November 28, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

Although “sex” is a small word, it has quite a big meaning. Sexual behavior comprises a wide range of activities, and there is huge variation in the activities people practice and enjoy. In this post, I thought it would be worth taking a quick peek beneath the sheets to see what Americans today are actually doing in bed and how sexual behaviors differ across certain groups. In order to accomplish this, we will consider some of the key findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) [1].

The NSSHB was the largest nationally representative sex survey ever conducted in the United States. This study included 5,865 participants aged 14 to 94 of varying races, genders, and sexualities. All of the data were collected online, and the first results were published in 2010 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. In the table below, you can see a brief sampling of some of the findings. Specifically, this table features the percentage of adults who reported engaging in various sexual behaviors in the past years across selected age and gender groups.1 Please note that for age, I am only presenting four groups roughly corresponding to college age (18-19), youngish adult (30-39), middle age (50-59), and older adulthood (70+) so that you can get a glimpse of how certain behaviors change as we age.


A few things stand out from this table. First, masturbation is very common for both men and women across all ages; however, and perhaps not surprisingly, more men indicate having masturbated recently than women. This has been a consistent finding over the years, although the number of male and female masturbators today is higher than it has been in past national surveys [2]. Second, most adults under age 50 report practicing some form of oral sex, a trend that has increased significantly in the past few decades. For comparison purposes, a nationally representative sex survey from the 1990s found that only about a quarter of men and a fifth of women reported having oral sex in the past year [2]. Finally, these results indicate that although anal sex is the least common of the sexual activities assessed, it is certainly not a rare practice and it seems to be becoming more and more popular, particularly among adults under age 50. For instance, in the 1990s, only one in ten adults reported practicing anal sex, but in the NSSHB, the numbers were closer to one in four or one in five among adults in their 20s and 30s.

As you can see from these results, “sex” does not mean just one thing in modern America. Sex consists of a diverse set of practices that vary across gender and age, and the way that people experience sex is constantly changing.

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[1] Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Schick, V., Sanders, S. A., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2010). Sexual behavior in the United States: Results from a national probability sample of men and women ages 14-94. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(Suppl. 5), 255-265. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.02012.x

[2] Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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