How Do Americans Have Sex?

When modern sex research began after World War II, many thought that “normal” sex was limited to married heterosexual vaginal intercourse—with everything else suspect or “perverted.” But over the past 70 years, as researchers have delved even deeper into sexuality, they’ve discovered that the loving, successful and mentally healthy population actually exhibits tremendous sexual diversity. Our sexuality is as unique as our fingerprints. No two people are erotically identical. Some sexual positions are more popular than others, but many practices once considered fringe turn out to be surprisingly widespread.

how do americans have sex

As a result, we should be very careful about labeling anything “deviant.” Deviance implies a significant departure from “normal,” which doesn’t exist. 

The Sexual Fringe Includes Most Americans

Today, what passes for “conventional” lovemaking involves adult heterosexual kissing, cuddling, and vaginal intercourse, with maybe some oral. But most Americans have played in other ways:

  • Among Americans age 14–94, 94% of men and 85% of women admit having masturbated at least once, and three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women admit having done so during the previous year. The real figures are undoubtedly higher. Masturbation continues to be stigmatized and mocked, so many people don’t admit to it.
  • More than half of American women own at least one vibrator.
  • Most Americans lose their virginity during their late teens, now most typically around age 17 (a year or two later than today’s grandparents did). 
  • Premarital sex has become almost universal. On their wedding nights, 95% of Americans are not virgins.
  • Since Kinsey’s studies in the late 1940s, credible estimates of heterosexual Americans’ lifetime infidelity have been all over the map—for men, 12–72%, and for women, 7–54%. The most comprehensive estimate comes from the University of Wisconsin investigators, who analyzed 500 studies published over 64 years (1943 to 2007). Their estimates for at least one episode of infidelity: 25% of married men and 15% of married women.
  • At some point in life, 15–20% of American men patronize sex workers.
  • Eleven percent of Americans, some 30 million people, are not exclusively heterosexual.
  • By age 50, 40% of Americans have experimented with oral-anal sex (analingus), sphincter massage, fingering, toy insertions, or penis-anus intercourse.
  • Many elderly lovers can’t accomplish intercourse and instead play with hand massage, oral, toys, and perhaps some kink.
  • Approximately 20% of American adults have engaged in consensual non-monogamy: polyamory, threesomes, swinging, and group sex. 
  • Kinky sex is more popular than many believe. Indiana University researchers surveyed 2,021 American adults and discovered that many enjoyed elements of BDSM: spanking (30%), dominant/submissive role-playing (22%), restraint (20%), and whipping/flogging (13%) (Chapter 41). The investigators also found that 43% had played sexually in public.
  • In fantasy, unconventional sex is even more popular. The number one erotic fantasy is sex with someone other than one’s regular partner. More than half of Americans admit fantasies involving BDSM. Depending on the study, one-third to two-thirds of women admit to fantasies of being sexually forced, with rape fantasies most prevalent among those who feel most comfortable with themselves and their sexuality. In some studies, 60% of adults dream at least occasionally about kinky sex. In fantasy, everything is permitted. Nothing is wrong. And the sky’s the limit (as long as you can distinguish between fantasy and reality).

As education increases, Americans tend to be more amenable to sexual experimentation. And compared with religious fundamentalists, religious liberals and those who profess no religious affiliation also tend to be more willing to try sex that’s considered fringe. 

But the demographics of sex obscure a greater truth. Anyone can be into anything. Most social conservatives oppose premarital sex, but most acted differently. Conservatives decry abortion, homosexuality, non-monogamy and school sex education, but plenty of conservatives enjoy anal play, sex toys, homosexual play, BDSM, threesomes and swinging. There’s even an evangelical swing group in Phoenix, Arizona, called Liberated Christians.

If sociologists know your zip code, education, occupation, religion and income, they can predict with reasonable accuracy your politics, shopping habits, travel destinations and taste in books, TV and movies. But they would know little or nothing about your sexuality. Anybody can be into anything.