WASHINGTON -- The sex lives of most Americans are nothing like the sexually charged culture in which we live, according to a new study from university researchers.
The 700-page study, "The Social Organization of Sexuality," is believed to be the most authoritative overview ever of sexual practices in the United States.
Based on interviews with 3,400 Americans, the study released ++ yesterday concludes that people have fewer sexual encounters, fewer partners and less exotic sex than reported in past surveys and in the mass media. Most people have sex about once a week on average, and a third of adults have sex only a few times a year or not at all.
But if much of the sex is unexceptional, there are some surprises in the research -- and clues to the causes of sexual friction in society.
While most of the men interviewed for the study said they thought about sex several times each day, most women said they didn't. And while 43 percent of heterosexual men believed that their partner always had an orgasm during sex, only 29 percent of women report always having an orgasm.
Experts predicted that the study, by researchers at the University of Chicago and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, would be a powerful tool for dealing with social, political and health problems related to sex.
The authors are sure to spark controversy with their relatively low estimate of the number of men and women who describe themselves as homosexuals or bisexuals and with their conclusion that the conservative sexual habits of most Americans minimize the danger of a heterosexual AIDS epidemic.
Even more controversial is their suggestion that the incidence of AIDS in the homosexual community may actually decline because of increasingly conservative patterns of sexual conduct among gays and lesbians.
"This is going to be landmark data," said Debra Haffner of the New York-based Sex Information and Education Council of the United States.
Among the findings from the study, which will be available in bookstores Monday:
* More than 80 percent of Americans had only one sex partner or no partner in the past year. Of those who had only one sex partner in the past year, 63 percent reported that they were "extremely or very happy" emotionally -- a satisfaction level 20 percent higher than that of people who reported having two or more partners.
"Americans are sexual in ordinary, mundane and routine ways," said Edward Laumann, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and one of the authors of the study.
* The median number of sexual partners over a lifetime for American men is six. Women have two.
* Seventy-five percent of married men and 85 percent of married women say that they have remained faithful to their spouses.
* Eighty-three percent of men and 77 percent of women find vaginal intercourse the most appealing sexual act, and they include it in almost every sexual encounter. Oral sex occurs only in a minority of sexual encounters.
* Five percent of men report having had a sexual encounter with another man as an adult, while 2.8 percent say they are either homosexual or bisexual. Four percent of women report having had a sexual encounter with another woman, with 1.5 percent describing themselves as homosexual or bisexual.
* Seventy-two percent of women who had abortions had only one, a strong indication that abortion isn't being used as an alternative to birth control, Mr. Laumann said. Also, about 10 percent of women report conception ending in abortion, close to the 13 percent of miscarriages reported.
* More than 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women masturbate. Among those who masturbate, 54 percent of men and 47 percent of women feel guilty afterward.
While the study paints a relatively subdued picture of American promiscuity, it does show serious communication gaps in the way women and men view sexual relationships.
While 50 percent of men reported that their first sexual encounter was out of curiosity, 48 percent of women reported that they had sex for the first time because of affection for their partner. Only 25 percent of men said they did it because of affection for their mate.
Robert Michael, one of the Chicago researchers, sees the seven-year study as an information source for everyone from those crafting health care policy, to parents explaining the birds and the bees to their children, to sex therapists and counselors.
By sketching a wide picture of America's bedrooms, researchers are hoping to better predict the segments of the population where AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases may spread.
The findings suggest that AIDS and HIV are found primarily in the homosexual and intravenous drug-using communities and "unlikely to become an epidemic in the general population," Mr. Michael said.
Sex therapists and counselors see the new data as a tool to educate and help people with sexual dysfunctions.
Not since Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s has anyone attempted to answer so broadly the question of what Americans are doing in their bedrooms.
Even Mr. Kinsey's data is seriously flawed because of his antiquated methods of sampling the population, said Susan Tew, a spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, broadly recognized as the pre-eminent national center for sexual research.
The study was conducted from February to September 1992 and produced from lengthy interviews with 3,432 Americans ages 18 to 59. It offers significant insight into American sexuality, but the researchers who produced it are hoping for much more.
National survey sought
They want to persuade government or private agencies to overcome long-standing prudishness and contribute the $20 million that would be needed to produce a comprehensive national sexual survey involving 40,000 interviews.
But even with its relatively limited number of participants, the study provides some of the most accurate statistics to date, researchers say. The margin of error for most data is 5 percentage points or less.
While the possibility of lying always exists when sensitive topics are examined, researchers believe the respondents were telling the truth about their sexual practices during the 90-minute interview sessions. By allowing respondents to answer sensitive questions on a confidential questionnaire, and explaining the significance of the study, researchers believe more than 90 percent of the answers were truthful.