The New Truth About Sex In America

How, when, and why couples hop into bed has changed radically over the years in the U.S. Here are the new norms — and how to navigate them.

By Judy Dutton

ex may be as old as the hills, but that doesn't mean our mating behavior has remained constant over the years. A slew of recent studies suggest that the sexual landscape has changed, and if you want to survive and thrive in this new world, you'd better know what's going on between the sheets. Consider this your cheat sheet on when, how, and why singles are hopping into bed today.

There are many reasons to have sex — 237, to be exact
While we often assume that people have sex for fairly simple and straightforward reasons — because it feels good, because they're in love, etc. — Cindy
Sex enters the picture far faster than it did in the past.
Meston and David Buss, two professors at the University of Texas at Austin, decided to delve deeper by asking hundreds of men and women what's motivated them to strip down and get physical. In the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior they tallied an eye-popping total of 237 reasons why humans have sex. These reasons ranged from the mundane ("It seemed like good exercise," "I was bored") to the outrageous ("Someone dared me," "the person was famous"). Some motives were merciful ("I wanted to make the person feel better about herself/himself"), premeditated ("I wanted to get a special favor from someone"), and even religious ("I wanted to feel closer to God"). The upshot of this list is, never assume you know someone's motives for having sex with you unless you ask.

We're having sex sooner
Sex enters the picture far faster than it did in the past, says Mark Regnerus, sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying. According to his survey of over 7,000 respondents aged 18-23, 36 percent of men say they have sex within two weeks of meeting a woman, with 13 percent saying they have sex in 2-4 weeks and 21 percent in 1-5 months. (Women's numbers are similar but slightly more conservative — most likely because they define how long they "know" someone differently than men do, says Regnerus.)

Dating is no longer required
According to a survey of over 4,000 college students conducted by Paula England at New York University, the "hookup" has replaced the traditional date among young people and become the new social norm. A hookup means "a situation where two people are hanging out or run into each other at an event — often a party — and they end up doing something sexual," explains England in her study. "A hookup carries no expectation that either party has an interest in moving toward a relationship, although in some cases such an interest is present either before or after the hookup." Hookups may be most common in college, but they carry over into the post-college dating world as well. England also found that it is not uncommon for people to hook up with the same person more than once. When the study's respondents were asked about their most recent experiences, about half of hookups reported were for the first time with a particular person, with 11 percent being second hookups, 8 percent third, 6 percent fourth, and 16 percent ten or more times with the same individual — making the phenomenon a regular hookup, which is often called "friends with benefits." Women are more likely to prefer friends-with-benefits arrangements, with men preferring more straightforward, no-strings-attached casual sex encounters. That said, according to Regnerus's data, very few friends-with-benefits relationships survive for one year, with such relationships representing just over one percent of all sexual relationships among young adults.

"Reds" and "blues" bloom at different rates
According to Regnerus's research, politically conservative "red" respondents tend to experiment sexually from age 16-22 but start thinking of settling down with a long-term partner by their
The double standard in sex is real and quite durable.
mid-twenties. (Reds are also quicker to marry, bear children, and divorce.) The more liberal "blue" respondents, however, don't start experimenting sexually until they hit college, then they continue dabbling throughout their twenties, holding off on lifelong commitments (like marriage and kids) until their early thirties. The reason for this difference is that with reds, "you're on a track toward marriage, and sex has to serve that," says Regnerus, adding that "The blues are more ambivalent" about marriage — although most end up marrying anyway.

The sex we're having isn't that racy
"The salacious stuff makes the news, but it's not as common as people think," says Regnerus. By far, the majority of reported sex acts happen one-on-one, are heterosexual in nature, and involve plain old intercourse, without too many wild 'n crazy trimmings. Fifty-eight percent of men say they enjoy giving oral sex to their partner, but only 38 percent of women feel the same way about going down on their boyfriends. Only 15 percent of women enjoy anal sex.

Sexual frequency declines pretty fast amongst couples
The Kinsey Institute's research shows that 67 percent of couples who've been together less than a year have sex at least seven times per month. But once the relationship stretches from one to three years, less than half of couples can boast that frequency, and only one third can after three years. "The decline of sexual frequency is felt premaritally, producing the standard complaint of 'we never have sex anymore' much earlier than for partners who began having sex closer to — or after — marrying," Regnerus explains. And this lull in their libidos can make both partners wonder: Is something wrong? It's "why so many relationships fail before reaching a greater level of commitment," Regnerus explains. "There's little mystery — as Naomi Wolf points out — and the relationships 'age' rapidly." So if your own relationship's sexual frequency is waning, don't worry. It's entirely normal, and not necessarily a sign that your romance is doomed.

The double standard still exists
While many sexual mores have loosened up, the double standard — which discourages women from sleeping around — remains alive and well. It may not be fair, but it's a fact of life. "To call the sexual double standard wrong is a little like asserting that rainy days are wrong," points out Regnerus. "We may not like them, but they're not going away. The double standard in sex is real and quite durable." There's only one way women can fight it, and that's to pursue no-strings-attached sex like men. "Plenty attempt this, but only a minority can sustain it," says Regnerus. "Women may enjoy sex as much as men do, but on average, they don't pursue it as often or for the same reasons." Not that this is an excuse for men to sleep around non-stop. "Men live up to — or down to — the expectations placed upon them," Regnerus maintains. In other words, women who accept nothing less than model boyfriend behavior will most likely get it.

Judy Dutton ( is the author of Secrets from the Sex Lab and Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch…and What It Takes to Win.
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