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More Highlights from the National Sex Survey (and Some Surprising Statistics on Anal Intercourse)

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | October 12, 2010 | Comments ()


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The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior I mentioned in my last column has been out for a week now and journalists and bloggers have had more time to read the individual papers and pull out detail the various aspects they find most appealing (Saletan over at Slate is particularly fascinated with the anal angle). I've had some time to look at the study more in depth myself and so this week I've decided to give you more details from the 8th paper from the report, which details the types of sexual activities (manual, oral, vaginal, and anal), substance use, arousal, pleasure, and pain levels, and experience of orgasm in the last sexual encounter of the survey respondents (in this case, a subset of 3,990 men and women ranging from age 18 to 59).

The researchers looked at the impact of age and relationship status on the quality of sexual experiences as well as the types of sexual activity that correlated with orgasm. Not surprisingly, they found that older men had more difficulty maintaining erections and experienced more pain during sexual activity. On the other hand, while older women were more likely to have difficulties with lubrication, they were also more likely to have an orgasm. Contrary to popular theories about men needing variety and women needing stability, men reported higher levels of arousal, less pain, and better erections when their last sexual encounter was with someone they were in a relationship with, while women reported higher arousal and better lubrication when their last sexual encounter was with someone they were not in a relationship with. There are all kinds of reasons I can think of why this may be -sexually confident women being more likely to have non-romantic sexual encounters for example, men not trying as hard once they're in a relationship, evo psych having the whole thing backwards, etc. -- but the researchers don't give any data that could indicate the reasons for these results, nor do they speculate. Possibly future analysis of the data could provide some insight. Most of the respondents reported engaging in multiple activities during their last sexual encounter, although 32.9 percent of men and 39 percent of women reported only having vaginal sex. (What the hell do these people do for foreplay?) Oral was the most common activity reported in conjunction with vaginal sex, with anal being the least common additional activity. As I reported last week, men were more likely to orgasm if vaginal sex was involved, while women were more likely to orgasm if they gave or received oral or had anal sex on top of vaginal sex. Saletan offers a variety of explanations for why women who participate in anal sex are more likely to have orgasms in the second article linked above, including sexual confidence, the higher levels of foreplay that often precede anal, and the fact that anal just feels good to some women, some of which could also possibly explain why giving head also increases a woman's chances of orgasm even when it's not reciprocated.

The authors also looked at more general details of sexual encounters. For example, 7.8 percent of men's and 2.5 percent of women's last encounter was with a member of the same sex. Subjects reported that the majority of encounters took place in their or their partner's home, with a small percentage meeting up in hotels (5 percent men, 4.4 percent women), and an even smaller percentage having sex in public (1.7 percent men, 0.2 percent women). The researchers also included sex clubs, but the only group that reported having sex in such clubs with any significant percentage (2.4 percent) was men 50-59 years of age. (An older gay male thing, maybe? There don't seem to be any women admitting to being in these clubs.) Respondents were more likely to have sex with a casual dating partner (20.3 percent of men, 26.9 percent of women) or friend with benefits (13.1 percent of men, 11.0 percent of women) than a "new acquaintance" (10.7 percent of men, 7.8 percent of women). Alcohol use was not uncommon - 15.4 percent of men and 11.9 percent of women reported that both they and their partner had consumed alcohol. There's no significant correlation between age and alcohol use, although men were more likely to report that they drank while their partner remained sober. There's no data, however, on the number of drinks consumed, so the participants could have had one glass of wine or been blackout drunk. Only 4 percent of men and 1.7 percent of women reported that both they and their partner used marijuana during their last sexual encounter. Again, men were more likely to smoke up while their partners abstained.

In terms of the actual experience, generally speaking the women have a rougher time of it. The level of arousal correlates strongly with the level of pleasure for both men and women, but women report less arousal and pleasure generally, the number of women who reported being "extremely aroused," for example, was about 10 percent lower than men for all age groups. About 5-10 percent of women reported moderate difficulty with lubrication, and women were more likely to experience pain during sex. 91-97.5 percent or men reported no pain during sex, while only 63.8-72.4 percent of women could make the same claim. Only 1-4.2 percent of women reported that the experience was "quite painful," and very few reported extreme pain, so most likely these pain levels have to do with insufficient lubrication, chafing from prolonged sex, cervix-bumping, or heavy-handed partners, rather than more serious issues such as vulvodynia. I know I for one don't mind a little pain during sex as long as it feels more good than bad, but still, guys pay attention to your partner's signals and make sure you're not causing her unnecessary pain. (And for god's sake, trim your fingernails.) Not surprisingly, men were also more likely to report experiencing orgasm (86.8-95.7 percent versus 57.9-70.7 percent of women), and as I noted last week to appear to overestimate the frequency of their partner's orgasm (85.1-94.1 percent of men reported that their partner had an orgasm, significantly more than the number of women who report actually having one).

It's worth pointing out, however, that having an orgasm does not necessarily correlate with sexual pleasure for women (women over 50, for example, are the most likely to have orgasms, and yet they are also the least likely to report their last encounter as "extremely pleasurable"). Yes, women should stop faking, but all of us should stop acting as if having an orgasm is the only way to enjoy sex.

Studies like this are not only fascinating in that they give us an idea of what other people's sexual habits are, but they can be useful to the general public by revealing areas where men and women have a communication disconnect. The aforementioned issues with pain and the pressure on women to have an orgasm during sex, for example, are areas that Americans apparently need to work on. By highlighting these issues the study gives us a chance to address them and even gives some indication of how to do so (more sexual activities, arousal level is key). Hopefully people will take note and the next time a study like this is conducted the "extremely pleasurable" ratings will be higher for everyone involved.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.




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