Research Article: Sexual diversity in the United States: Results from a nationally representative probability sample of adult women and men

Date Published: July 20, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Debby Herbenick, Jessamyn Bowling, Tsung-Chieh (Jane) Fu, Brian Dodge, Lucia Guerra-Reyes, Stephanie Sanders, Junjie Xu.


In 2015, we conducted a cross-sectional, Internet-based, U.S. nationally representative probability survey of 2,021 adults (975 men, 1,046 women) focused on a broad range of sexual behaviors. Individuals invited to participate were from the GfK KnowledgePanel®. The survey was titled the 2015 Sexual Exploration in America Study and survey completion took about 12 to 15 minutes. The survey was confidential and the researchers never had access to respondents’ identifiers. Respondents reported on demographic items, lifetime and recent sexual behaviors, and the appeal of 50+ sexual behaviors. Most (>80%) reported lifetime masturbation, vaginal sex, and oral sex. Lifetime anal sex was reported by 43% of men (insertive) and 37% of women (receptive). Common lifetime sexual behaviors included wearing sexy lingerie/underwear (75% women, 26% men), sending/receiving digital nude/semi-nude photos (54% women, 65% men), reading erotic stories (57% of participants), public sex (≥43%), role-playing (≥22%), tying/being tied up (≥20%), spanking (≥30%), and watching sexually explicit videos/DVDs (60% women, 82% men). Having engaged in threesomes (10% women, 18% men) and playful whipping (≥13%) were less common. Lifetime group sex, sex parties, taking a sexuality class/workshop, and going to BDSM parties were uncommon (each <8%). More Americans identified behaviors as “appealing” than had engaged in them. Romantic/affectionate behaviors were among those most commonly identified as appealing for both men and women. The appeal of particular behaviors was associated with greater odds that the individual had ever engaged in the behavior. This study contributes to our understanding of more diverse adult sexual behaviors than has previously been captured in U.S. nationally representative probability surveys. Implications for sexuality educators, clinicians, and individuals in the general population are discussed.

Partial Text

Alfred Kinsey and colleagues documented sexual diversity in the United States (U.S.) in large convenience samples of thousands of women and men in the 1930s – 1950s [1, 2]. The great interest with which their team’s findings were met by the American population and scientific community emphasize the value of studying sexual behavior and its many expressions. Because sexual behaviors are often private, and because sexuality topics are often shrouded in secrecy and taboo, sexuality remains a particularly important topic to highlight in scientific research in order to expand knowledge and understanding of this important aspect of human life.

The sample included 975 men and 1046 women (see Table 1 for demographic information and presentations of both unweighted and weighted total sample) with a mean age of 47.1 (SD = 17.3; range = 18–91). About 91% identified as heterosexual, with more women identifying as bisexual (3.6%) compared to lesbian (1.5%) and more men identifying as gay (5.8%) compared to bisexual (1.9%). Most respondents reported being generally “very happy” or “pretty happy” (88%), and nearly 86% reported “good”, “very good”, or “excellent” general health. Of those in relationships, most were in male-female romantic relationships (95.2% men, 96.8% women). About half were married.

This study contributes to our understanding of more diverse adult sexual behaviors than has previously been captured in U.S. nationally representative probability surveys. Sexuality educators and clinicians are often faced with questions from students or patients who want to know whether their sexual interests or behaviors are common or rare and these data will facilitate the answering of such questions (though certainly the prevalence of a behavior is not an indication of whether said behavior is a “good”, “bad”, healthy, or enjoyable behavior for a particular person, dyad, or group). To our knowledge, this paper also includes the first data from a U.S. nationally representative probability sample that describes Americans’ relationships structures (e.g., monogamous, open, etc.).

Overall, findings add to our understanding of more diverse U.S. adult sexual behaviors and the appeal of a range of sexual behaviors. Findings provide baseline rates for a wide array of sexual behaviors among adults in the general populations in the United States for which such estimates have been previously absent. For practitioners and providers, this information may assist in meeting the needs of diverse populations including improved information exchange and educational efforts.




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