The Social Organization Of Sexual Relationships
Scientific knowledge about and research on sexuality have developed since 1950. Data on the sexual behavior of various groups have been obtained via surveys, often using self-administered questionnaires. However, the samples surveyed often do not represent the population as a whole and thus yield biased results. The bias is typically in the direction of inflated estimates of sexual behavior.
A variety of sexual lifestyles are evident in the late twentieth-century United States. Data from the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) (Laumann et al. 1994), based on a representative sample of persons aged eighteen to fifty-nine, indicates that 24 percent (29% of men, 20% of women) are single and never married. Some persons in this group intentionally choose this lifestyle and affiliate with the singles' subculture; others have been unable to form a live-in relationship. Twenty-five percent of this group had no sexual partners in the preceding year, whereas 9 percent reported five or more partners in the preceding year. Number of partners is negatively related to age; older men and women are much more likely to report having no partners.
Seven percent of the respondents were cohabiting (living with a person of the other gender). Most cohabiting couples (94%) expect sexual exclusivity and some consider themselves married; several studies report, however, a higher rate of infidelity among cohabitors, suggesting lower levels of commitment compared to married couples (Treas and Giesen 2000). A few cohabitors report no sexual partners, in other words, no sexual activity, in the past year.
A relationship with a same-gender partner was reported by 2.7 percent of the men and 1.3 percent of the women. Survey data suggest that 40 to 60 percent of gay men and 45 to 80 percent of lesbians are involved in a steady romantic relationship (Patterson 2000). Limited data suggest that members of lesbian couples are as faithful as members of heterosexual couples, whereas gay men are less likely to be monogamous. Regardless, both gay and lesbian couples report levels of satisfaction with their sexual relationships that are as high as married and cohabiting couples.
Almost 54 percent of the participants in the NHSLS were married. Virtually all of these persons expect the partner to be faithful, and most are; only 4 percent of the married respondents reported more than one partner in the preceding year. Data from the National Survey of Families and Households indicates that the average couple engages in sexual activity 6.3 times per month (Call, Sprecher, and Schwartz 1995). According to the NHSLS, 95 percent of the married men and women engaged in vaginal intercourse the last time they had sex. Sexual behavior within marriage became more diverse between 1940 and 1990. Compared to the data reported by Kinsey and his colleagues, subsequent surveys (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Johnson et al. 1994) have found that married persons are more likely to engage in oral-genital activity and that they use positions other than man-above during intercourse. The incorporation of these practices into sexual expression reflects acceptance of the belief that sexual activity should be pleasurable for both men and women. Although marriage sanctions sexual intimacy, not all married couples are sexually active; 2 percent of the married respondents in the NHSLS reported no sexual intimacy in the past year. If one broadens the definition of a nonsexual marriage to engaging in sexual intimacy less than ten times per year, 20 percent of the couples in the NHSLS would be in the category (McCarthy 1999); such infrequent physical intimacy may threaten the marital bond.
Fifteen percent were separated, widowed, or divorced. Forty to 58 percent of these persons reported one sexual partner during the preceding year, suggesting an on-going relationship. One-third of these people reported no sexual partner in that period, with the number increasing sharply for older respondents.
Among married couples, there have been studies of the impact of normative transitions on sexual expression and satisfaction. The transition into a marital or live-in relationship may be associated with an increase in the frequency and variety of sexual expression. This reflects both the social legitimacy of sexual activity in these relationships and the opportunity afforded by ready access to the partner. Several studies report that frequency of activity is high in the first three years of marriage (the honeymoon effect), and then declines; the decline probably reflects habituation to the partner and the couple's sexual script (Call, Sprecher, and Schwartz 1995). A similar effect has been noted following remarriage. A normative transition experienced by many couples is the transition to parenthood, via birth or adoption. Research on heterosexual couples indicates that pregnancy and the birth of a child is associated with a reduced incidence of sexual activity at one month postpartum, and an increase in frequency over the following year; satisfaction with the sexual relationship of both men and women follows the same pattern (Hyde et al. 1996). Many contemporary couples fall in the dual-earner category, creating concern about the impact on sexuality; research utilizing two large samples finds that hours of work per week of one or both persons is not related to sexual behavior or satisfaction with the sexual relationship (Hyde, DeLamater, and Durik 2001). A transition experienced by many cohabiting (both heterosexual and same gender) and married persons is the termination of the relationship; research using data from the NHSLS finds that such persons report an increase in number of partners and frequency of activity during the year following dissolution (Wade and DeLamater 2001).