Large-Scale Survey Investigates the Sexual Behavior of Americans
In the largest nationally representative and comprehensive study on sexual behavior ever conducted in the United States, The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior recently discovered that condom use was highest among teens ages 14–17, among other important findings. The study, conducted by researchers at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and funded by Church & Dwight, the makers of Trojan brand condoms, was released in early October 2010 and, for the first time in a sexual behaviors survey, included participants ranging from ages 14–94. Apart from condom usage among all participants, the study also provided a description of more than 40 combinations of sexual acts that people have performed during sexual intercourse, as well as the percentage of Americans who have participated in same-sex encounters.
One of the key findings from the report revealed that condom use has increased among sexually active teens while usage rates are lower among older age groups. The new data show that 80% of males and 69% of females ages 14–17 reported having used a condom during last sexual intercourse, compared to an average of 61% for the same age group in 2009.
In contrast, less than 50% of adults ages 18–94 report having used condoms during their last ten sexual encounters. The study reported that adults over the age of 40 have the lowest rate of condom use (13.7% for men, 9.7 for women) and that, overall, only one in four acts of vaginal intercourse involve the use of a condom among this age group.
Experts in the field of sexual health attribute the elevated use of condoms among teens to a more prevalent belief and awareness that engaging in sexual activity should involve using a condom in order to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Says Dr. J. Dennis Fortenberry, coauthor of the survey and professor of pediatrics at Indiana University, “there’s the same general widespread sense among contemporary teenagers that as you get to the point where you start thinking about having sex, condoms are going to be part of that decision.”
The fact that one age group is more successful in its utilization of condoms in no way means that the job of sexual health promotion is over, notes Michael Reese, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University: “These data, when compared to other studies in the recent past, suggest that although condom use has increased among some groups, efforts to promote the use of condoms to sexually active individuals should remain a public health priority.”
The wide range of ages involved and breadth of topics covered in the study have been received by health professionals and the general public as incredibly valuable and as examples of needed research.
Illustrating this point, President and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Monica Rodriguez, recently commented in the New York Times
on the importance of the study: “[I]t gives us a sense of what’s really happening, instead of all this, ‘Well, my sex life must not be normal, because I don’t do this or only do this.’”
Indeed, Debby Herbenick, associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, asserts that common intrigue with other people’s sex lives is a main point of public interest for the survey: “They want to know how often men and women in different age groups have sex, the types of sex they engage in, and whether they are enjoying it or experiencing sexual difficulties. Our data provide answers to these common sex questions and demonstrate how sex has changed in the nearly 20 years since the last study of its kind.”
Herbenick and Center for Sexual Health Promotion Director Michael Reese also point out that both health professionals and the American public can look to the survey for opportunities to educate and create awareness around important sexual health issues. “[D]ata about sexual behaviors and condom use in contemporary America are critically needed by medical and public health professionals who are on the front lines addressing issues such as HIV, sexually transmissible infections and unintended pregnancy,” comments Reese.
Kimberly Spector, a Los Angeles health educator, agrees, pointing to the benefit of the study for sexual health advocates: “If we can give people a truthful picture of their experiences in relation to others . . . and educate them about the real risks associated with unprotected sexual activity, we have an opportunity to counter the skewed messages they encounter elsewhere every day.”
In addition to addressing condom usage among different age groups, the survey also addresses sexual activity among older adults and acknowledges that humans are sexual beings throughout their life spans.
The study reports that only 25% of adults ages 50 and older who were single or had a new sexual partner said they had used a condom during the last time they engaged in sexual activity, and approximately 40% had never been tested for HIV.
“Studying sexual health issues relevant to a broad span of age groups is incredibly important,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States; “many people believe that sexual health information is only necessary for school-age youth, but this survey shows that people of all ages are in need of comprehensive sexuality education.”
 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey Overview (Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Promotion, Division of Adolescent and Health Promotion, 2009), accessed 18 October 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/pdf/us_overview_yrbs.pdf>
 Reece et al., “National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB).”
 Rabin, “Condom Use Is Highest for Young, Study Finds.”
 Katherine Githens and Emily Abramsohn, “Still Got It at Seventy: Sexuality, Aging, and HIV,” Achieve ,Summer 2010, 1, 3–5.