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Heterosexuality Today: Attitudes and Behavior



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Heterosexuality Today: Attitudes and Behavior


Americans’ attitudes today about heterosexual behavior are very diverse. On some issues, Americans are fairly united, either in a more tolerant and accepting direction or in a less tolerant and unaccepting direction. On other issues, Americans are fairly divided, with large numbers of people feeling one way and large numbers feeling another way. The American public is probably even more diverse in its sexual behavior: Some people have a lot of sex and engage in a variety of sexual activities, while other people have less sex and limit their sexual activity to vaginal intercourse. To gain a sense of what Americans are thinking and doing in the area of heterosexual activity, national surveys provide some important evidence.

Attitudes


As noted earlier, the GSS asks respondents to indicate their views on several types of heterosexual behavior and issues related to this behavior. We’ll first look again at their views about sexual behavior that we examined earlier in the discussion about the sexual revolution. This time we will focus on the percentage who say the behaviors are wrong (“always wrong,” “almost always wrong,” or “sometimes wrong”) (see Figure 9.2 "Views on Sexual Behavior (Percentage Saying the Behavior Is Wrong)").

Figure 9.2 Views on Sexual Behavior (Percentage Saying the Behavior Is Wrong)

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig09_002.jpg

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved fromhttp://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Figure 9.2 "Views on Sexual Behavior (Percentage Saying the Behavior Is Wrong)" shows that Americans almost unanimously think that adultery (extramarital sex) and teenage sex are wrong, but that they are fairly evenly split on whether premarital sex is wrong, with 47 percent saying it is wrong and the remainder, 53 percent, saying it is not wrong at all.

Certain aspects of our social backgrounds predict our views about premarital sex. In particular, women, older people, and those who are more religious are more likely than their counterparts to disapprove of it. We see evidence of these trends in Figure 9.3 "Correlates of Disapproval of Premarital Sex (Percentage Saying Premarital Sex between a Woman and a Man Is Wrong)", which focuses on the percentage of GSS respondents who say that premarital sex is wrong (always wrong, almost always wrong, or sometimes wrong). Gender and age are moderately related to views about premarital sex, while religiosity is strongly related to these views.

Figure 9.3 Correlates of Disapproval of Premarital Sex (Percentage Saying Premarital Sex between a Woman and a Man Is Wrong)

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig09_003.jpg

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved fromhttp://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.


Behavior


A good understanding of Americans’ sexual behaviors comes from the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which was administered to 13,459 Americans ages 15–44 nationwide. Although this survey omits people older than 44, it still yields valuable information about people in their prime reproductive years. Chapter 5 "Sexual Orientation and Inequality" on sexual orientation also used some NSFG data.

Table 9.2 "Lifetime Prevalence of Sexual Behaviors, Ages 15–24*" reports some NSFG gender-based data on several kinds of sexual behaviors for young people ages 15–24. Although many people think that males are much more sexually active than females, the data in Table 9.2 "Lifetime Prevalence of Sexual Behaviors, Ages 15–24*" show that the gender differences in heterosexual contact are practically nonexistent. Reflecting a conclusion from Chapter 5 "Sexual Orientation and Inequality"’s discussion of sexual orientation, however, females are more likely than males to have had same-sex sexual contact. In one other gender difference not reported in the table, males (17.6 percent) are more likely than females (9.4 percent) to have at least two heterosexual partners in the past year. In this specific sexual activity, then, males are indeed more active than females.

Table 9.2 Lifetime Prevalence of Sexual Behaviors, Ages 15–24*




Females

Males

No sexual contact

28.6

27.2

Any opposite-sex contact

70.1

71.7

Any opposite-sex contact: vaginal intercourse

65.1

62.9

Any opposite-sex contact: gave or received oral sex

62.6

64.0

Any opposite-sex contact: anal sex

20.2

20.9

Any same-sex behavior

13.4

4.0

* Percentage engaging in behavior at least once

Source: Chandra, A., Mosher, W. D., Copen, C., & Sionean, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2008 national survey of family growth (National Health Statistics Reports: Number 36). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

We saw earlier that higher degrees of religiosity are strongly associated with greater disapproval of premarital sex. Does this mean that religiosity should also be associated with a lower likelihood of actually engaging in premarital sex? The answer is clearly yes, as many studies of adolescents find that those who are more religious are more likely to still be virgins and, if they have had sex, more likely to have had fewer sexual partners (Regenerus, 2007).[4] Survey data on adults yield a similar finding: Among all never-married adults in the GSS, those who are more religious are also more likely to have had fewer sexual partners (Barkan, 2006). [5] We see evidence of this relationship in Table 9.3 "Self-Rated Religiosity and Number of Sexual Partners in Past Five Years among Never-Married Adults Ages 18–39 (%)", which shows that among never-married adults ages 18–39, those who are very religious are more likely to have had no sexual partners in the past five years and, if they have had any partners, to have had fewer partners. Although it is hypothetically possible that not having sexual partners leads someone to become more religious, it is much more likely that being very religious reduces the number of sexual partners that never-married adults have.

Table 9.3 Self-Rated Religiosity and Number of Sexual Partners in Past Five Years among Never-Married Adults Ages 18–39 (%)

Number of sexual partners

Very religious

Moderately religious

Slightly religious or not at all religious

0

31.1

7.6

9.2

1

29.5

29.6

21.6

2 or more

39.4

62.8

69.2

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (2006–2010). Retrieved fromhttp://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.


KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • The sexual revolution liberalized some views about sexual behavior and increased participation in some forms of sexual behavior, particularly premarital sex.

  • Gender, age, and religiosity predict attitudes about premarital sex.

  • There are little or no gender differences today in the prevalence of various heterosexual behaviors, but men are more likely than women to have had at least two sex partners in the past year.



FOR YOUR REVIEW


  1. Do you think the sexual revolution was a good thing or a bad thing? Explain your answer.

  2. Did it surprise you to learn that women and men are equally sexually active today? Why or why not?

[1] Harding, D. J., & Jencks, C. (2003). Changing attitudes toward premarital sex. Public Opinion Quarterly, 67(2), 211–226.

[2] Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Martinez, G., Copen, C. E., & Abma, J. C. (2011). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing, 2006–2010 national survey of family growth.Vital and Health Statistics, 23(31), 1–35.

[4] Regenerus, M. D. (2007). Forbidden fruit: Sex & religion in the lives of American teenagers. New York, NY: Oxford Univeristy Press.

[5] Barkan, S. E. (2006). Religiosity and premarital sex during adulthood. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45, 407–417.



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