Sex in America: A Definitive Survey Gauged by the sales pitches Hollywood and Madison Avenue favor to promote the consumption of movies, automobiles, chewing gum, condoms, and prime-time news, we Americans… Sex in America: A Definitive Survey Gauged by the sales pitches Hollywood and Madison Avenue favor to promote the consumption of movies, automobiles, chewing gum, condoms, and prime-time news, we Americans… Nonfiction Self-Help and Psychology
Book Review

Book Review: 'Sex in America: A Definitive Survey'

Gauged by the sales pitches Hollywood and Madison Avenue favor to promote the consumption of movies, automobiles, chewing gum, condoms, and prime-time news, we Americans are a sexually swingin' lot who do It — or want to — at all times, in all ways, whoopee. Gauged by the findings in Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Little, Brown, $29.95), we're anything but.

If the news in this measured, stat-filled report is reassuring to the millions of us whose secret mantra, unspoken to a fellow soul, is Am I normal?, coauthors Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata feel they have done their job. ''Perhaps never before in history,'' the authors write in authoritative unison, ''has there been such a huge disparity between the open display of eroticism in a society and that society's great reluctance to speak about private sexual practices.''

This study, they say, is the most scientifically accurate ever created. This study, they say, with its low-affect compilation of statistics about ''mean age at first intercourse'' and ''sexual difficulties during at least one of the past twelve months,'' as well as graphs about ''frequency of masturbation'' and ''percent ever tested for HIV/AIDS,'' is valuable not only for telling readers who has the least sex (Catholic women) and who has the most (Hispanic men); it can also serve as an impetus to social change. If, for instance, you're married and feel stuck in a rut and think singles are getting all the action, you're wrong: It's married couples who are having the most sex. If you're electing a government official and are being encouraged to think everyone has had an extramarital affair at some time or other, you're wrong: ''No matter how sexually active people are before and between marriages, no matter whether they lived with their sexual partners before marriage or whether they were virgins on their wedding day, marriage is such a powerful social institution that, essentially, married people are nearly all alike — they are faithful to their partners as long as the marriage is intact.''

The big news, then, in this big book — a successor to Masters and Johnson's almost unbearably thorough analysis of the Sex Act in the '60s and Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking study of sexuality in the '40s and '50s — is that we are a moderate nation. We have moderate appetites, with moderate adjustments made for modernity. More people become sexually active at an earlier age, marry later, and are likely to divorce these days; therefore these sexually active citizens are likelier to have more sexual partners in one lifetime. More people admit to masturbating. (The others, the maxim goes, are lying.) More people are worried about AIDS, since AIDS was generally unknown before the 1980s. (According to Sex in America, the epidemic does not appear to be spreading widely to the heterosexual population but remains concentrated among homosexual men, intravenous-drug users, and their sexual partners.)

When we marry, we tend to be with people like ourselves. And we tend to do, you know, all sorts of stuff: vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral intercourse. I'll let you look up the rest; it's on page 146.

The one jarring note in this soothing drone of facts is the inclusion of quotes from the pensées of such chic writer-thinkers as the late intellectual Lionel Trilling, film critic Molly Haskell, New York sophisticates Daphne Merkin and Holly Brubach, and relationship expert Roseanne. What are they doing in these pages, being elegant and writerly, when the whole point is that I'm okay, you're okay? Let the charts, graphs, and analyses speak for themselves — for ourselves. The moral of Sex in America is, Sex is like a box of chocolates. You never know when you're going to find something squishy — or a cluster of nuts. Or scientific words to that effect. B+

Originally posted Oct 21, 1994 Published in issue #245 Oct 21, 1994 Order article reprints