Sexual Trends in America

While sex has been around for as long as humankind has existed, specific behaviors and attitudes shift over time. What are Americans currently thinking (and doing)? We looked at the results of research conducted by researchers at the Kinsey Institute and the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, both at Indiana University in Bloomington, to find out what’s happening behind closed doors…

Finding #1: Sex Is not Just Intercourse

Doing "everything but" still counts as having sex, according to a majority of the population. In one study, 45% of respondents considered manual-genital stimulation to be sex, 71% felt that oral stimulation was sex, and almost 81% regarded anal penetration as sex. According to researchers, both oral and anal sex have become more common in recent decades, perhaps due to the influence of the internet. Other factors that contributed to whether a certain act could be counted as having sex? Whether a condom was worn, whether either or both parties had an orgasm, and whether the respondent was the one giving or receiving the stimulation.

Discrepancies in the definition of what "counts" as sex is an issue for some dating and married couples, notes Kristie Overstreet, a counselor and sex therapist in Jacksonville, FL. "It’s important for people in any form of a relationship to identify what they consider the definition of sex to be," she says, especially when it comes to sexual activity that might take place outside of the marriage. In other words, what constitutes cheating? Establishing agreed-upon boundaries early on can prevent future problems.

Finding #2: Sexual Activity Drops off in Middle Age

After peaking in the twenties and thirties, sexual behavior of all kinds, from masturbation to oral sex to intercourse, declines slightly for both men and women in their forties. The decline continues through the fifties and sixties, dropping precipitously once people are in their seventies. Experts attribute this drop-off to the loss of available sexual partners, along with potential health problems that may affect sex drive or physical functioning.

Finding #3: But Older People Are More Committed, and More Satisfied

Most people surveyed indicated that their most recent sexual partner was someone with whom they were in a relationship. In addition, the longer a couple had been together, the greater their reported sexual satisfaction and happiness with the relationship. Younger people, however, are into playing the field: Among people ages 18 to 24, more than half said their latest sexual partner was someone they were casually dating (or with whom they had just "hooked up").

Finding #4: Erectile Dysfunction Can Be an Issue

For older men, erectile dysfunction (trouble getting or sustaining an erection) may put a damper on things. According to one study, rates of erectile dysfunction seem to rise in lockstep with age, affecting about 40 percent of men by age 40 and up to 70 percent of men by age 70. Fortunately, a variety of drugs are available to treat the problem. For men with health conditions that prevent them from taking these drugs, other options include lifestyle changes such as losing weight; getting psychotherapy to treat underlying emotional difficulties; and using injectable treatments or vacuum pumps to induce an erection.

Finding #5: Kinky Folks Are Relatively Few in Number, but They’re Out There

About 2.2% of sexually active men and 1.3% of sexually active women in one study said they had participated in at least one episode of bondage, discipline, domination/submission, or sadism/masochism.

But these numbers may be low; Overstreet says closer to one in eight (roughly 12%) of her patients are either interested or actively engaging in a kink lifestyle. They may not discuss it much, though: "There’s a stigma in our society about kink, so many people aren’t 'out' about this," she says. "There is a fear that they will be viewed as abnormal or mentally ill by society." In the previously mentioned study, kink participants rated no differently than the general population when it came to psychopathic (dangerously mentally ill) tendencies, depression, or anxiety.

Finding #6: More Acceptance of LGBT People

A significant majority of the population—well over 90 percent—is attracted to the opposite sex. Anywhere from two percent to four percent of men identify as homosexual, while one percent to two percent of women do. And somewhere between 0.5 percent and one percent of people claim to be asexual, or to lack sexual feelings for anyone of either gender.

The country has also become more open to people who don’t identify as heterosexual; in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of almost 1,200 adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), a whopping 92 percent felt that society had become more accepting of their sexuality in the previous 10 years, and the same percentage were optimistic that acceptance would continue to grow in the next decade.

Kristie Overstreet, LMHC, LPC, CST, CAP, reviewed this article.


Overstreet, Kristie. Email message to source. April 19, 2016.

"FAQ: Facts and Statistics." Kinsey Institute. Accessed on April 14, 2016.

Herbenick, Debby, Michael Reece, Vanessa Schick, Stephanie Sanders, Brian Dodge, J. Dennis Fortenberry. "Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women Ages 14-94." The Journal of Sexual Medicine 2010;7(suppl 5):255-265. Doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.0212.x.

"A Survey of LGBT Americans." Pew Research Center. Last updated June 13, 2013.