"Unconventional" Sex Is Actually Pretty Common
The popularity of unconventional sex raises questions about what’s “deviant.”
Posted Oct 01, 2018
Here’s a headline that's impossible to resist: “Huge New Survey Documents How Americans Have Sex.” Who wouldn’t read that?
There’s a bit of the voyeur in all of us. We’re fascinated by everyone else’s sexuality. We want to know what’s “normal,” “average,” “typical,” and “conventional,” so we can compare ourselves to the supposed standard. Only there is no norm.
Tremendous Sexual Diversity
When modern sex research began after World War II, many thought that “normal” sex was limited to married heterosexual vaginal intercourse—with everything else suspect or “perverted.” But over the past 70 years, as researchers have delved ever deeper into sexuality, they’ve discovered that the loving, successful, mentally healthy population actually exhibits tremendous sexual diversity. Our sexuality is as unique as our fingerprints. No two people are erotically identical. Some sexual positions are more popular than others, but many practices once considered fringe turn out to be surprisingly widespread.
As a result, we should be very careful about labeling anything “deviant.” Deviance implies a significant departure from “normal,” which doesn’t exist.
The legal system defines these as crimes: sexual assault, adult sex with children, genital flashing in public, and, in most places, sex work. Otherwise, the boundary separating acceptable from not appears increasingly fuzzy.
The Sexual Fringe Includes Most Americans
Today, what passes for “conventional” lovemaking involves adult heterosexual kissing, cuddling, and vaginal intercourse, with maybe some oral. But most Americans have played in other ways:
- UCLA researchers asked parents to keep diaries noting anything sexual in the lives of their 200 sons and daughters from birth through age 18. Parents witness only a fraction of child sex play, but study parents saw three-quarters of their children masturbating, and reported that half engaged in sex play with peers, typically touching each other’s genitals. The researchers found zero correlation to later psychological distress.
- In a classic 1951 anthropological study of 191 cultures worldwide, the researchers concluded, “If the adults of a society permit it, young children engage in practically every type of sexual behavior found in adults, including oral-genital play and attempted copulation.”
- Among Americans age 14 to 94, 94 percent of men and 85 percent of women admit having masturbated at least once, and three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women admit having self-sexed during the previous year. The real figures are undoubtedly higher. Self-sexing continues to be stigmatized and mocked, so many people don’t admit to it.
- More than half of American women own at least one vibrator.
- Most Americans lose their virginity during their late teens, now most typically around age 17 (a year or two later than today’s grandparents did).
- Premarital sex has become almost universal. On their wedding nights, 95 percent of Americans are not virgins.
- Since Kinsey’s studies in the late 1940s, credible estimates of heterosexual Americans’ lifetime infidelity have been all over the map—for men, 12 to 72 percent, and for women, 7 to 54 percent. The most comprehensive estimate comes from the University of Wisconsin investigators, who analyzed 500 studies published over 64 years (1943 to 2007). Their estimates for at least one episode of infidelity: 25 percent of married men and 15 percent of married women.
- At some point in life, 15 to 20 percent of American men patronize sex workers.
- Eleven percent of Americans, some 30 million people, are not exclusively heterosexual.
- By age 50, 40 percent of Americans have experimented with oral-anal sex (analingus), sphincter massage, fingering, toy insertions, or penis-anus intercourse.
- Many Americans with chronic conditions or disabilities can’t play conventionally and make love in other ways.
- Many elderly lovers can’t accomplish intercourse and instead play with hand massage, oral, toys, and perhaps some kink (see below).
- Approximately 20 percent of American adults have engaged in consensual non-monogamy: polyamory, threesomes, swinging, and group sex.
- Kinky sex is more popular than many believe. Indiana University researchers surveyed 2,021 American adults and discovered that many enjoyed elements of BDSM: spanking (30 percent), dominant/submissive role-playing (22 percent), restraint (20 percent), and whipping/flogging (13 percent) (Chapter 41). The investigators also found that 43 percent had played sexually in public.
- In fantasy, unconventional sex is even more popular. The number-one erotic fantasy is sex with someone other than one’s regular partner. More than half of Americans admit fantasies involving BDSM. Depending on the study, one-third to two-thirds of women admit to fantasies of being sexually forced, with rape fantasies most prevalent among those who feel most comfortable with themselves and their sexuality. In some studies, 60 percent of adults dream at least occasionally about kinky sex. In fantasy, everything is permitted. Nothing is wrong. And the sky's the limit (as long as you can distinguish between fantasy and reality).
Sexual Inclinations: Not Predictable
As education increases, Americans tend to be more amenable to sexual experimentation. And compared with religious fundamentalists, religious liberals and those who profess no religious affiliation also tend to be more willing to try sex that's considered fringe.
But the demographics of sex obscure a greater truth. Anyone can be into anything. Most social conservatives oppose premarital sex, but most acted differently. Conservatives decry abortion, homosexuality, non-monogamy, and school sex education. But plenty of conservatives enjoy anal play, sex toys, homosexual play, BDSM, threesomes, and swinging. There’s even an evangelical swing group, Liberated Christians, in Phoenix, Arizona.
If sociologists know your zip code, education, occupation, religion, and income, they can predict with reasonable accuracy your politics, shopping habits, travel destinations, and taste in books, TV, and movies. But they would know little or nothing about your sexuality. Anybody can be into anything.
The Sexual Playground
Imagine a playground filled with happy children. Some can’t get enough of one activity: the swings, slide, sandbox, carousel, climbing structures, whatever. Others sample two or three. Some circle among everything. And others avoid the various stations, preferring to make their own fun alone or with others. What can we say about children who love swings, but never use the slide? What does it mean if all kids do is play in the sandbox? It means nothing. It’s play, and kids play in the ways that appeal to them individually.
Sex is adult play. Like a playground, it includes myriad possibilities, none better or worse than any other. Absent harm to self and others, it doesn’t matter how adults twist the sheets. It’s play. It’s pleasure. And erotic pleasure is uniquely individual.
So we must think long and hard before labeling any legal sexual possibilities weird or deviant. There is no normal, so we must be careful about calling anything abnormal.
CDC. "Seventeen Is the Average Age at First Sexual Intercourse"(PDF). American Sexual Behavior. newstrategist.com.
Copen, C.E. et al. “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Orientation Among Adults Aged18-44 in the United States: Data from the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth,” National Health Statistics Report (2016) 7:1.
Bivona, JM et al. “Women’s Rape Fantasies: An Empirical Evaluation of the Major Explanations,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2012) 41:1107.
Fisher, H.E. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Henry Hold, NY, 2004.
Ford, CS and FA Beach. Patterns of Sexual Behavior. Harper & Row, NY, 1951.
Gates, G.J. “How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender?” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2011.
Guttmacher Institute. https://www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2006/premarital-sex-nearly-universal-among-americans-and-has-been-decades
Herbenick, D. et al. “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women Ages 14-94,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2010) 7(suppl 5):255.
Herbenick, D. et al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use By Women in the United States: Results from a Nationally Representative Study,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2009) 6:1857.
Okami, P et al. “Sexual Experiences in Early Childhood: 18-Year Longitudinal Data for the UCLA Family Lifestyles Project,” Journal of Sex Research (1997) 4:339.