For all the talk about how diverse and experimental Americans are in bed, most of the research so far has been limited to very small niches—college students, for instance, or online BDSM communities, or sex therapy clients. It may seem hard to believe, but there has never been a nationally representative, in-depth study of Americans' sex lives—that is, until now. In a new study—full disclosure: I was one of the authors—published today in the journal PLOS One, our research team at Indiana University—Bloomington worked with PlsPlsMe, a sexual intimacy app, to conduct the first-ever Sexual Exploration in America Study, a probability survey of 2000 Americans age 18 to 94. So what do Americans really do in bed? Here's what we learned:
One in 9 people in Relationships Aren't Having Sex. Seventy-eight percent of Americans who are in relationships said they're monogamous and have been sexually active at least within the past year. But there were also about 12 percent who said they were monogamous but sexless, meaning they'd agreed to only be sexually active with one another but hadn't had any sex together in the past year. Although fewer Americans on the whole were in an open relationship over the past year (only about 2 percent), open relationships—in which people agree with their partner that one or both of them can have sex with other people—were much more common among those who identify as gay or bisexual.
Some Bedrooms are Getting Crowded. Although threesomes aren't quite common enough to warrant the numerous men's and women's magazine how-to guides on the topic, they're not exactly rare, either; 18 percent of men and 10 percent of women said they'd engaged in a threesome at least once in their lives. Far fewer (about 2 percent of both sexes) have had a threesome in the past year. Group sex (that is, 4 or more people involved) was reported by 9 percent of men and 6 percent of women.
More Kinds of Sex are on the Menu. While vaginal sex, oral sex, and masturbation are the main items on the menu, that's not all Americans do. About one-third said they'd spanked or been spanked as part of sex. About 1 in 6 men and 1 in 7 women have playfully whipped or been whipped by a partner as part of sex. Nearly a quarter of Americans have role-played with a partner, one-fifth have tied a partner up (or been tied up), and more than 40 percent of Americans have had sex with someone in a public place. Fewer Americans had engaged in these kinds of sex in the past year, however, suggesting that a lot of their exploration was in the distant past—months or years earlier—even though many people still found these kinds of sex to be appealing. Which means, of course, that if you're into something and it's been a while, try to open up a conversation with your partner about reviving your sex life.
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Men Are Surprisingly Affectionate. The most appealing sex acts—for both women and men—were romantic, affectionate kinds of sex: saying sweet/romantic things (81 percent), kissing more often (86 percent), having gentle sex (87 percent), cuddling more often (88 percent), and giving/receiving a massage before sex (79 percent). These findings line up with what sex therapists have noticed for decades—that relaxation, closeness, and connection often make sex better.
But Men and Women Still Like Different Things. Although women and men rated about 20 sexual behaviors as similarly appealing (things like having sex in a hotel room, role playing, playful biting, spanking, tying up, dirty talk, among others), there were more than 25 sex acts that men rated as more appealing than women, and only 5 that were rated higher among women than men. Who was into what? Men were more likely to find any kind of anal play to be more appealing than women, whether it was anal sex, using anal toys, or anal fingering.
Guys were also more into using media as part of sex, whether that was watching sexually explicit videos, engaging in phone sex, or sexting. They were also more into watching—whether that was watching a partner undress, masturbate, or do sexual things—as well as more into threesomes, group sex, and sex parties. Women were more into couples massage, using a vibrator/dildo, wearing sexy underwear/lingerie, and experiencing pain as part of sex.
In short, Americans like many different kinds of sex. As a number of sex researchers have pointed out, what's "normal" for humans, when it comes to sex, is sexual diversity or variation. People often enjoy trying new things, whether alone or with a partner. Sexual exploration can deepen a couple's connection as well as give them new things to talk or laugh or fantasize about later. And for couples whose imaginations have stalled, I hope they'll give our paper a read—there are, after all, dozens of ideas listed to talk about, consider—and maybe even try. Read This Next: Six Things People Still Get Wrong About Sex