When Fifty Shades of Grey first came out, Debby Herbenick, an applied health science professor and sex researcher at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute, says she was bombarded by the media with inquiries about the number of people who actually engage in BDSM. "I must have gotten 30 phone calls from journalists saying, 'Well, how many people really like to be tied up, how many people like to be blindfolded?' And we just had to always say we don't know," she tells Broadly. "Even though there had been studies before about those kinds of things—studies in college samples, or sex therapy populations, or online communities of people into BDSM—they don't tell you how many Americans do a certain thing or are into a certain thing."
That's part of the reason why she and her colleagues conducted the 2015 Sexual Exploration in America Study. The results of their survey is the first of its kind to document the sheer variety of sexual behaviors that few people are willing to be open about. "For the first time," Herbenick says, "it established a base line for, this is the percentage of Americans who have engaged in spanking or public sex or threesome or what have you."
More than 2,000 adults, 18 and older and mostly heterosexual, participated in an online survey that inquired about their relationship status, sexual orientation, and how recently they'd engaged in and how appealing they found a variety of sexual behaviors. As Herbenick points out, "not everyone does what they find appealing."
Since the team conducted a similar survey in 2009—which focused on more mainstream activities, such as vaginal sex, anal sex and condom use—researchers found that not much has changed in terms of the most commonly reported sexual activities: For men, it was solo masturbation and for women, it was vaginal intercourse. Herbenick says it was important to include these "normative behaviors" on their survey in order to calibrate their findings with similar sex surveys. "We knew with a study like this," she explains, "some people would be critical of it and would say, 'You just found a bunch of really unusual people in your surveys and Americans don't really do that much spanking or blindfolding or whatever.'"
Only 8.2 percent of men reported having never masturbated in their lifetime, compared to 21.8 percent of women.
The questionnaire touched on more than 50 sexual behaviors and among the broad array of data were a number of findings that revealed how different men and women's preferences and activities sometimes are. For example, only 8.2 percent of men reported having never masturbated in their lifetime, compared to 21.8 percent of women. Besides vaginal intercourse, giving/receiving oral sex, and partnered masturbation, the most common activity men reported doing with a partner was public sex (45 percent) while women said it was wearing lingerie. More men than women said they'd sucked/licked their partner's toes (25.6 percent vs. 10.9 percent), and more women said they'd used a vibrator (50.2 percent vs. 32.9 percent).
The study also confirmed to some degree some broad stereotypes about what we expect men and women to enjoy. There were more than 25 activities that men found more appealing than women—including all anal behaviors and group sexual experiences. Women, on the other hand, found five behavioral items more appealing than men did: among them were watching a romantic movie, getting a couple's massage, and experiencing pain as part of sex.
More men than women said they'd sucked/licked their partner's toes (25.6 percent vs. 10.9 percent), and more women said they'd used a vibrator (50.2 percent vs. 32.9 percent).
Because there was little statistical difference between men and women in more than 20 items, researchers propose at least some of these activities are not gendered. Among them: tying up your partner (8 percent of men, 9 percent of women found that very appealing), being blindfolded (11.8 percent of men vs. 11.2 percent of women), having rough sex (14 percent vs. 13 percent) and having sex where someone might hear you (12 percent vs. 10.7 percent).
Herbenick says that her hope is that these findings will be informative for people. "They show that not only do people do a lot of things, but they find many different kinds of sex appealing and interesting. For people who are interested in connecting more with a partner or exploring, maybe it'll give them some reassurance to say, "Wow, 30 percent of people are into that; I've got a pretty good chance that my husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend or significant other is into that, and I might bring that up."
"I just think there's so much value in seeing that, as many of us have known forever, human sexual expression is just incredibly varied," she continues. "To me that's always been the beauty of humanity. To other people, I think that might be scary at times, but I don't think it has to be. You can be a perfectly normal, healthy functioning person and have a lot of different interests and openness to different types of expression."