Surveying sex

In document Hanbook of New Sexual Studies (Page 38-44)

Interview with Edward Laumann

Edward Laumann is the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He is a co-author of The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. This volume is considered the most comprehensive survey of the sexual behavior of American adults since the work of Kinsey.

Much of your work as a sociologist has been in the area of urban and organizational studies. Why did you decide to study sexuality?

When I was serving as Dean of the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago in 1986, a medical faculty colleague, Dr. Mark Siegler, and I organized a joint Medical/Social Science faculty, year-long seminar series devoted to “AIDS and Society.”

Based on what I learned in this seminar, I became convinced that a properly designed survey of the US population that asked about their sexual practices was critical if we were to develop appropriate public health interventions to change people’s sexual behavior toward safer sexual practices that would protect them from acquiring AIDS.

Since at the time there was little prospect of an effective medical intervention being developed in the short term, such as a vaccine to prevent infection by HIV, our only hope of forestalling a massive epidemic was to devise effective behavioral interventions against the transmission of the disease. Robert Michael, who is an economic demographer, was then the director of the NORC on campus, one of the largest academically oriented survey organizations in the country. He and I decided to respond to the National Institutes of Health’s call for proposals to design a national sex survey. We recruited John Gagnon, an internationally noted sex researcher, to help us do the study.

We won the design competition in 1987 and immediately began developing the survey.

Unfortunately, conservative political figures strongly opposed the idea of a government-funded sex survey and successfully prevented funding of the study for several years.

You and your colleagues did one of the largest surveys of sexuality ever done. Who funded the survey, and why did they fund it?

We have the dubious distinction of having had an act of Congress, the Senate voting 66 to 35 in September 1991 to deny funding the survey in favor of a “say no to sex”

campaign favored by Senator Jesse Helms, passed in an attempt to stop the study. We were able to secure funding from a consortium of eight private philanthropic foundations because we could now convince them that the Federal government was not going to fund the survey in a timely way. We fielded the survey in 1992, just four months after the

Senate vote. Unfortunately we had to cut the sample to one-fifth of the size we had originally recommended as being necessary to provide the detailed information we needed.

Can you describe your general sociological approach to understanding sexuality? Many sociologists focus on gender, cultural representations, economics, or state and the law to understand sexuality. What social factors do you think are the most important in trying to understand patterns of sexual behavior and attitudes?

We combined elements of three theoretical traditions in devising a general framework:

(a) script theory, originally proposed by John Gagnon and William Simon, that distinguishes among cultural sexual scripts, interpersonal scripts, and intrapsychic scripts;

(b) social network theory, with special focus on the organization of the sexual dyad and the larger social networks in which the sexual partners are embedded (this gives a powerful purchase on the epidemiology of disease spread); and (c) choice theory, which foregrounds how people engage in sexual decision-making. More fundamentally, we stress those aspects of sociological theory that feature how master statuses (such as age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, ethnicity/race, and religious preference);

and master relationships – that is, we focus on four types of sexual partnerships, including marriage, cohabitation, dating (not living together), and casual sex (one-night stands), and socially organize the differential distribution of sexual practices, behavior, and attitudes. My special interest, flowing out of my earlier work on friendship formation, class, and status groups, was in the application of network theory to issues related to the spread of disease, the formation of enduring or more ephemeral sexual partnerships, and partner choice. We found that only three master statuses, age, marital status, and gender, do the lion’s share of the work in organizing sexuality socially.

Your survey asks very personal and intimate questions about individuals’ sexual and intimate practices. Why do you think people agreed to be interviewed and why you think they gave truthful answers?

People agreed to be surveyed because we convinced them that the information we sought was critical for informing public health interventions in the battle against AIDS. We had an exceptionally high completion rate: about 80 percent of the persons we had identified to be in our target sample agreed to be interviewed. Contrary to many expectations, the public at large does not in fact experience many problems in discussing sexual matters if they have good reasons to do so and they are asked in an appropriate and respectful manner. In the book that we published based on the survey, The Social Organization of Sexuality (1994), we provide several lengthy chapters evaluating the extent and nature of systematic distortions in responses to sexual questions. In general, we provide, I think, convincing evidence that these distortions are quite modest in degree and can be effectively taken into account when interpreting the results. There certainly were certain questions (e.g., about masturbation and family income) where we knew people were likely to be exaggerating or underestimating the behaviors, but these were generally very modest distortions. In fact, if we take “refused to answer the question” as an indicator of the sensitivity of the question, nearly all the questions directly asking about sexual things

Surveying sex 25

had refusal rates around 1 or 2 percent. In contrast, we had a 12 percent refusal rate about family income – far and away the most sensitive item in the interview.

What do you see as the main advantage of researching sexuality through surveys?

The main advantage of survey research is the cost-efficient capacity to ask about a wide range of topics with varying levels of detail across a representative sample of the adult population, so that one can estimate with known precision the prevalence and distribution of risky sexual practices and thus pinpoint points of intervention in the subpopulations at greatest risk for adverse health outcomes. We acquired an enormous amount of information on such topics as sexual practices, including oral and anal sex, vaginal intercourse, masturbation, and same-gender sex, subjective sexual preferences for different practices, the social factors influencing sexual partner choice, circumcision status, sexual dysfunctions (including erectile and lubrication problems, premature ejaculation, and difficulty having orgasm), sexually transmitted infections, general health and specific health conditions, the influence of social network composition on sexual expression, sexual attitutdes and beliefs about appropriate sexual behavior, and extensive demographic and social characteristics of the respondent and his/her partners. With such information we are in an excellent position to map the distribution of various sexual practices across various population subgroups and to determine whether subpopulations are subject to different levels of risk of disease, happiness, and sexual health.

To convey something of the richness of your research, I would like to ask you about your findings on oral sex. In general, which Americans are practicing oral sex the most? Are there noteworthy social patterns to this sexual practice?

Roughly 75 percent of the men and women in the United States have had oral sex at some time in their lives. But only 1 in 4 engage in oral sex as a current sexual practice. Oral sex, then, is a technique with which most people have at least some familiarity, but it has in no sense become a defining feature of sex between women and men (as vaginal intercourse or, perhaps, kissing is). Somewhat less than 50 percent of men report oral sex as subjectively “very appealing,” while only about half that percentage of women find it

“very appealing.” This should obviously translate into a relative reluctance on the part of women to engage in oral sex (when compared to men), but even among the men there is less than a majority who especially favor the practice. It is a practice that is likely to happen early on in a relationship, but does not remain a strong preference over the long haul of a relationship.

Did your survey find significant differences between men’s and women’s sexuality?

On practically every matter of sexual practice and preference, attitudes and beliefs, numbers of lifetime sex partners, reported levels of sexual fantasy and sexual interest and desire, there are marked differences in men’s and women’s modes of sexual expression.

These gender differences are sometimes enhanced or moderated by marital status, educational level, socioeconomic status, religious group membership, or race/ethnicity.

For example, there appears to be a greater gender gap between African-American men Handbook of the new sexuality studies 26

and women with respect to beliefs about appropriate sexual behavior than there is between white men and women. Men, in general, report a higher lifetime number of sexual partners (measured as a median) than do women. Older men (over 55) are substantially more likely to have an ongoing sexual partner than women will have. For example, 70 percent of women aged 70 will not have had a sex partner in the past year, compared to only 35 percent of men aged 70 who report that they lacked a partner in the past year. About 30 percent of women report that they lacked interest in sex for at least several months in the past year, when compared to only about 15 percent of the men.

Many Americans think of themselves as sexually enlightened and liberated. Does your survey support this view?

No, it most certainly does not. We asked a series of nine questions about people’s beliefs about appropriate sexual behavior, including extramarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, the significance of religious beliefs in guiding sexual conduct, and premarital sex. There were huge differences of opinion on every one of these questions. We were able to group people on the basis of their shared beliefs into three broad categories that range from libertarian to “middle of the road” to conservative points of view. About 25 percent of the sample fell into a well-defined conservative camp and another 25 percent clustered around a strong pro-libertarian or “sexually liberated” point of view. The rest fell squarely in the middle, rejecting the more extreme views of either side. This split is not homogeneously distributed across the country but varies in important ways that greatly affect political debate in the various states. The east and west coasts tend to have more liberally oriented persons, while the south and midwest have substantially larger pluralities of sexually conservative believers. The correspondence with the “blue” and

“red” voting patterns in the last Presidential election (2004) is striking.

What was the most surprising finding in your research?

There is widespread evidence throughout the survey for the notion that persons who are involved in ongoing, mutually monogamous sexual partnerships report substantially higher levels of physical and emotional satisfaction with their sexual partnerships than those who report being in concurrent or overlapping sexual partnerships. Sexual competition appears to interfere with the building of commitment and trust in the larger social relationship in which the sexual partnership is embedded, and this, in turn, seems to have consequences for the physical and emotional satisfaction with the partnership itself.

Based on your research, what are Americans’ chief sexual frustrations and fears, and their chief sexual satisfactions?

Perhaps the most surprising finding of this research is the relatively high levels of sexual dysfunction being reported by both men and women at all phases of the life course.

About 43 percent of the women and 31 percent of the men reported at least one episode of sexual dysfunction of several months’ duration over the past year. Some 30 percent of women said they lacked sexual interest or desire for several months in the past year,

Surveying sex 27

while 30 percent of men complained about premature ejaculation as a problem. Nearly all these sexual difficulties could be shown to be associated with lowered levels of overall happiness and satisfaction with one’s life. On the other hand, there was no simple relationship between the volume of sexual activity and general life satisfaction. Much more research needs to be done to clarify and elaborate on how people achieve positive sexual health, and its role in generating a good quality of life.

Handbook of the new sexuality studies 28

Part 2

In document Hanbook of New Sexual Studies (Page 38-44)