Sex issues research: nine out of ten Americans have premarital sex

A new study Tuesday says that 90% of American women and men have had premarital sex.

The most recent issue of Public Health Reports includes the surprising results of a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based think tank that studies sexual reproductive issues. The study was based on interviews conducted with more than 38,000 people in 1982, 1988, 1995, and 2002, for the federal National Survey of Family Growth. About 33,000 of the study participants were women.

According to the study’s author, Lawrence Finer, 99% of the respondents had had sex by age 44, and 95% had had sex before marriage. In a subgroup of those who abstained from sex until age 20 or older, 80% had had premarital sex by age 44. The study also found that women are just as likely to engage in premarital sex as men. Among women born between 1950 and 1978, at least 91% had had premarital sex by age 30, while among those born in the1940s, 88% had done so by age 44.

Finer, a research director at the institute, said that his group disagrees with government-funded programs that rely primarily on abstinence-only teachings. Such programs have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding under the Bush administration. “It would be more effective,” Finer said, “to provide young people with the skills and information they need to be safe once they become sexually active, which nearly everyone will.”

“This is reality-check research,” said Finer. “Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades.” He added that the likelihood of Americans having premarital sex has been fairly constant since the 1950s, even though people are getting married older now and are therefore sexually active longer as singles. “The data clearly show that the majority of older teens and adults have already had sex before marriage, which calls into question the federal government’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for 12- to 29-year-olds,” Finer said.

Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that the abstinence-only approach of government initiatives is directed toward teenagers, not adults such as those the institute interviewed. “One of its values is to help young people delay the onset of sexual activity,” he said. “The longer one delays, the fewer lifetime sex partners they have, and the less the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.”

Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group which strongly supports abstinence-only education, said she is skeptical of the findings. “Any time I see numbers that high, I’m a little suspicious,” she said. “The numbers are too pat.”

However, Horn said that the high percentages of premarital sex revealed by the study are plausible, but he hopes that society will not discount the small minority that chooses to wait until after marriage to have sex. He also made it clear that there is no federal mission to preach against premarital sex among adults. “Absolutely not,” Horn said. “The Bush administration does not believe the government should be regulating or stigmatizing the behavior of adults.”

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