Around the world in 80 lays

British researchers turn up some surprising findings in the first-ever global sex survey.

Page Rockwell
November 2, 2006 1:00AM (UTC)

Don't tell our blinkered federal government, but British medical journal the Lancet has taken a cue from Cosmo and conducted a global sex survey, uncovering all sorts of surprising findings about human sexual behavior in the process. As it turns out, "people aren't losing their virginity at ever-younger ages, married people have the most sex, and there is no firm link between promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases," the Associated Press reports.

Researchers had expected to find that high STD rates are linked with promiscuity, but they had their "preconceptions dashed," as one researcher put it -- in industrialized countries with low STD rates, three-quarters of respondents reported being sexually active, while in African nations with high STD rates, only two-thirds of those surveyed reported sexual activity. In industrialized countries like Australia, Britain, France and the U.S., though, men and women have comparable numbers of sexual partners, whereas in Cameroon, Haiti and Kenya, men may have multiple partners while women stick to one. The research team concluded that "promiscuity may be less important than factors such as poverty and education -- especially in the encouragement of condom use -- in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases." That last part should really be a no-brainer; here's hoping some policy wonks are listening to the Lancet.


Location and marital status also have implications for whether women are able to insist that their partners use condoms, the researchers found. Because it's fairly common for married men in Africa and Asia to visit prostitutes, married women in those regions may be more vulnerable to contracting STDs -- in these areas, "a single woman is more able to negotiate safe sex in certain circumstances than a married woman," World Health Organization reproductive health and research director Paul van Look told the AP. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicines professor Kaye Wellings added that the economics of marriage can also work to women's disadvantage: "In countries where women are beholden to their male partners, they are likely not to have the power to request condom use, and they probably won't know about their husbands' transgressions," she said. For this reason, the current global trend toward delaying marriage may have added benefits for women.

The study also found that the average age for beginning sexual activity is holding steady at 15-19 years worldwide (though kids in industrialized countries tend to begin having sex on the earlier side of that spectrum, it seems, and in general girls start having sex earlier than boys do).

As eye-opening as this study is, its validity is potentially hampered by the fact that its results are based on self-reporting. Respondents may have answered researchers' questions truthfully, but on the other hand, they may have responded according to their sense of what an appropriate answer is.

Still, we're psyched to see researchers getting a fresh take on sex lives around the globe -- and when world-health news prompts frisky headlines like "Swinging Singles Just Can't Keep Up With Married Lovers," "Married Folk Get Laid Most," and "Sex With Many Partners? No Thanks, We're British," you know it's a happy day.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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