Americans get it on

Abstinence-only sex ed be damned -- a new survey demonstrates the enduring popularity of premarital nooky.

Published December 20, 2006 1:18AM (EST)

Don't you love it when research comes in that supports your political position? A new report titled "Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1953-2003" (PDF), to be published in the February 2007 issue of Public Health Reports, suggests that -- drum roll, please -- most Americans have sex before marriage.

Anyone who's listened to the lyrics of the recent hit "Smack That" probably won't find it shocking that in 2002, 93 percent of survey respondents admitted to having had premarital sex by age 30. Somewhat more surprising is that this behavior isn't new -- according to the report, among people who turned 15 between 1954 and 1963, 82 percent had had premarital sex before 30. Knocking boots before marriage is, it seems, as American as apple pie.

That's interesting in and of itself, but more important, the report uses this evidence of sexual promiscuity to question America's current emphasis on abstinence-only education. If Americans have been engaging in premarital fornication for decades -- even in times when it was less socially acceptable to do so -- then does it really make sense to try to stop the behavior? The report's authors don't think so. "Almost all Americans have sex before marrying," the report reads. "These findings argue for education and interventions that provide the skills and information people need to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases once they become sexually active, regardless of marital status."

The report also points out that these sorts of interventions and educational programs are needed more now than ever, since Americans are marrying later than they used to (over the past 25 years, the median age for first marriage for women has increased from 22.1 to 25.8; for men, from 24.4 to 27.4). Whereas in 1970, 16 percent of Americans had never been married, today that figure is 25 percent, which suggests -- as the report puts it -- "that many individuals have a long interval after puberty and before marrying during which they may become sexually active."

The debate over sex education will continue to rage regardless of statistics, but I do think this report's two main points are important to keep in mind:

a. Americans have always scromped.
b. Now that we're marrying later, we've got more time than ever in which to do it.

Given those facts and the societal problems that come from unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STDs, the logical solution seems like a no-brainer.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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