A new study from the Kinsey Institute published in the journal Sexual Health shows that people do not agree on the definition of the term "had sex." These findings reinforce the need for clear and precise communication around sexual topics by health care providers, researchers, educators, and parents.
The study published in February is a broader reexamination of an original study published in 1999 during the heated debate around the meaning of "to have sexual relations." In the original study participants were all college students, however, in the new study participants were a representative sample of 486 English-speaking Indiana residents ranging in age from 18 - 96 years. Kinsey research associate and study co-author, Brandon Hill said, "Throwing the net wider, with a more representative sample, only made it more confusing and complicated. People were even less consistent across the board."
Through a telephone survey participants were asked, "Would you say you 'had sex' if the most intimate behavior you engage in was . . .," followed by 14 specific behaviors. Here are some of the results:
• Responses did not differ significantly overall for men and women. The study involved 204 men and 282 women.
• 95 percent of respondents would consider penile-vaginal intercourse having had sex, but this rate drops to 89 percent if there is no ejaculation.
• 81 percent considered penile-anal intercourse having had sex, with the rate dropping to 77 percent for men in the youngest age group (18-29), 50 percent for men in the oldest age group (65 and up) and 67 percent for women in the oldest age group.
• 71 percent and 73 percent considered oral contact with a partner's genitals, either performing or receiving, as having had sex.
• Men in the youngest and oldest age groups were less likely to consider oral-genital contact "sex" compared with the middle two age groups.
• Significantly fewer men in the oldest age group considered penile-vaginal intercourse to be sex (77 percent), when compared to the other respondents.
William Yarber, HSD, is Director of the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention in Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and one of the study co-authors. He points out that, "There's a vagueness of what sex is in our culture and media. If people don't consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them. The AIDS epidemic has forced us to be much more specific about behaviors, as far as identifying specific behaviors that put people at risk instead of just sex in general. But there's still room for improvement."
Researchers suggest that physicians, researchers, and educators should use precise behavior-specific terminology and not assume that their personal definition of what it means to have "had sex" is shared by the people with which they are working.
Eli Coleman, PhD, commented on this study in an ABC News article "Study: Adults Can't Agree What 'Sex' Means."
Sanders, S.A., Hill, B.J., Yarber, W.L., Graham, C.A., Crosby, R.A., & Milhausen, R.R. (2010). Misclassification bias: Diversity in conceptualisations about having 'had sex'. Sexual Health, 7, 31-34. doi:10.1071/SH09068
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