Equality puts more sparks in intimacy

Sex better among older when men, women on same level


Mature adults in countries where men and women hold equal status had more satisfying sex lives than those in male-dominated societies, according to a study billed as the first of its kind to document and compare sexual behavior and satisfaction among middle-aged and older people worldwide.

Surveying 27,500 men and women between the ages of 40 and 80 who live in 29 countries, researchers at the University of Chicago found that people reported the greatest sexual satisfaction in Western countries including Austria, Canada and the United States. Least satisfied were residents of Japan and Taiwan.

France, Sweden and Mexico also made the top group. Italians reported a medium level of satisfaction, placing them in the same category as Brazil, Israel and Turkey.

Overall, the researchers concluded in a report released this week, couples who live in cultures where men and women are relatively equal were most likely to report that their sex lives were satisfying, physically and emotionally.

But in countries where men traditionally are more dominant, older people reported less satisfying sex on average - especially in East Asia and, to a lesser extent, in the Middle East.

Sociologist Edward Laumann, who directed the study, proposes that when relationships are based on equality, couples form sexual habits that are more likely to suit both parties' needs and interests.

"Male-centered cultures where sexual behavior is more oriented toward procreation tend to discount the importance of sexual pleasure for women," he said.

The "Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors," published in this month's Archives of Sexual Behavior, sought to assess the impact of aging, health conditions and culture on sexual well-being. It was funded by Pfizer Inc., the maker of Viagra.

Depending on local customs, people were either called randomly on the phone, approached for in-person interviews or contacted by mail.

The research claims to be the first major international study to include large numbers of respondents from diverse belief systems, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other Asian religions, and atheism.

"We got kicked out of Saudi Arabia, once they found out the kind of questions we were asking," Laumann said. "But we got large numbers of Muslims from other countries to participate. I consider that data very precious. We were talking to people who hadn't been talked to before."

The research has some limitations, the researchers pointed out, including the different modes for administering the survey, an overall low percentage of subjects who were willing to discuss the topics, and inconsistencies from country to country in response rates.

But Laumann said the information nonetheless provides an important baseline for future studies.

"Many more of us are going to have a life that goes into the 80s, so it behooves us to start asking these questions," he said.

Laumann is one of the nation's leading authorities on the sociology of sex. He co-authored The Social Organization of Sexuality, widely considered the most comprehensive U.S. sex survey since the Kinsey Report. It was based on personal interviews in the early 1990s, the sexual topics ranged widely and results have been released in installments over the years.

As the author or co-author of several important scholarly books and articles, he has pursued wide-ranging interests including studying the relationships between sexual behaviors and social institutions in Chicago, and serving as co-principal investigator of the National Survey of Chinese Sexual Practices.

In the latest study, monogamy and commitment were found to be cherished throughout the world, despite great differences in culture and tradition. Foreplay (five to 30 minutes) has a positive association everywhere, especially for women. Statistics on female sexual dysfunction were surprisingly similar, as well.

"Anywhere you go in the world, one woman in three reports sexual problems that are affecting her happiness. Why is that happening? Without population studies, we'd never even know there's a problem," Laumann said.

During the survey, respondents were asked whether they were happy in general and whether they were happy with their sex lives. Results indicated that feelings of sexual well-being strongly correlated with overall happiness for both men and women.

The researchers found that in Western nations, two-thirds of men and women reported that their sexual life was physically and emotionally satisfying. About half the men and one-third of the women said that sex is extremely or very important in their lives.

Fifty percent of men in Middle Eastern nations found their sex lives satisfying, compared with 38 percent of women. Sixty percent of men and 37 percent of women said sex is important in their lives.

In East Asian countries, only about a quarter of men and women reported satisfying sex lives. Among men, 28 percent said sex is important to them. Just 12 percent of the women said it was important.

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