Q&A: Bob Altemeyer, author, sex and youth

The myths that surround sexuality and university students

From Friday's Globe and Mail

First-year university students aren't diving into one-night stands, many are still virgins and when they do set to the task, many nominate the languid missionary position.

These and other nuggets can be found in Sex and Youth, (Lulu Press) a new book by Bob Altemeyer, a retired University of Manitoba psychology professor who has been surveying his first-year students about their sex lives for 24 years – 4,356 women and 2,880 men in total.

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Among the surprises: In his 2007 survey, nearly half the men and one-quarter of the women acknowledged being virgins. Over the years, most respondents preferred long-term romances to “hookups.” And contrary to current suggestions that oral sex is doled out as casually as fist bumps, many of the students viewed it as “a major sex act” reserved for their romantic partner.

The results also suggest that although young women enjoy sex as much as men, and communication is improving in the bedroom, porn is having a profound impact on people's intimate lives and sometimes dividing the genders.

Dr. Altemeyer culled his findings from “an anonymous but highly invasive secret survey” he offered his students every January after Christmas break. He spoke with The Globe and Mail.

You found that even though first-year students aren't losing their virginity much earlier than they did in 1984, they are becoming sexually active a lot earlier. By age 17, most women had brought their partners to orgasm through oral sex “many times.” You write that it has much to do with early onset puberty, but you also talk about pop culture's “incendiary propellants.”

There's some evidence that menstruation begins when girls reach a certain weight. North American kids have gotten heavier sooner now. As for the incendiary propellants, I'm referring to popular music, TV advertising and magazines for teens that stress the importance of appearance and having sex appeal. Within the first-year cohort, virginity has decreased among young women and increased among young men since 1984, when those stats were reversed. Why? It's easy to explain the increase. The sexual revolution, which began with improved means of contraception, has mainly affected women. The guys haven't changed that much, but it's taking them a little longer now to get into the game. The women their age are getting it on with older guys. They start sooner and do it a lot more. The guys their age will never catch up in sexual experience, as a group.

You write about Internet pornography changing sex: “The goal posts have been moved down the field mainly because of porn.” Many of the men you surveyed were much more demanding about oral sex – and getting it “their way” – than their counterparts were a decade ago. Women comply, even though they don't always enjoy it. You also attribute the decline in necking and making out to an impatience bred out of watching porn. Do you think people's sex lives will increasingly mirror porn?

I think guys' sexual desires are strongly affected by what they see in porn, and that's why they sometimes pressure their girlfriends to do things they don't want to do. But the guys don't always get what they see in porn and want, such as sex with several women at a time, because the girlfriends would say no. So there are some limits to what porn can lead to.

The main negative impact of porn, if I understand the research literature correctly, is that it makes guys unhappy about their own sex lives.There is a shifting emphasis among young men to desire women who are the “aggressors” during sex. This is a shift from traditional male-dominating roles. How did this evolve?

Men do want women to be more active and aggressive in sex. It was the thing guys mentioned most when describing what would be ideal sex for them. It's pretty easy to see why men would want a woman “who really wants it.” But beyond the promise of intense carnality, it also takes pressure off the guy to always take the initiative, and risk being rejected, if rejection is the last thing on the woman's mind.

Despite all this, you found that missionary is still popular, with the fussier 69 position largely uncommon. What do you make of that?

The missionary position is by far the most commonly used position for intercourse. And that's because missionary is the position chosen most often by the “gatekeeper,” not because it is the most erotic, but because it is the most bonding. And you know who the gatekeeper is.

In many ways, sex remains a distinct experience for the sexes: The women in your studies appear to desire closeness and love, while the men want aggressive women and oral sex. What are the consequences of these divides?

I wouldn't characterize the divide that way. I think the difference is women still want closeness and love most out of sex, and guys still want eroticism. What are the consequences? The chances are pretty good that when a woman and a man get into bed together, they have markedly different agendas. But I think more people understand that now and can meet psychologically as well as physically “somewhere in the middle.”

You would share the results of the secret survey with the class in February. What were they most surprised by?

It was a highly anticipated lecture. There was a real tension in the air, so that the simplest wisecrack got roars of laughter. The students were very curious because they thought they knew what people their age were doing, but realized they didn't. I think they were surprised by most of the results, but certainly the levels of virginity, the enormously greater experience of the women in the class, the fact that almost all sex was happening in romantic relationships while “hunters and gatherers” were getting very little, the level of cheating, the differences in women's and men's fantasies – all of these things usually drew audible gasps.

Who is this book intended for? Do you think parents will freak out or be placated?

I wrote it for parents as much as anyone else. One of the questions I asked the students was, “How much do your parents know about your sex life?” And almost everybody said, “Practically nothing.” There is a fair amount of sex going on among high-school students, it seems. Most of it appears to be being done pretty responsibly, with high uses of condoms for example, and premarital monogamy the rule, not promiscuity. Whether parents are freaked out or placated, I hope they'll be informed. And their children might be informed by the definite fact that not everybody's doing it.