Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 10, October 24, 2007


Chapter 1



Recognition of the importance of sexual research has been a slow process. In the United States it has been only since World War II that any significant research has been undertaken, given the anti-sexual public attitudes towards these supposedly "taboo" subjects. The collection of reliable material on extramarital sexual activity was, until the Seventies, especially difficult due to informants' fears of exposure and censure. Consequently, there are few early broad-based surveys to which today's attitudes and practices can be compared.

Sexologists will be eternally grateful to Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin and Gebhard (1948/1953) for their pioneer research on post-World-War-II sexuality which has served as a benchmark against which all subsequent research, including that on extramarital sexuality can be measured.

The findings of Kinsey and his associates, that 50% of their married men and 26% of their married women had had some incidents of extramarital coitus, astonished the American public at that time and, indeed, in some segments continues to do so to this day. The researchers went even further than tabulation, however, and tried to define the background variables which determined different rates of extramarital sex for sub-groups of society.

To briefly summarize their results, Kinsey et al. found that for men extramarital sex was most common among those who were not religious and who were from urban areas. In addition, lower class males experienced extramarital sex at younger ages than did middle or upper class men. For women, they discovered that the most likely age for extramarital sex was between the mid-thirties and early forties. Education increased the likelihood of a female's having extramarital sex, as did a history of premarital intercourse.

Since Kinsey's sample was influenced by Northern and urban elements, some critics have stated that his research data does not apply to the entire spectrum of the American public. Despite any degree of validity of this criticism, Kinsey's research in human sexual behavior is monumental and provides, for our purposes, an invaluable behavior pattern among his particular group.

Neubeck and Schletzer's (1962) structured interview survey of 40 married Midwestern couples provides a contrast to Kinsey's findings, as their incidence of extramarital sex among Minneapolis area professionals yielded an incidence rate of only 13% overall. While their figures are not broken down by sex, their results do indicate that, in general, individuals from this part of the country were at that time more conservative than Kinsey's population.

The 1966 study conducted by Whitehurst (1966) sampled 112 middle class Midwestern businessmen via a questionnaire. In addition to querying his population on their sexual behavior in and outside of marriage, he also measured their social alienation using a scale developed out of questions on powerlessness and social isolation. The results showed an overall rate of extramarital sex of 23% (again a figure lower than Kinsey's), with 80% of the extensive extramarital involvement by the high alienation group.

Whitehurst's research bears out Kinsey's contention that religious involvement is a factor in extramarital sex, as he found that 83% of the non-extramarital sex group gave religious and moral reasons as the cause of their fidelity. Furthermore, Whitehurst’s data explained the Kinsey correlation between age and extramarital sex by identifying increasing alienation over time as the mediating variable.

While Whitehurst's results cannot be generalized because of the location and class bias of his population, he takes the position that phenomena occurring in his trend-setting upper middle class will sooner or later spread to the rest of the population.

This same reasoning was followed by Cuber and Harnoff (1965) as justification for their case history interview study of 437 upper middle class marriages. While they provided no statistics, their observations of the effect of extramarital sex on marriage makes it clear that variables such as partner consent and participation are important determinants in whether extramarital sex will harm or be tolerated within the marriage dyad. It is in this work that the idea is first encountered of the separation of sexual fidelity from the 'living together' aspect of marriage, as articulated by the respondents themselves.

While Roebuck and Spray's (1967) narrative description of cocktail lounge behavior by upper middle class men presents no statistics or sample size, it does provide insights into clandestine extramarital sex behavior which resulted in no overt damage to the marriages involved. Journalistic observations of this, and indeed all types of extramarital sex patterns, were made by Hunt (1969) in his case history discussion of affairs.

The paucity of statistical follow-ups to the Kinsey research comes to an end with the beginning of the Seventies. Athanasiou's (1970) Psychology Today questionnaire survey on sexual attitudes and practices covered 20,000 male and female respondents drawn from the readership of the magazine. This willingness of both scientists and respondents to tackle sexual issues in large-scale research may, in itself, be an indication that the liberalization of sexual behavior in the U.S. was beginning to have an impact on sexual mores.

Despite the size of the sample, Athanasiou's informants did not represent a true cross-section of Americans, but rather a young (67% were 34 or under), well-educated (52% had one or more college degrees) and affluent group (61% earned $10,00 or more per annum). Moreover, 77% rated themselves as either 'very' or 'somewhat' liberal in their sexual attitudes. Nonetheless, these results from the same trend-setting group as studied by earlier researchers may be similarly seen as indicative of attitudes possibly spreading through American society in coming years.

One of the most interesting findings was an attitude/behavior discrepancy. While 80% rated extramarital sex acceptable in various circumstances, figures for actual extramarital sex were only 40% for men and 36%; for women.

If Athanasiou's results are compared with the Kinsey data, it can be seen that for women there has been a 10% increase in practice. If Kinsey's conclusion that women and men of this class experience most extramarital sex after the mid-thirties is still accurate, it suggests that the incidence rate of this young and liberal population may increase even further with age.

Special mention should be made of the rejection of deception as a method of dealing with the spouse of the experimenting partner. Athanasiou's sample is saying 'no' to the older method of handling extramarital sex as a clandestine affair, in favor of greater honesty between a married couple. That this is considered as a possibility suggests that for this group, the monogamy/marriage identification pattern has begun to be less automatic by this date. Openness has been carried by 5% of Athanasiou's sample as far as the actual practice of comarital sex.

That the highly open behavior and attitude of the young and liberal had not, by 1970, spread throughout all strata of society can been seen if Athanasiou's data is contrasted with Johnson's (1970) structured interview survey of 100 middle-aged married couples. Here, only 20% of the husbands and 10% of the wives reported extramarital sex. In attempting to determine the variables governing these percentages, Johnson identified satisfaction with marital sex and lack of perceived opportunities for extramarital sex. While there appeared to be a stronger relationship between marital sex dissatisfaction and extramarital sex for men than for women, it was positively correlated for both.

Perhaps more suggestive of future trends than is actually being practiced are Johnson's data on opportunity for extramarital sex versus involvement. In 40% of the marriages where some occasion for extramarital sex had existed, one of the partners had conducted an affair. If opportunity is then a crucial variable in extramarital sex, any increase in occasion for it might raise the incidence rates throughout the group so affected.

Gradual liberalizing extramarital sexual behavior on the part of one segment of the population may generate more liberal behavior on the part of other individuals as well. Potential for this is further indicated by Johnson's finding that 58% of the husbands and 27% of the wives felt that under some circumstances extramarital sex was justified. This attitude/behavior split is comparable to that discovered by Athanasiou, although the percentages in this more conservative group were not as high.

Via questionnaires and interviews, Morton Hunt (1974) surveyed 2,026 men and women whose ages, background and geographical distribution were representative of the country at large. His results fall along the lines mapped out by Athanasiou and Johnson. As Johnson's older group was less liberal than Athanasiou's young sample, so does Hunt find that his youngest segment tended to be less monogamous than older cohorts. While Hunt projects a slight increase in extramarital sex for younger men, for his women the actual rate is higher. In the 18-24 age category, 24% have had extramarital sex, versus 21% in the 25-34 age group, and 12% in the 45-54 age range.

These generational differences can also be seen in Hunt's data on comarital sex, which showed that 5% of his younger population had experienced it, versus 2% of the older. This is particularly interesting in view of other studies' characterizations of swingers as predominantly middle-aged, e.g., Bartell, (1972); Smith and Smith (1974). Gilmartin's (1973) otherwise excellent report of interviews with 100 'swinging' couples in California unfortunately failed to describe the age range of his sample.

Furthermore, what may be important as an indicator of current trends is the behavior of the younger group (18-24). These are the people who are most likely to be affected by the protest of adult hypocrisies and the new ideas of sexual freedom of the Sixties, as they have grown up with them. As noted above, in Hunt's data there had been a major upswing in extramarital sexual activity among this segment.

The question of extramarital sex rates and ages becomes complicated further when Hunt's results are viewed against another major survey of the Seventies, that of Bell (1974). His questionnaire on sexual practices and attitudes sampled 2,372 married women of all ages and education levels, and revealed an overall extramarital sex incidence rate of 26%. This is exactly the same as Kinsey's, and higher than Hunt's 18%. Moreover, the relationship between age and extramarital sex followed a different curve than Hunt's. In Bell's work it peaked at 34% in the 26-30 range, versus Hunt's peak at 24% in the 18-24 cohort.

Such comparison problems as we find between Hunt and Bell should not obscure, however, what seems to be a major trend in all the surveys from the late Sixties and early Seventies: higher rates of extramarital sex among younger (30 or less) women than were found by Kinsey. If we hold with Kinsey and Johnson that extramarital sex rates increase with age, opportunity, and marital dissatisfaction, the percentage for older cohorts should rise with time until they overtake Kinsey's pre-Sixties data. Bell's questionnaire included information questions on a variety of background variables, for example: age, length of marriage, marital satisfaction. His statistical correlation of these with extramarital sex yielded what have come to be fairly standard results. Less religion, for example, and lower rates of marital satisfaction are noted for women who engage in extramarital sex. The unusual point about Bell's results is less the correlation than the size of the percentage of extramarital-sex-participant women rating their marriage poor or very poor. Here it is 67% in contrast to Johnson's 50%. In addition, Bell's figure of 5% for comarital sex is the same as Hunt's 5% comarital sex percentage for his younger groups, and identical to Athanasiou's 5% results.

The discrepancy between more liberal attitudes and behavior is again present in Bell's report. A full 50% of his sample felt that they would 'probably' or 'certainly' experience extramarital sex in the future, almost double the rate of actual occurrence. Furthermore, 25% of his women said they would like to experience comarital sex.

The next major findings on extramarital sex behavior come from Levin's (1975) Redbook readership questionnaire on sexual practices. This yielded a massive 100,000 responses from a broad spectrum of women whose overall extramarital sex rate was found to be 30%. This percentage was higher than the 10% of Johnson's conservative group, and also more than Bell's 26% and Hunt's 18%. It is, however, lower than the 36% rate of Psychology Today's liberals a few years earlier.

Levin's rate for the 25-and-under group is 25%, similar to Hunt's 24%, and somewhat higher than Bell's 17%. The most interesting finding is in Redbook's recording of a 38% extramarital sex percentage among women 35-39. This is higher than Kinsey's rate for that cohort, and supports the hypothesis that even among that supposedly more sexually conservative group, there has been a liberalization of behavior since the 1950's.

Further noteworthy results from Levin's survey include a direct confirmation of Johnson's point about opportunity being a crucial variable in extramarital sex activity. Levin found that 47% of working wives aged 35-39 have had extramarital sex, versus 27% of those who stayed at home. In addition, marital satisfaction was investigated as a variable in the Redbook report. While the results were not as high as Bell's 67% dissatisfaction rate, Levin does not that only 50% of his extramarital­sex-participant wives said they were happily married, a figure that corroborates Johnson's 50%.

Two smaller studies conducted in the Seventies (Edwards and Booth, 1976, Maykovich, 1976) support various findings of the major reports considered above. In Edward's discussion of his interviews of 507 Canadian men and women, he goes along with Hunt, Athanasiou and Bell in noting that extramarital sex is more likely among younger men and women. He also supports Levin and Bell in his summary of the relationship between marital satisfaction and extramarital sex, stating:

The more negative the perception of the marriage, the greater the sexual deprivation in marriage, and as the latter increases, the more likely one is to seek sex outside the relationship.

Minako Maykovich's small interview survey of the sexual practices and attitudes of 100 35-40-year-old married middle class women yielded an extramarital sexual behavior rate of 32%. This is somewhat lower than the Redbook results, but still higher than Kinsey's or any of the other earlier surveys. Her findings also indicated more liberal attitudes than behavior, with a 50% approval rate for extramarital sex.

Glass and Wright (1977), reanalyzed Athanasiou's 1970 data in an effort to better define the relationship between marital satisfaction and extramarital sex. In general, they found that sex outside marriage for young men indicates lower marital satisfaction, but for women it is a search for variety. Extramarital sex men's rating of their marriage satisfaction does not change with age, but for older married women, extramarital sex is correlat with lowered satisfaction.

While there are broad outlines of agreement and disagreement between the various reports of the last twenty-five years, the differing methodologies, samples, etc., make it difficult to reconcile, or even compare the results accurately.

To summarize the observations thus far, among young women, at least, there is a strong suggestion of a trend toward greater sexual liberality than in Kinsey's time. It is less certain whether older women are experiencing the same increase in activity as their younger counterparts. According to Levin and Maykovich, there has been a definite increase since Kinsey. Hunt and Bell, on the other hand, found no differences from the Kinsey results.

For men, the lack of data makes the current situation even less clear than for women. Surveys conducted after Kinsey have shown somewhat lower rates of extramarital sex for men than Kinsey found. The possible exception to this is among younger men, although the increase from Kinsey is slight even among this group. It is unfortunate that no major surveys have been done for men since Athanasiou in 1970, as changes are possibly occurring which have simply not been picked up by research.

That women, or some groups of them, have increased their extramarital activity since Kinsey's time more than men, can be explained by considering the historical background of male versus female extramarital sex. The attitudes prevalent a generation ago have been nowhere more intelligently summarized than by Kinsey:

It is widely understood that many males fail to be satisfied with sexual relations that are confined to their wives, and would like to make at least occasional contacts with females to whom they are not married. While it is generally realized that there are some females who similarly desire and actually engage in extramarital coitus, public opinion is less certain about the inclination and behavior of the average female in this regard. Most societies ... permit or condone extramarital coitus for the male if he is reasonably circumspect about it, and if he does not carry it to extremes which would break up his home ... Even in those societies which overtly forbid all non-marital coitus, there is a covert toleration of occasional lapses if social difficulties do not arise from such acts. There are few, if any human societies in which the male’s extramarital coitus is very stringently suppressed or very severely punished.

On the other hand, such extramarital activity is much less frequently permitted or condoned for the female, although it may be covertly condoned if it is not too flagrant and if the husband is not particularly disturbed. As our later data may indicate, this seems to be the direction toward which American attitudes may be moving.

What is clear from the above is that men have traditionally been relatively free to express their extramarital sex drives, and thus the loosening of the remaining prohibitions against extramarital sex for men would be likely to increase the extramarital behavior of only that limited percentage who had felt socially constrained in the past, or might increase the frequency and total number of partners.

For women, however, the situation is somewhat different. Their earlier condition was, as Kinsey said, to consider extramarital sex as a strictly forbidden activity. Moreover, Kinsey also makes reference to the fact that the extent of women's desire for extramarital sex was even in question at that time. An abandonment of the notion that women are somehow less sexed than men has been one of the hallmarks of the intervening years, and it seems likely that once the prohibitions were removed, the extramarital sex rate for women would go up. That it seems to be approaching the male rate, for younger women at least, has been noted throughout the surveys reviewed here. The attitude research conducted simultaneously in many of these reports indicates, moreover, that more women probably desire or anticipate extramarital sex than actually experience it.

Go to Chapters 2-4


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