Global Sex Survey: Satisfied in the West A groundbreaking international sex survey reveals that couples in Western countries are the most sexually satisfied, and countries in East appear to be less satisfied. University of Chicago researchers surveyed more than 27,000 middle-aged and elderly people worldwide about their sex lives.
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Global Sex Survey: Satisfied in the West

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Global Sex Survey: Satisfied in the West

Global Sex Survey: Satisfied in the West

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick. Now to the good stuff.

A new survey reported in the archives of sexual behavior rates countries and regions around the world by sexual satisfaction among older people, people over 40.

America, you are not number one, but you're actually doing okay. Edward Laumann is the survey director. He's a leading scholar on the sociology of human sexuality and he's a professor at the University of Chicago. He joins us now from there.

Prof. LAUMANN, welcome to the program.

Prof. EDWARD LAUMANN (Professor, University of Chicago): Well, thank you. I'm very happy to be with you.

CHADWICK: And what exactly were you trying to discover with this survey?

Prof. LAUMANN: Sexual studies in the past have focused upon younger people and issues of unwanted pregnancies, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases. There's been generally a neglect of the role of sexuality in, later in life, in the second half of life. And since so many of us are going to be living through that period, it behooves us, I think, to become much more better informed about what's going on during that period of our life.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, generally speaking, what are the findings?

Prof. LAUMANN: We formulated our problem as subjective sexual well-being and we tried to assess that with respect to four different questions. One asked about physical pleasure and satisfaction with your partner. Another about the emotional satisfaction with the partner. A third was evaluating the importance of sexuality in your life at the present time. And finally, evaluating your capacity to engage in sexual things.

CHADWICK: Well, let's get to the results. Now, what are the findings?

Prof. LAUMANN: Well, in general, we find that men and women evaluate subjective sexual well being differently. Men generally have a 10 points higher positive evaluation of their well being relative to women in their country.

Secondly, we found a cluster of countries which are, broadly speaking, the Western countries and developed countries of the world, they include Europe, South America, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, and the average subjective sexual well being is about 65 percent.

CHADWICK: Are you surprised by that number? I mean, that seems like a -- that seems like a good number to me. Two thirds of the people are relatively happy with their, or quite happy with their sexual lives.

Prof. LAUMANN: That's exactly right. But what was interesting is that it departs strongly from that of other parts of the world. In the Middle East, the average drops to 50 and in the third group of countries, which is essentially East Asia, it drops to 30.

We offer the idea that those countries that tend to have more gender equal or neutral ways of treating sexuality for both men and women are likely to find more satisfaction than those countries where there is a patriarchal or male dominated feature of sexuality where women are highly subordinated.

CHADWICK: So a key finding, it seems to me, in your correlation with these sort of male dominated societies, is that in the societies that are male dominated, men are less satisfied with their sexual lives than men in societies where genders are more or less equal.

Prof. LAUMANN: That's exactly right. It reminds me of the old saying that when mama's not happy, nobody's happy. And it clearly shows that sexuality is a jointly produced experience and when people are not fully participating in it, it detracts from the pleasure and satisfaction of both parties.

CHADWICK: How do you even know what sexual satisfaction is? I suppose you can ask people, but how do you measure that?

Prof. LAUMANN: I think that it's a question of how you, how would you assess whether someone is happy. I mean, they have to tell you. I mean, they are the best respondent, best source of information about it. There is no biological correlate, at least that we know at the present time about the state of euphoria or happiness. These are matters of subjective report.

What I find remarkable is that it varies so strongly across the world because you would expect that people would be thinking about their particular cultural circumstances and you would not expect that people would be necessarily low in their estimation comparing themselves to other people in their circumstances. And yet there seems to be a rather dramatic variation across the world and extremely patterned.

And I underscore that these people are responding in very different languages to the same kind of question. We spend a lot of time worrying about the translation, but we have Japanese and Chinese and Thai, Indonesian speakers, are all being asked these questions and coming up with relatively similar patterns of evaluation.

CHADWICK: I was very interested to see that you do correlate general happiness with sexual happiness. That is, the two really do seem to go together.

Prof. LAUMANN: That's correct. Now, this is a cross-section survey, so both of the states of mind are being measured at the same time, so we can't say one causes the other.

CHADWICK: Here are the top five countries that you rate for sexual satisfaction and happiness. Number one, Austria; that was a surprise to me. Number two, Belgium; number three, Canada; number four, I forget; and number five, the United States.

Prof. LAUMANN: Yes. There's been a lot of fascination in the press about the rank order. It's sort of like the soccer world series. It seems to be a little bit misplaced. These are very tightly clustered groups of averages. For example, Austria has about a 69 or 70. The U.S., which is five ranks down, has a 66 and a half. So to make a big deal out of a couple of points seems to be a misplaced interest.

CHADWICK: How do you measure honesty in something like this? How do you know people are being truthful and frank with you?

Prof. LAUMANN: The issue of candor is always a question in these surveys. My experience with surveys, and I've asked a lot of them, is that people, once they accept the legitimacy of the inquiry, want to be candid and frank about it because it's an important part of their lives. They have no particular reasons to lie. I think the intuition that many of us have that we're going to misrepresent ourselves sexually is because we correctly worry about what our friends and neighbors might make if making a statement or reporting an event that reflects oddly on us.

In these surveys, this is a remarkable experience because you're not going to see this person again; you're not going to -- that information is gone, and you can sort of share it without worrying about it coming back to bite you.

CHADWICK: This is a study, we'll note, that was paid for by the drug-maker Pfizer, which produces Viagra, among other drugs. I wonder if anyone would look at your research and say, well, you know, this is Viagra research. This is pro-Viagra research. It's studying sexuality in people over 40.

Prof. LAUMANN: Well, the age range is something that the company obviously has an interest in. I don't see how one could link up the interpretation or the empirical results in any way that would be anticipated by any particular interested party.

CHADWICK: May I ask, Mr. Laumann, how old are you?

Prof. LAUMANN: I'm 67.

CHADWICK: Does this survey make you feel better about getting older?

Prof. LAUMANN: I would say that it makes me feel much more comfortable about my exiting, my next decade or two.

CHADWICK: Edward Laumann, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. His study on sexual satisfaction among older people is published in this month's issue of The Archives of Sexual Behavior. Mr. Laumann, thank you.

Prof. LAUMANN: Thank you.

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