Ever since the founding of the Kinsey Institute, conservatives have accused it of spreading perversion and destroying sexual virtue. Now the institute has produced a study that's being touted as proof of family values. According to media reports, the study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, shows that promiscuity makes you sad, commitment makes you happy, and men prefer love and cuddling. Is any of this true? Let's look at the data.
1. Men need cuddling. This is the most popular takeaway. "Men Need to Cuddle More Than Women," says L.A. Weekly. "Guys like to cuddle more," says MSNBC. "Cuddling key to happy relationships—for men," says CBS News.
Don't bet on it. The study didn't measure what people need or like. And the cuddle gap was small. Men whose relationships included frequent kissing and cuddling were about 12 percent more likely than other men to say they were happy in the relationship (see Table 6). Slate's Dave Johns is a fine example. Among women, the increase in happiness associated with kissing and cuddling was more like 9 percent.
The cuddle gap looks bigger in the published paper because the authors, in their analysis, combine cuddling with caressing. They note that the two activities—lumped together in the institute's press release as "tenderness"—increased the probability of reporting relationship happiness about twice as much among men as they did among women. But the questionnaire used in the study defined "caress" erotically. It asked how often you've been "sexually touched and caressed by your partner." (See Table 1.) That's more than tenderness. A kiss is just a kiss, but a thigh is a thigh.
Also, while the questionnaire phrased caressing as something done to you, it phrased cuddling as a mutual activity: "My partner and I kiss and cuddle each other." So when men who are happy in their relationships cuddle their partners, the cuddling may sometimes be an effect of happiness, not a cause.
2. Staying together longer makes you happier. According to the press release, "Both men and women reported more happiness the longer they had been together." Nearly every news report interprets this as evidence that "men and women became happier with their relationships the longer they stayed together." Neither claim is strictly true. Among women, average reported happiness declined in the first 15 years of a relationship and didn't begin to recover until year 20. (See Figure 1.)
One possible reason is kids. Ninety percent of couples in the study had children. The more difficult question is why the relationship-happiness curve, unlike the sexual-satisfaction curve, takes 15 years to bottom out. Here's a guess: attrition. Remember, this is a study of couples. If your relationship deteriorates and you break up or divorce, you disappear from the population being sampled. And as couples like yours disappear, the sampled population becomes, on average, happier and happier.
Check out the U.S. Census divorce tables. About 40 percent of marriages end before year 40. Of these, half end before year 15, and the other half end afterward. (See Table 2 of the Census report.) So 15 years is roughly where the average divorce occurs. And that's when the relationship happiness curve for women starts to recover.
Sexual satisfaction follows a different curve. It increases for women throughout the relationship. (See Figure 3.) But is that because the sex gets better, as the Los Angeles Times infers, or because women become more easily satisfied? According to the study, the average woman goes from a 40 percent probability of reporting sexual satisfaction in the first year of her relationship to an 86 percent probability in the 40th year. By the 40th year, every woman is menopausal. In short, women become more satisfied as their sex drives wane and their partners age. The study's lead author, Kinsey Institute director Julia Heiman, concedes, "Possibly, women become more satisfied over time because their expectations change."
3. Promiscuity makes you unhappy. The authors report that "for men, having had more sex partners in their lifetime was a predictor of less sexual satisfaction." Serves those lechers right. "Sorry, Charlie Sheen," clucks one journalist.
But this isn't a study of single men or serial newlyweds. It's a study of long-term couples. The men's ages ranged from 39 to 70, with a median of 55. So the study didn't measure a man's prowling phase. It measured his subsequent satisfaction in a committed relationship against the background of his prowling phase. The happier he was in the old days—the better the sex he had—the less likely he is to be satisfied with the monogamous sex to which he's now confined. Is that an indictment of promiscuity, or of monogamy?
Another possibility is that the causal arrow runs the other way: Men who move on from partner to partner do so because they're hard to satisfy, and they remain less satisfied after they're committed. "Searching for a better partner or sexual experience may emerge from or be connected to a lack of sexual satisfaction," the authors note. "Alternatively, more partners might indicate different standards based on greater experience." Or, to put it less nicely, higher standards.
4. Men who care about pleasing their partners are happier. According to the authors, "Men who valued their partner's orgasm were more likely to report relationship happiness." But men in the study weren't asked whether they valued their partner's orgasm. They were asked a slightly different question: "How important is it that your partner reaches orgasm when you have sex together?"
For men who interpreted that question as valuation, the answer was obvious. Everyone knows you're supposed to say your partner is important. And most did. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 signifying the highest importance, women gave their partners' orgasms an average importance rating of 7.96. Men gave an average rating of 8.53. (See Table 2.)
Why did some people give a rating lower than 10? Maybe they were devaluing their partners' satisfaction. But the more plausible guess is that they were downplaying the importance of orgasm in general. The gender breakdown fits this hypothesis: While women were less likely than men to say their partner's orgasm was important, they were also less likely to say their own orgasm was important.
Why downplay orgasm? Maybe because it's difficult for your partner to reach orgasm due to age, health, or some other factor. If so, this underlying difficulty, rather than your failure to "value" your partner's pleasure, may account for your lower level of relationship happiness.
Or, as with the cuddling correlation, the causal link might run in reverse: The happier you are with your wife, the more you care about her pleasure.
5. Men want love; women want sex."Survey Shows Men Need to Cuddle, Women Value Sex," says Time's headline. "Men value cuddling, women sexual satisfaction," says the Boston Globe. "Sexual satisfaction is more important to women," says MSNBC.
But the study didn't measure what women value. It measured their level of satisfaction. More men than women reported being happy in their relationships, while more women than men reported being satisfied in their sex lives. But that gap doesn't necessarily signify that women valued sex more. It could well signify the opposite.
Here's how. In previous studies, the authors note, "men usually reported higher levels of sexual satisfaction than did women, regardless of sociocultural context." This study didn't match those findings. And what made this study different? It's "the first international study of individuals in committed relationships, where the focus was on middle and older-aged men and women in relationships with a median of 25 years duration." In other words, the men and women being surveyed were in the same long-term couples.
Suppose that on average, men value sex more than women do, while women value love more than men do. Given their freedom, men would seek sex more often than women do. And men might use their greater leverage to get what they want. They would report more sexual satisfaction.
But lock the same men and women into committed relationships with each other, and you get a different outcome. In each couple, the lowest common denominator prevails. The man can't get more sex than the woman will give. The woman can't get more love than the man will give. The result is a higher rate of sexual satisfaction among women than men, and a higher rate of relationship satisfaction among men than women. Satisfaction turns out to be the inverse of valuation.
For every theory I've proposed here, I can see problems. My cynical interpretations of the data may not stand up under scrutiny. But I doubt the media's rosy interpretations will stand up, either. Love and sex are too complicated for that. So are men and women.