New book based on sex survey offers unprecedented look into Canadians’ bedrooms

By Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

Until recently, Tina Fetner’s sociology students at McMaster University were skeptical when she presented statistics about sexual activity. 

Though researchers at Indiana University have long conducted surveys about Americans’ sex lives, Fetner’s students wanted to see Canadian data — which didn’t exist.

“As soon as you present U.S. data to them, they’re like: ‘Yeah, but that’s not us,'” Fetner said. 

It peeved Fetner, too. Her research focuses on sexuality and social change, but she didn’t have access to the same scope of information as her American counterparts. 

“I was like: why doesn’t Canada have this? And then I was like: wait a minute. I know a researcher. I could do this.”

The results of her survey, modelled after the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior in the U.S., are detailed in the book “Sex in Canada: The Who, Why, When, and How of Getting Down Up North,” published on Valentine’s Day by the University of British Columbia Press.

Fetner surveyed a representative sample of more than 2,000 Canadians back in 2018, positioning the data as a sort of baseline for Canadians’ sexual activity and attitudes before the COVID-19 pandemic turned everybody’s lives upside down. 

The respondents answered an array of questions about their sexual activities, opinions, and identity, ranging from whether they had ever used a vibrator or had anal sex, to whether they achieved orgasm in their most recent sexual encounter. 

Fetner expects some things will have evolved in people’s sex lives since the pandemic. Take virtual sex, for example: pre-2020, when asked about their most recent sexual encounter, Canadians didn’t count sexting or phone sex. 

“It’s an open question whether that’s changed, whether what we count as ‘real sex’ (includes) cyber sex,” she said. “We’ll only know if we do more research.”

But more than a jumping-off point for further studies, the findings offer a glimpse into Canadians’ bedrooms.

The survey results suggest the greatest determining factor in how much sex a person has is whether they live with a partner.

“A lot of people might say single people have more sex. Marriage puts a damper on your sex drive. You get tired, you get bored, you get busy, especially with kids. And of course, it’s the opposite that is the truth,” Fetner said.

“Married people have more sex than single people.”

She said it makes sense when you think it through — if you’re single, you have to go out and find a sex partner.

The survey also noted differences between participants who identified as straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual, though it didn’t take transgender or non-binary Canadians into account — there wasn’t a big enough sample to draw any conclusions.

Of the respondents, those who identified as bisexual were most likely to have had sex in the past month: 71 per cent of bi men, and 58 per cent of bi women.

The survey also found that gay men were more likely to have recently had sex than straight men, and straight women were more likely to have had sex in the past 30 days than lesbians.

For Fetner, the survey has already led to more research. She’s published studies on the sex lives of those who identify as feminists, condom use among Canadian adults and discordance between sexual activity and sexual identity — in other words, straight people who have sex with members of the same gender, and gay people who have heterosexual sex.

Likewise, she followed up on results about the so-called “orgasm gap.” The research suggests that when it comes to sex between men and women, men were more likely to have an orgasm. 

Of the men who have sex with women, 86 per cent reported having an orgasm in their last sexual encounter. For women who have sex with men, the proportion was just 62 per cent.

Fetner and her colleagues expanded on the survey by conducting in-depth interviews with 40 participants.

“When heterosexual couples count real sex as just when the penis is inside the vagina, it means that stimulation of the penis becomes central to what counts as the real deal, the main act,” she said. “Stimulating the clitoris becomes secondary.”

However, research shows that clitoral stimulation is key to female pleasure. If it’s thought of as supplemental, women are less likely to achieve orgasm — even though contrary to popular belief, it’s not physiologically harder for women to climax.

But ultimately, Fetner said, there’s good news out of the survey.

“Large majorities of the population are feeling really good about their sex lives,” she said. “Isn’t that a beautiful thing to discover? I think that’s probably the best news in the whole book.”

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