Sexuality in black and white: data from 783 undergraduates.
Abstract: Analysis of data from 783 undergraduate students at a large southeastern university revealed ten significant racial differences. Blacks, compared to whites, were more likely to value financial security over a happy marriage, to be absolutist in sexual values, to regret their decision to have intercourse the first time, to not have experienced "hooking up," to equate oral sex with intercourse, to not have given oral sex, to be less willing to cohabit, to be less willing to marry outside of their religion, to be more willing to cross racial lines to marry and to be less approving of same sex marriages. Implications include providing data over speculation about Black sexuality, confirmation that Blacks and whites are more similar than different, and Blacks (compared to whites) do not fit the cultural stereotype of being wild and hedonistic but are generally more sexually conservative. Limitations of the research conclude the article.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Interpersonal relations (Demographic aspects)
Interpersonal relations (Public opinion)
Sex (Demographic aspects)
Sex (Public opinion)
Authors: Knox, David,
Zusman, Marty E.
Pub Date: 01/01/2009
Publication: Name: Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality Publisher: The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Family and marriage; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality ISSN: 1545-5556
Issue: Date: Annual, 2009 Source Volume: 12
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs Canadian Subject Form: Sexual behaviour; Sexual behaviour
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 228436056
Full Text: The campaign of Barak Obama for the President of the United States revived awareness of the great racial divide in the United States. During the campaign, a television journalist asked a white male (who was wearing a hat with the Confederate flag) in South Carolina for his thoughts on Obama. His reply, "there will never be a black man voted President by this state." Maybe not. (But other states gave Obama full support and his ascendancy to the Presidency became a reality).

Behind the racial prejudice of the South Carolina man's Obama prediction is ignorance about Blacks. Our society continues to be segregated by residence, religion and education. Blacks and whites still live in different areas, attend different churches, and school in different universities (while both races may attend the same college, there are still "Black" colleges - Howard, Morehouse, Grambling). These divisions perpetuate cross racial misunderstanding.

The purpose of this study was to increase what is known about the respective opinions of Black and white undergraduates on a wide variety of relationship and sexual issues. Previous researchers have largely ignored racial differences. Netting and Burnett (2005) reported on twenty years of Canadian student sexual behavior research but provided no data on racial differences. Data which compares Black and white students are old (Belcastro, 1985) or focused on adolescents. Barone et al. (1966) included Blacks and whites in their study of adolescent sexual behavior but some of their sample were as young as 11. Exploring Black Sexuality by Staples (2006) was an attempt to update research in this area. However, Holmes (2007) noted that while the book has strengths, the degree to which the book is scholarly is questioned noting that "observations are not linked to data" (p. 398).

Rather than the traditional review of literature to begin the paper, we begin with the sample and methodology section. This is followed by the findings section which tie the new data to the existing literature. We end with sections on limitations and implications.

This research is an attempt to provide current comparative data on Black and white sexuality. While these are presented as "racial" differences, we recognize that biologically, there is only one living race of human beings, but there are many ethnic groups. Neanderthal, Java Human, Peking Human, and other extinct groups of Homo sapiens were races. Native Americans, Africans, Asians, and Europeans are not races. They are ethnic groups. Sociologically, race refers to shared physical characteristics that are defined as socially significant. Obama's being black means nothing except that color is identified as having a social meaning. In this article we use the term race because ethnic group is less often used. However, in so doing, we are not suggesting there are biological differences between Blacks and whites, only socially defined differences. Also, in this study we use the term Black because this is the term used on the survey instrument. Respondents were asked to check "I regard myself as" White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Biracial, and Other. Hence, in the material to follow we use the term Black because it is not specific to African-American.

Sample and Methodology

This study was exploratory - to find out what effect race (independent variable) had on the dependent variables of one's top life value (e.g. financial security over happy marriage), desire to marry, sexual value (e.g. absolutism, relativism, hedonism), regretting one's first sexual experience, experience in "hooking up," experience in giving oral sex, approval of living together, view of the importance of two versus one parent families, and approval of same sex marriage/ interracial marriage/inter religious marriage. These factors were selected because they are common relationship and sexual issues yet empirical evidence is lacking in regard to Black white differences. Cross-classification was conducted to determine any relationships with Chi Square utilized to assess statistical significance. The respective levels of significance are identified subsequent to each finding.

The data for this study were a nonrandom sample of 783 undergraduates at a large southeastern university who answered a 100 item questionnaire (approved by the Institutional Review Board of the university) on "Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors of College Students" (developed by the authors and based on a review of literature of sexuality among undergraduates). Respondents completed the questionnaire anonymously (the researchers collecting the data were not in the room when the questionnaire was completed and no identifying information or codes allowed the researcher to know the identity of the respondents). Of the respondents 74.6% were females; 25.4% were males. Racial background included 82% whites, 18% Blacks (respondent self-identified as African-American Black, African Black, and Caribbean Black or biracial with most being African-American) and 1.8% Hispanic. The median age of the sample was 19 with 71.7% younger and 28.3% older.

Findings and Discussion

Analysis of the data revealed a number of findings when comparing the sexuality of Blacks and whites. Ten findings were statistically significant. After presenting the percentage difference, we note the level of significance and suggest an explanation for the finding.

1. Blacks, compared to whites, were more likely to value financial security over a happy marriage. When asked to identify their top value in life, 41.3% of Blacks, compared to 23.6% of whites selected "having financial security." The value given by Blacks to financial success over a happy marriage was further illustrated by the fact that 36.5% of Blacks selected "having a career that I love" as their top value compared to 22.4% of whites (p < .001).

One explanation for a greater concern for financial security by Blacks than whites is related to the lower income of Blacks. Per capita money income of whites and Blacks is $26,962 and $22,083 respectively (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2009, Table 679). Previous researchers have also identified the association between race, income, and relationships. Veroff, Sutherland, Chadiha and Ortega (1993) interviewed and compared 174 white and 199 Black couples and found that the latter, particularly Black males, were burdened by the lack of economic opportunities which depressed their personal and marital happiness. Difficulty in getting ahead and taking care of one's children financially were relentless challenges. Similarly, Hatchett, Veroff, and Douvan (1995) emphasized the devastating effect of low income on Black marriages.

In addition to a focus on financial security as a top life priority, Blacks compared to whites gave less priority to marriage as a desired social context. Fewer Blacks than whites identified "having a happy marriage" as their top value (21.4% versus 51.4%) (p < .001). Indeed, Blacks compared to whites were less likely to agree that they EVER wanted to get married (93.6% versus 98.3%) (p < .003). And, in regard to children, a higher percentage of Blacks than whites believed that "A child can be just as happy with one involved parent as two" (80.4% versus 68.8%) (p < .01).

2. Black s, compared to whites, were more likely to be absolutist in sexual values. When asked to identify if they were an absolutist (no intercourse until marriage), relativist (intercourse before marriage OK if the relationship is affectionate/caring), or hedonist ("If it feels good, do it."), Blacks responded 20.6%, 66.7%, and 12.7% respectively in contrast to whites who responded 12.1%, 66.7%, and 21.2% respectively (p < .001). Hence, Blacks were 7.5% more likely to be absolutist and 8.5% less likely to be hedonist.

One explanation for greater absolutism among Blacks is their greater religiosity. Almost three fourths of Blacks (71.0%) compared to less than half (49.3%) of whites regarded themselves as "very or moderately" "a religious person" (p < .001). Previous researchers have demonstrated the importance of religion and sexual choices. Bristol and Farmer (2005) found that more than 45 percent of 657 undergraduates at a large southeastern university (assessed via random digit dialing) reported that religion had been influential on their sexual choices, for 26.9 percent "very influential," and for 18.4 percent "somewhat influential."

3. Blacks, compared to whites, were less likely to have "hooked up" (18.9% versus 32.0%) (p < .01). Also reflecting greater sexual conservatism than whites, when "hooking up" was defined as having oral sex or intercourse after having met someone for the first time, Blacks were 13% less likely than whites to report having done so. We suspect that religion is the factor responsible for lower frequency hookups among blacks.

4. Blacks, compared to whites, were more likely to regret their decision to have intercourse the first time (53.5% versus 31.1%) (p < .001). This discrepancy may suggest Blacks were more likely to have had a first negative vaginal experience and a desire to delay first intercourse until marriage (e.g. absolutism values). Researchers Else-Quest, Hyde, and DeLamater (2005) examined data from the National Health and Social Life Survey and identified negative psychological and physical outcomes associated one's first vaginal intercourse experience. If the experience was "prepubertal," forced, with a blood relative or stranger, or the result of peer pressure, drugs, or alcohol, respondents reported negative outcomes. Previous research (Davis et al. 2003) has found that Blacks compared to whites have earlier first sex, have more sexual partners, in more frequent drug contexts than whites.

5. Blacks, compared to whites, were less likely to believe that if individuals have had oral sex, they are still a virgin. When asked whether you are still a virgin if you have had oral sex, 70.0% of Blacks said "no" compared to 81.0% for whites (p < .05). That Blacks are 11% less likely to go along with the notion that one can have oral sex and still be a virgin is another reflection of greater conservatism among Blacks than whites.

6. Blacks, compared to whites, were less likely to have given oral sex (57.9% versus 83.8%) (p < .001). Previous research has documented that Blacks are less likely to engage in oral sex. Data from a national study revealed that 34% of Black women compared to 75% of white women reported ever having provided fellatio for a male partner. Similarly, data on cunnilingus from a national sample revealed that 49% of Black women compared to 79% of white women reported ever having received oral sex (Mahay, Laumann, & Michaels, 2001). Belcastro (1985) also found in his study of 565 college students that Black females compared to white females were less likely to have performed oral sex. Consistent with these findings, in regard to receiving fellatio, 66% of Black men compared to 81% of white men reported ever having received fellatio (Mahay et al. 2001).

In providing an explanation for why African-Americans typically have lower rates of oral sex than whites, Gagnon (2004) noted:

"I think that these differences are mostly the result of education and religion--but there may be other factors relating to the symbolic meanings of oral sex in Western cultures. As a result of the economic and racial oppression of African-Americans, potential threats to men's power and masculinity are often more present when African-American men have sex. There is always the threat of symbolic subordination when men perform oral sex, particularly if it is not identified by the woman as masculinity enhancing and it is not reciprocated. This is a parallel to the symbolic subordination of women when they perform unreciprocated oral sex. However, if the men will not do it, then the women will not either, since they view fellatio without reciprocation as simply servicing the man."

7. Blacks, compared to whites, were less willing to live together before marriage. When asked if they would live together with someone to whom they were not married, 66.7% of Blacks compared to 76.6% of whites responded "yes" (p < .05). A pattern continues to emerge that Blacks are more conservative than whites in their sexual values, lower likelihood to "hook up," less approval of oral sex, cohabitation, etc.

8. Blacks, compared to whites, were less willing to marry outside their religion. When asked if it was important to marry someone of the same religion, almost three-fourths of Blacks (73.6%) compared to less than 60 percent of whites (59.0%) agreed (p < .003). The fact that Blacks place a high value on religion is expressed in their desire to marry someone with similar religious values.

9. Blacks, compared to whites, were more willing to cross racial lines to marry.

When asked if it was important to marry someone of the same race, less than thirty percent (29.7%) of Blacks compared to 72.9% of whites agreed (p <.001). Indeed, exactly half of the Blacks had dated someone of a different race; only 32.8% of whites had done so (p <.001). Belcastro (1985) also found in his study of 565 college students that Black males compared to white males reported having had more interracial sexual experience. One explanation for the greater willingness of Blacks to have sex and to marry outside their race is sheer numbers. Blacks represent about 13 percent of the US population which is a similar percent at the university where these data were collected. That Blacks have more whites as date/mate options in the majority/minority society than vice versa, may lend itself to crossing racial lines.

10. Blacks, compared to whites, were less approving of same sex marriages. Just over a third of Blacks (34.8%) compared to over half of whites (54.6%) reported that they were in favor of making same sex marriages legal (p <.001). Previous researchers (Lewis, 2003) have also found that Blacks are more likely than whites to view homosexuality negatively. Because orthodox Christian beliefs tend to be less approving of a homosexual lifestyle than a set of non religious beliefs (Ford, Brignall, VanValey and Macaluso, 2009) and because Blacks are more religious than whites (in general and in this study), , it is not surprising that Blacks may be less approving of gays than whites.


The data for this study should be interpreted cautiously. The convenience sample of 783 undergraduates from one southeastern university is hardly representative of the over 17 million college students throughout the United States (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2009 Table 272). Having the 100 item questionnaire from this study completed by a national random survey of university students would provide greater validity to these findings.

The data for this study were also quantitative with no qualitative interviews to provide insights on the raw statistics. Subsequent research might include interviews with both Blacks and whites about an array of issues identified in this study.

Finally, this study was an exploratory analysis that should be followed up with multivariate analysis to develop a more complete and accurate understanding of the connection between various sexual values and demographic variables.


There are three implications for these data. First, these data help to fill a void in the literature in regard to Black attitudes to various aspects of sexuality. For example, our finding that over half of the black respondents reported regret in their decision to have intercourse the first time is unique to the sexuality literature.

Second, on most of the ten areas considered, Blacks and whites were more similar than different. For example, while Blacks (compared to whites) give higher priority to financial security over a happy marriage, over 90 percent of both Blacks and whites reported having the goal of getting married. Similarly, while Blacks and whites differed in regard to the percentage having absolutist sexual values, both Blacks and whites reported relativism as their highest value.

Third, Blacks were significantly more conservative than whites in regard to attitudes toward sexuality. Not only were Blacks less hedonistic in sexual values than whites, Blacks were less likely to report having hooked up, were less approving of living together, and were less willing to go outside their religion to marry. An interesting observation of the 2008 Presidential contest in the United States was that the out of wedlock pregnancy of Sarah Palin's daughter was met with approval rather than dismay. Had one of Obama's daughter's been older and pregnant out of wedlock, the cultural reaction would more likely have been "what would you expect?" Greater sexual conservatism on the part of Blacks is a major finding of this study. The cultural stereotypes of Blacks a slutty, orgiastic, and hedonistic with out of control libidos is challenged by these data. We found just the opposite.


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David Knox

East Carolina University

Marty E. Zusman

Indiana University Northwest

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