Forget Paris or Rome. If you're desperately seeking sex, head to San Antonio or Cincinnati instead.
Residents of these metros enjoy vigorous sex lives — at least their condom and contraceptive purchases at grocery and drug stores indicate as much. These purchases placed them in the top 10 of a survey of America's Most Lustful Cities.
In the absence of government or academic research on the sexual practices of Americans in the country's 50 largest cities, the market proved to be the best place to provide answers. Research firm ACNielsen provided a per-capita index of over-the-counter contraceptive purchases in major U.S. markets for the past 52 weeks. The average index was 100.
Denver topped the list with an index of 289, which translates into 189 percent more contraceptives sales than normally expected for a market its size. Other cities that ranked in the top 10 were Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City. Metropolitan areas one might expect to see ranked, like New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, had average or below average indexes.
Though condom and contraceptive sales are an imperfect way of measuring sexual desire — this is especially true for monogamous couples and those in same-sex relationships — they do provide a broad picture of sexual activity in each city.
Dr. Kees Rietmeijer, director for the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Control Program at the Public Health Department in Denver, says higher-than-average purchases of condoms in the Mile-High City could be the result of demographics. A younger consumer might be more apt to buy protection consistently, for example, and Denver is crawling with young professionals. On the other hand, Rietmeijer says public health officials have been proactive about education and STD screening since the mid-90s.
Condom capital of U.S.?
"I would love for Denver to be the condom capital of the U.S.," Rietmeijer says. "We do have campaigns to educate the public about avoiding unwanted pregnancy and STDs." Those outreach efforts recently included a highly visible billboard featuring a man wearing a quizzical look and the tag line: "Who brought syphilis to the party?" The ad was prompted by a spike in the number of local syphilis cases.
While Denver's numbers are encouraging, condom maker Trojan has found that, though condom use has kept apace with population growth, single Americans between 18 and 54 use condoms during only one in four of the two billion sex acts they engage in yearly. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control found that, on average, 40 percent of men 15 to 44 had used a condom during their most recent sexual experience.
This is troubling news for public health experts, who blame a recent "mainstreaming of sex" for higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) nationwide.
Indeed, Americans' sex lives are thriving in private, but also in ever-present images on TV, billboards, the Internet, song lyrics and in the movies. A prime example: The turning point for the sex toy industry, says Anne Semans, marketing director for the adult retail company Babeland, was the 1998 episode of "Sex and the City" in which the normally demure Charlotte became obsessed with a vibrator called the Rabbit. Sales of the device skyrocketed.
The added endorsement of sex toys from celebrities like Eva Longoria, who has discussed her purchases publicly, emboldened more women and couples to be open about their sexual practices and preferences.
"For years, the people who bought our sex toys were women trying to learn how to orgasm or masturbate, and they did it in private," says Semans. "In the last [few] years, it was a noticeable change that women were buying and using sex toys with their partners. It's reached a level of acceptance it hadn't before."
Semans says vibrators comprise about 75 percent of Babeland's in-store sales and 90 percent of its online sales, and that overall sales have consistently grown in recent years. In order to develop new products and services, the company frequently surveys its customers about their intimacy habits. It has also compiled data on the location of Babeland's online customers.
From Jan. 1 through Nov. 30, 2007, New Yorkers frequented the site more than residents of any other city, comprising 22 percent of its total traffic. Seattle, the third most lustful city on our list, was second to New York, making up 9 percent of the site's visitors. Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., were two other cities in our top 10 that also contributed a significant portion of Babeland's online traffic.
STIs still on the rise
But while the mainstreaming of sex might be good for business, some say, without "sexual literacy," STIs are sure to follow.
Dr. Michael Reece, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, says that we are still woefully undereducated about the consequences of sexual contact. He notes that rising cases of STIs, including chlamydia and the human papillomavirus (HPV), reflect a costly ignorance. About half of all STIs occur in young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
According to the CDC, chlamydia cases rose from 50.8 to 347.8 cases per 100,000 population between 1987 and 2006. From 2000 to 2006, the number of cases of genital warts nearly doubled. The CDC attributes the higher numbers to better screening and detection.
"We have an amazingly low sexual health literacy," says Reece, who notes that students receive inconsistent education and sometimes aren't instructed in basic reproductive anatomy. "We're at a time where individuals' lives are being saturated with the message that sex is OK, but we're really not doing our jobs to educate people."