Split on Sex


By Joan Voight, Photos by Diana Koenigsberg

Published Apr 1, 2009 9:00 AM

America's love life and the great divide.

Do you want it? Probably. Probably not. Both Answers are true, because U.S. society is dramatically polarized on the subject of sexuality. For many Americans stuck in the middle, that just doesn't feel good. Drunk, half-naked co-eds in "Girls Gone Wild" videos versus thoughtful Christian teens pledging sexual abstinence. Hooking up for casual sex versus elaborate storybook weddings. Blue sex versus red sex. If it feels good, do it. Or maybe not...


When it comes to that most intimate of human experiences, Americans today are better informed than ever. Yet the experts, including UCLA's faculty and alumni psychologists, doctors and social scientists, warn that we may be more divided as well, stuck in a schism of conflicting values and yearnings. American society, they observe, suffers from a massive rift in its sexual mores, with two conflicting views of sexuality that are only getting more polarized. And the great divide over intimacy is not just in our heads; it's in our culture.

Sex it up

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Gail Wyatt Ph.D. '73, clinical psychologist, sex therapist and professor in UCLA's Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, contends that the polarized sex attitudes in this country are getting worse — with potentially disastrous effects on our self identities and growing confusion among our young. "Look no further than the hit TV comedy Two and a Half Men," she says. "One brother is a [sexual] wimp, the other, played by Charlie Sheen, is a [sex-obsessed] dog. Both are extreme sides of the spectrum — and the child is stuck in the middle. What does he do, what does he learn in such a disparate setting?" In many ways, that child is us.

This is not necessarily all about fun and games. Sex researcher Shere Hite reports in the 2006 The Shere Hite Reader that for men, the pressure to perform sexually is being ratcheted up by Viagra and similar drugs. As for women, "they look gorgeous and are sexually active," but are not necessarily getting sexual pleasure and are still under heavy pressure to fake orgasm.

Where Raunch Rules

On one side is the raunch factor. America is seeped in overt sexual imagery, and much of it is cynically commercial. Popular culture sees sex as a release and escape that crosses age, class and education, says Wyatt. "Marketing and media exploit the fantasy of sex," she notes, and so, rather than be personal and intimate, "it is treated as the way to party, be popular and of making friends."

Soft porn has become mainstream — clothes company American Apparel was even using porn star Sasha Grey in racy online ads last December. And thanks to Victoria's Secret, billboard-sized photos of voluptuous supermodels in fancy underwear have become visual Muzak. Celebrities seem more than happy to pose with their breasts exposed and legs splayed to get some press.

Ariel Levy, journalist and author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, says you know you are living in a raunch culture when women have come to adopt what were once considered male sexual behaviors, including casual sex with multiple partners and the objectification of women.

"It is now common to observe women going to strip clubs, women dressing in scanty outfits, women consuming pornography," she explains. "A tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular: What we once re-garded as a kind of sexual expression, we now view as sexuality."

UCLA Professor of Psychology Paul Abramson is one of the nation's leading experts on our love lives and author of With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality, with Steven D. Pinkerton M.A. '86, M.S. '92, Ph.D. '95, and the controversial Romance in the Ivory Tower: The Rights and Liberty of Conscience, which suggests that universities remove the ban on professor-and-student relationships. He agrees that sexuality — gay and straight — has become entrenched in popular media and in our consciousness.

"Graphic sexual lyrics are common in hip hop. Information about contraception and sexual practices are a normal part of education," says Abramson. "In sex blogs, you see a diversity of needs and a commonality of intimate relationships."

With Viagra and sexually active boomers, "the traditional sexual divide between generations is also collapsing," he says.



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