Split on Sex


By Joan Voight, Photos by Diana Koenigsberg

Published Apr 1, 2009 9:00 AM

The Fear Factor

On the other side of the divide are those who see sex as a danger zone. Social conservatives contend that sexual freedom is being placed ahead of sexual and emotional health. And there is cause for concern: About 1 in 5 adolescents and adults are infected with genital herpes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that women have an 80-to 90-percent chance of contracting genital herpes after unprotected sexual activity with an infected partner.

On this side of the great divide, sexual freedom and casual hookups bring the pain and hazards of empty relationships, not to mention possible herpes, abnormal Pap tests, bouts of depression and abortion, say abstinence proponents such as Miriam Grossman, formerly a staff psychiatrist at UCLA Student Psychological Services. She is now a senior fellow at the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and author of Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness Endangers Every Student.

Grossman writes that oral and anal sex are health hazards and Hollywood is giving women a false sense of security by telling them sex is easily separated from emotions and procreation. In Grossman's world, the commitment to the institution of heterosexual marriage is strong and politically motivating. Opposition to changes in sexual and gender roles, including homosexual sex and gay marriage, binds diverse conservative constituencies together.

Sex it up

The More things Change: Sexuality in the Ancient World How did Greeks, Romans and early Christians think about sex?

Campus Coupling How do UCLA students think about sex in 2009? Find out from a recent grad who created a sex-ed site, and from a campus sex columnist.

Dispatches From Dating Hell It's harder to worry about your own sex life when you can read a whole blog about The. Worst. Dates. Ever.

But in yet another example of how confused many of us are about all of this, caution and abstinence can be honored in the breach. Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, published Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, in 2007. He finds that while much evangelical literature directed at teenagers forbids all forms of sexual behavior, even masturbation, outside of marriage, evangelical teenagers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

The New Yorker, in a November 2008 article, "Red Sex, Blue Sex," reports that more than half of those who take Christian abstinence pledges to wait until marriage to have sex break that pledge. But they wait 18 months or longer to lose their virginity and have fewer sexual partners than non-pledgers.

Reactions to the unmarried teen pregnancy of Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, exposed other facets of our cultural rift over sex. As the New Yorker article states, "Social liberals in the country's 'blue states' tend to support sex education and are not particularly troubled by the idea that many teenagers have sex before marriage, but would regard a teenage daughter's pregnancy as devastating news. And the social conservatives in 'red states' generally advocate abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively unruffled if a teen becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn't choose to have an abortion."

The two views seem on different planets. And in sex, just as in our politics, Americans are beginning to demand that we all meet in the middle.

Closing the Gap

In his UCLA sexuality classes, Abramson sees a growing interest for an ethical third way between the two extremes, especially among female students. "While men still seem to see sex as a conquest and physical experience, women seem to be interested in the meditative, philosophy and biology of sex," he says.

Hite, like Abramson, is hopeful, seeing us in a process of reevaluation and transition into a new moral order, rethinking our roles and sexual identity. Perhaps in the 21st century, we might finally reach our sexual maturity. And science offers some tantalizing insights about what a new morality would entail:

Research by Martie Haselton, UCLA associate professor of psychology, shows that women tend to act more sexual when they ovulate. In a 2006 study she found that, without consciously realizing it, women wear more fashionable clothing during the time of the month when they are most fertile, favoring skirts over pants and showing a bit more skin. Last year, in a project with UCLA psychologist Greg Bryant, Haselton showed women unknowingly introduce themselves in a higher-pitched voice during ovulation. Both happen whether or not the women are interested in bearing children.

"Something [as seemingly unscientific] as fashion is not that distant from biology," Haselton says.

There is additional insight into casual sex and one-night stands that can be gleaned from science as well. Research demonstrates that oxytocin, a brain hormone that fosters interest in nurturing relationships, is released in men as well as women when they hug, touch, and massage each other and during orgasm.

Both men and women become more generous and trusting in experiments when they are given oxytocin, and people who are falling in love have more oxytocin in their blood, according to a research project titled "Why Are People Faithful to Their Mates? Perspectives from Evolutionary Psychology, Sociology, and Social Psychology," by UCLA graduate student David Frederick and eight colleagues.

In her New Yorker piece on the Regnerus study, Margaret Talbot writes that "the teenagers who espouse this new morality are tolerant of premarital sex (and of contraception and abortion), but are themselves cautious about pursuing it." She quotes Regnerus as saying, "Simply put, too much seems at stake."

Abramson, who has a book coming out in the fall called Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the 21st Century, foresees a new morality that celebrates satisfying and responsible sex, in its myriad forms. "As consumers of sex, we are more educated," he observes. "If you used to see sex as something to do with abandon, it may be an intrusion. But if you were raised this way, it seems normal."

But with all this talking, analysis, caution and honesty, could the middle ground — the new morality — be too boring? Is there still room for mystery, for seduction — hot breath on a cool neck, lingering glances and a hand brushing across a willing body?

Sure, concludes Haselton. Sex isn't a discussion, it's an experience. It is doing and feeling, not talking. Even if — hopefully when — we bridge our great sexual divide or not, that will never change. And that definitely feels good.