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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

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.

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.

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.