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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Sex in the US: the shocking truth

The way a survey is reported, you'd think it's a surprise anyone's having any. This hypocritical puritanism poisons public discourse
A billboard displaying a message of abstinence towards teen sex 
A billboard displaying a message of abstinence towards teen sex; the Indiana university study found that teenagers are savvy and responsible about using condoms. Photograph: AP/Gail Burton 
"Sex is different for different people." Such is the keen observation of Logan Levkoff, a sexologist at New York University and member of the Trojan Sexual Health Advisory Council, some of whose members were part of the research team at Indiana University that recently concluded one of the most significant studies on sexual behaviour in America.

The study, comprised of nine smaller individual studies, was carried out by polling 5,865 preselected participants reflecting a nationally representative sample of adolescents and adults between the ages of 14 and 94. The full results are viewable here, although some of the more notable findings are already available in breathless headlines. Among the most widely-reported findings are the widespread use of condoms among teenagers, who use condoms even more frequently than adults, and that Americans' sex lives are wildly diverse, from a panoply of positions, even down to how we define sex and sexuality.

For some respondents, masturbation is sex; for others, it's not sex until someone inserts something into someone else's something somewhere. (And anal and oral sex are more popular than ever.) For some respondents, having had sex with a person of the same sex means identifying as gay or bisexual; for others, not so much. And we're no vanilla shakes: "There is enormous variability in the sexual repertoires of US adults, with more than 40 combinations of sexual activity described at adults' most recent sexual event."

"The surprise we found in this survey is the variability and diversity of the way people conduct their sex lives," says Levkoff.

Frankly, I'm more surprised by the surprise with which the findings – that teens are sexually responsible, sex lives are varied and people view themselves on a sliding scale of sexuality – are being met. The shock that Americans are not puritans is not only outdated – surely, we've all known Americans aren't doing it missionary-style through hole-punched fuck sheets ever since Dr Kinsey got a boner staring at gall wasps – but, ironically, seems indicative of the false puritanism that guides much of the US's public discourse about sex and sexuality.

We insistently believe ourselves to be puritans despite all evidence to the contrary, an intractable myth periodically punctuated by the findings of some sex researcher or another, who reveals to us the true nature of our naughtiness – and, oh, how we love to gasp at our scandalously sexy sexbusiness!

But even the actual Puritans weren't puritans. (This lady knows what I'm talking about.) And despite the collective apoplexy about the appearance of a boob at a football game or a naked butt in primetime, what happens behind closed doors has never had any relationship to the public sanctimony about sex and sexuality peddled by pecksniffs who parade a contrived virtue to bored busybodies.

The profound disconnect between who we are and who we regard ourselves to be would be amusing if it weren't so dangerous. The persistent narratives that we keep our bits buttoned-up and locked-down, only allowed fresh air for dignified attempts at Jesus-sanctioned reproduction attempts, that kids shouldn't be having sex because they're irresponsible, that same-sex sex is for deviant weirdos, are the damnable propaganda that underlie some of the most destructive, woman-hating, gay-hating legislation in this nation.

The lies we tell ourselves about who we are in the bedroom (or on the kitchen floor, or the conference room table at work, or the backseat of the car) are why we still argue about funding comprehensive sex education in public schools, why we are still fighting the slow but steady erosion of the conferred rights of Roe v Wade in state governments, why we are still having the absurd debate about whether we should allow to serve openly the gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers who are willing to die for this country, in spite of its stubborn insistence on treating them as second-class citizens.

It is why the last sex survey of this scope, the National Health and Social Life Survey of 1992, started with government funding but had to be completed "with support from private sources" after congress cut off the financing, because the government is "reluctant to pay for studies of sexual behavior that do not focus on reproduction".

Our surprise serves a purpose, which is why it hangs around so tenaciously. Would that we could arrive at a day when the news that we are a sexually diverse and sexually sophisticated people was met with a shrug and a yawn, so that we might extricate ourselves from the grip of a puritanical illusion.

Sex is different for different people. If only that weren't still a radical statement in America.

[Note: the poll, while conducted by polling firm Knowledge Networks, was developed by researchers with the input of Church and Dwight, the corporation that owns the Trojan condom brand; and, because the primary researchers also sat on Trojan's sexual advisory council, a conflict of interest was disclosed. Researchers note, however, "that while they had shared information with the sponsor during the course of the study, the company had not exerted influence over the way it was conducted, except to offer advice on how to phrase questions to accurately gauge condom use."]

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