Purity, Promiscuity or Pleasure

The following is an excerpt from the McGraw-Hill book, Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Human Sexuality.

Has Sex Become Too Casual?

Purity, Promiscuity or Pleasure

“You would watch the girls give each other oral sex, do themselves with dildos, place cigars in their vaginas and rectums, suck on each others’ breasts, and lick freshly poured beer off of one another’s vulvas while their legs were tucked behind their necks.” Often one fellow would get to have sex with one of the three performers directly before leering and cheering men.

No, this is not another spring break outrage making the latest round on cable news, but business as usual back in the good ol’ days when live sex shows were easier to find than now. And I don’t mean the 50s glory days of traditional values when “Ozzie and Harriet” reigned and the U.S. teen pregnancy rate hit an historic high, but in the prostitution heyday of the 1800s when feminists and medical experts warned against women riding bicycles lest the seat stir “libidinousness and immorality.”

In the latest hot and seminal Guide to Getting It On, author Paul Joannides’ longest chapter, “Sex in the 1800s,” reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. He compares the sexual contradictions of then “hardcore live sex shows and concerns about bicycle seats for adult women” to now “abstinence-only sex education and porn-filled Websites on the Internet.” As today’s technology flings sex front and center, in your face, round the clock, no escape, get me off of this XXX merry-go-round spinning ever faster into an erotic yawn of Girls Gone Wild, prostitots, MILFs, Bang Bus, Carl’s Jr. ads and endless multimedia overexposures, America “Land of the Free” remains stuck in a sexual schizophrenia of smut and sanctimony.

My first mental flash when reading about the famous centuries-ago sex show was VH1’s latest season premiere of “Rock of Love Bus with Bret Michaels,” where Pamela Anderson wannabes vie for the lead singer of 80s hair band Poison. When one drunken contestant takes a vagina shot of booze from another, even a nonbeliever can fear the Apocalypse is near. Minus historical context and nuanced reasoning, I feel the appeal of Chicken Little conservatives crying the decline of Western civilization due to the sexual revolution and liberal moral relativism.

It’s cheap and easy to dump hypersexualized floaties from our unfettered free market society on those who reject retro reactions to today’s growing sexual, reproductive, gender, relationship and family complexities. But could our nation’s unmatched trouble with sex—runaway rates of teen and unplanned pregnancy, single parenthood, abortion, HIV and STDs, sexual “addiction,” alienation and desire discrepancies, divorce—really be a black-and-white case of purity or promiscuity? How to reach the glorious human heights of pleasure—sacred to silly—when laden by potent conflicting forces intent on commercializing and politicizing sex?

Our dominantly Christian nation’s schizophrenic approach to sex has deep roots. Likely former Governor Elliot Spitzer wouldn’t have been so disgraced for feeding his costly call girl fetish in 1870 when New York City’s second-largest economy was commercial sex. Yet America’s prostitution-powered era wouldn’t have tolerated a women’s studies graduate auctioning off her virginity to finance her master’s in family and marriage therapy, a la Natalie Dylan. Women weren’t allowed the same transgressions as men. Of course women weren’t allowed the same opportunities. Traditionalists argued that the intellectual rigors of higher education would shrink female reproductive organs and deny a real woman’s one true calling: motherhood.

The God-fearing Victorian era of presumed moral restraint was nearly as sex segregated as Afghanistan today. Hooking up isn’t so easy when you don’t school, work or socialize together. Young men routinely staved off masturbation at brothels where prepubescent virgins were in high demand. Women were deemed unnatural if they displayed sexual desire, though ads for birth control abounded. Gender and sexuality has evolved along with technologies like automobiles, birth control and the Internet, economic shifts and social equality. America, grounded in equality and plurality, rises from the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our national stability and family honor doesn’t rest on hypocritical sexual traditions like enforcing female virtue.

But that doesn’t stop opportunistic purity posturing by family values conservatives, such as wedge-issue Republicans, the religious right and Fox News, which airs so much B-roll of pulsating female flesh while moral bloviating it inspired the NSFW FoxNewsPorn.com. The head of the “Biblically based” policy group Concerned Women for America says that proponents of sexual health education are financially motivated to encourage kids having sexually transmitted diseases and abortions. A Morality in Media press release, “Connecting the Dots: The Link Between Gay Marriage and Mass Murders,” links secular values, the sexual revolution and the decline in morality to the gay rights movement, all sexual ills, including rape and the sexual abuse of children, and naturally a recent spate of mass murders.

Fox News megastar Bill O’Reilly, who a few years ago paid millions to make a sexual harassment suit go away, makes millions as lead culture-war bugle for traditional values against deviant secular progressives out to destroy America. In his column, “Kids Gone Wild,” he decries the supposed sidelining of “Judeo-Christian principles of right and wrong” in policymaking. He shamelessly makes a slippery slope case against nuanced responses to sexual controversies by conflating child rape, unfettered abortion, gay marriage and sexting—the latest shame name for teenagers and younger sharing provocative photos of themselves via cellphone, mostly girls sending and guys receiving.

But with child porn charges against juveniles now in at least five states, our sense of right and wrong can’t be vindicated when we scar a kid as sex offender for a naughty consensual exchange. Some of the girls dragged into our criminal justice system posed in bikinis or thick, white bras. Flailing before budding sexuality and uncontainable technology, alleged adults lose all moral sense and lump the heinous crime of child pornography with a developing person’s playful physical expression. Forget addressing the real potential harm to a child’s wellbeing, such as high-tech bullying when a jerk “friend” recklessly or vindictively distributes private communication.

Yes times are rapidly changing, and there’s no going back to that elusive simpler time when men were predators and women gatekeepers, and anyone in between stayed in the closet. Despite hyperventilating sex-frenzied traditionalists, societal breakdowns go way beyond gay marriage, the hookup generation, Bill Clinton or even Hugh Hefner. Although the “anything-goes, if it feels good do it” sixties is a tattered punching bag, liberalism not only ushered in free-love rebels, but also groundbreaking equality for women, queers, and ethnic minorities. Life can feel out of control as technology accelerates, rules of the game change, and our salacious 24/7 infotainment highway takes us to the edge of tolerance, but we face much graver threats today than friends with benefits, condoms on a banana, or two grooms in a tux.

With sexual debate stuck in such demonizing reductionism of traditional vs. secular, conservative vs. liberal, purity vs. perversion, abstinence vs. condoms, good vs. evil, no wonder we can’t budge beyond nostalgia-fed moral panics to sane responses to modern challenges. A politically potent, multibillion-dollar industry of chastity crusaders seeks to save our national Gomorrah by corralling sex back pain relief into the procreative marital bedroom. But with virtually all of us doing some version of the dirty deed before, outside, between, or after marriage, America must expand the sexual conversation beyond purity balls or rainbow parties.

The two authors of the book, “Hooked: how casual sex is harming our kids,” lectured at a broadcast forum by the Christian-right Family Research Council, the powerful lobbying arm of media empire Focus on the Family. Beyond the usual physical dire consequences, Joe McIlhaney and Freda Bush declared the irreparable emotional damage of one having multiple sex partners. Dr. Bush drove home their scientific claims by describing how adhesive tape loses its sticky power after pulling it apart more than once. Like used adhesive tape, the more you have sex with someone other than your spouse, the more you lose your ability to bond. Oh, and sex means anything that incites physical arousal; no word on masturbation. Bottom line is there are only two types of sex: married (good) and unmarried (bad).

Their conclusion supports the absolutist agenda of the synergistic family values, traditional marriage and abstinence-only movements that push the conservative ideal of sex confined to a heteronormative lifetime of marital fidelity, to the exclusion of all other sexual expressions. But hawking sexual purity as a salve for personal ills and tonic for a stronger America amounts to selling snake oil.

For many, a magic pill to make bad and scary things go away sounds nice. But if prescribing to dogmatic absolutes worked, then the most religious and conservative red states wouldn’t have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, divorce and porn consumption. And the fallen Colorado megachurch Pastor Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, frequent President George W. Bush confidant and fierce opponent of same sex marriage, wouldn’t have betrayed his family by spending three years with a male prostitute and crystal meth.

Ignoring the human frailties of adults and the capitalistic pornification of our public square, conservatives offer only one denial standard for all kids aged 8 to 28 if unmarried. Maybe in the Obama era, we’re ready to grow up and stop making the most vulnerable ground zero in our lose-lose, sex-obsessed culture war. For the past eight years we’ve been demonizing sexual science, distorting sex education, limiting access to information and health care services, and denying civil rights all for the sake of the children. Consequences be damned we resist lessons of holistic sexual openness from our far sexually healthier Western allies. Instead we champion the A & B only of the “Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms” HIV campaign launched by war torn, polygamist Uganda, which now rewards virginal new brides with TV sets instead of goats.

Steeped in raunch culture that shames or sensationalizes young sex, we grasp onto Disney offerings of purity no matter how often or far our sexy virgins fall (Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore), and as long as new ones keep us afloat (Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers). But sustaining the virgin-whore dichotomy after all these centuries perverts smart decision making for all. You can’t answer a high-tech free society’s hypersexualized reality with fictionalized extremism? As I wrote in a 2001 column, “The Britney and Bob Challenge,” about America’s sexual schizophrenia and refusal to move beyond sexuality’s marital ideal or commodified reality: neither excess nor repression develops into sexual intimacy or connection, let alone responsibility.

In 17 Again, Disney’s High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron dresses down sexually assertive cheerleaders saying boys don’t respect them and rebukes a condom-distributing teacher with “abstinence is best,” he knows. Well his character knows because he’s really his dad who lost his basketball scholarship because he knocked up his high school sweetheart and chose teen marriage and fatherhood. So even though abstinence-only didn’t work anymore for him than for Bristol Palin, the lesson remains “no sex unless married,” not responsible sexual choices like protection or non-coital play.

In real life, Zac Efron dates his HSM co-star Vanessa Hudgens, who suffered momentary embarrassment when earlier sexy photos surfaced online. But after celebrating her 20th birthday, she and Zac comfortably posed when shopping at a Los Angeles sex-toy shop.

The Today Show pitted the feminist author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women against international abstinence advocate Lakita Garth, who promotes her success to staying a virgin until married at 36. Jessica Valenti argues that a women’s worth is more than her hymen, and most fall between girls gone wild or chaste virgin. Like Zac and Vanessa versus their Disney image, most of us figure out how to achieve a full life while expressing our sexuality, married or not.

I saw Lakita Garth keynote an Abstinence Clearinghouse conference themed, “Abstinence: It’s a Black and White Issue,” as in “allowing no gray area between sexual integrity and irresponsibility.” The flashy multimedia conference took me back to high school pep rallies and my cheerleader sentimentality. Watching a bejeweled and stylin’ Garth flash photos of herself with President Bush as she bragged about her virginity-won “bling,” I momentarily felt sexually inadequate for my life’s choices before marrying at almost 32. After all, I don’t have any photos together with a U.S. president. But by Star Parker, a self-described former welfare queen and abortion regular, reducing all of America’s problems to the denial of God’s sexual truth, I kept from getting swept away by the idealism and heartfelt talent of the “Abstinence Idol” show.

Though Kelly Clarkson, a self-proclaimed Christian virgin, won American Idol’s first season, 2008’s standout Adam Lambert, doesn’t deny rumors of his being gay or bisexual. When Internet photos circulated of him kissing other men and dressed in drag, he shrugged, “I have nothing to hide. I am who I am.” Other successful American Idol contestants include Clay Aiken, who finally came out as gay when he announced becoming a father with his male friend, and Fantasia, a single mom.

Yes, I like being an American and am glad my seven-year-old son, husband and I have so many more sexual and gender options today than in the 1800s or 1950s. The virginal ideal of the 1950s was beautiful, bubbly movie icon Sandra Dee, whose reality was an incest survivor, divorced at 22, and a lonely life of anorexia, alcoholism and depression.

Because my son is so precious, I protect him by preparing him to make healthy sexual decisions throughout his life. I don’t feed him more of the same parental “do as I say, not as I do or did” crap, but teach him reasoning over absolutes. I teach him to be is own moral agent, to value himself, to choose pleasure over purity-promiscuity extremes. I’m teaching him that this is the United States of America and his sex does not belong to the church or state.

To reach humanity’s highest ideals, permission trumps repression. With rights come responsibilities. My son may mess up as I have and will have to deal with consequences with respect and dignity. And I’ll work for a world that uses all of its modern resources to ameliorate harm. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”