|WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, The
Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (Warner Books,
John Heidenry, What Wild Ecstasy: The Rise
and Fall of the Sexual Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
Samuel Janus and Cynthia Janus, The Janus
Report on Sexual Behavior (John Wiley & Sons, 1993).
Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human
Male (W.B. Saunders, 1948).
Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata, Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Little, Brown,
The National Survey of Family Growth,
Cycle Five(National Center for Health Statistics, 1997).
Katie Roiphe, Last Night in Paradise: Sex and
Morals at the Century's End (Little, Brown, 1997).
Gabriel Rotello, Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the
Destiny of Gay Men (Dutton, 1997).
| uring the 1984 primary season, Ronald Reagan worried publicly that Americans
were having too much sex. Promiscuity, he lamented, had become "acceptable, even
stylish." The very word "promiscuity," with its reproachful moral
overtones, had been replaced by the more accepting term "sexually active." What
had once been "a sacred expression of love," had become "casual and
cheap." The country's moral fabric was fraying dangerously. Who had set us on this
road to Sodom? Liberals.
Accusations like Reagan's do not necessarily presume
that liberals are friskier than other peoplebelieve it or not, one study actually
found that the very conservative are 10 percent more likely than the very liberal to be
conducting extramarital affairs and three times more likely than the very liberal and the
moderate to find sadomasochism an acceptable practice. Rather, Reagan's comments represent
a typical version of the traditional conservative's interpretation of the "sexual
revolution": It was part of the sinful sixties-seventies counterculture; it was a
weakening of morals caused by trends and policies, such as wider availability of
contraceptives and broader acceptance of premarital sex, that liberals advocated; and it
The sexual revolution is clearly one of those ideological battlegroundslike
the conflicts over college curricula, abortion, and "the sixties"where
liberals and conservatives clash over culture, politics, and religion simultaneously. Many
liberals would insistrightlythat the sexual revolution helped bring about
changes for the better: broader rights for gays and women, wider use of contraceptives,
acceptance of premarital cohabitation. Many conservatives would insistalso
rightlythat the sexual revolution undermined traditional social and religious bonds
and that this loosening of mores caused an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases
(STDs). Conservatives have used the epidemics of AIDS and other STDs to reenergize their
traditional moral arguments against sex outside marriage. Liberals, on the other hand,
still champion what they consider to be the revolution's moral gains; they advocate
improving contraceptive availability and sex education to preserve these gains while
fighting disease and raising awareness.
Today we live with what many people believedespite some studies showing
sexual activity today to be as promiscuous as, if not more promiscuous than, at the height
of the revolutionis a counterrevolution ushered in by AIDS. But is this backlash
against the revolution a reality? What is the connection between public morality and
public health? And who has more authority to speak on these issues: liberals advocating
sex education and public health, or conservatives advocating abstinence and
Sex, Science, and History
On May 10, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the approval of a new
drug produced by G.D. Searle & Company, called Enovid. Some 21 years later, on June 5,
1981, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly reported the appearance of a strange new
pneumonia in five otherwise healthy gay men. On neither day were the consequences of these
events imaginable to most people. But "the pill" and AIDS serve in the popular
imagination as the watershed developments that catalyzed and then killed the sexual
It is not entirely clear, however, that a discrete "sexual
revolution" is anything more than a cultural artifact. Although there is clearly a
countervailing trend toward more puritanical attitudes in some segments of society, the
preponderance of evidence shows that sexual behavior has remained
"loose"and may even be continuing on a loosening trendin the time of
AIDS. Nor, contrary to popular mythology, did the revolution really begin with the birth
control pill: The same trends can be traced back to the end of World War I.
By 1918 sex had begun to escape its institutional confinement in marriage and was
starting to become an acceptedor at least acknowledgedpart of the culture.
During the 1920s, for example, the number of young women engaging in premarital sex jumped
sharply, to about 50 percent of the cohort. Economic prosperity after World War II shifted
values away from puritanical self-denial and toward a demand for consumer goods; by the
1960s, having lots of sex had become almost a commercial moral imperative. Business began
catering to nonmarital sex: A new kind of establishment, the "singles bar,"
became a standard feature of the urban landscape; convenience stores sold
"one-night-stand kits" that came with a toothbrush,
condoms, razors, and, for
women, an extra pair of underwear; and the concept that "sex sells" became ever
more apparent in the proliferation of sexual scenes and innuendoes in entertainment and
In the 1950s, less than 25 percent of Americans thought premarital sex was acceptable;
by the 1970s, more than 75 percent found it acceptable. Between 1960 and 1980, the
marriage rate dropped by about 25 percent; the average age of marriage for both men and
women rose steadily; and the number of divorced men and women jumped by 200 percent. All
told, according to a study by Adweek magazine, single people as a percentage of the
total American adult population rose from 28 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 1993. The
sexual revolution was in full swing.
significant that most people attribute the rise and decline of the revolutionnow
consolidated by popular understanding into a finite eventto developments that are
not strictly speaking "moral" or "political." The birth control pill
was a technological advancement; AIDS was a medical threat. Thus the vaunted loosening and
then tightening of sexual mores that bracket the revolution are in some sense more
reducible to biology and technology than to changes in religion or politics or morality
This blending of science and morality is not a new phenomenon. In nineteenth-century
America, physicians began to take the place of both church and state as the authoritative
source of sexual norms. Victorian-era doctors and much of the public understood sex by
analogy to the second law of thermodynamics, believing that profligate sex led to mental
and physical degeneration. With this in mind, entrepreneurial inventors developed such
devices as a genital cage that would ring an alarm when a boy wearing it had an erection,
to prevent masturbation. STDs lent scientific urgency to calls for stricter sexual
morality: In the 1890s, conservatives were quick to label a burgeoning syphilis epidemic
divine retribution for an era in which the rules governing sexual behavior were losing
A century later, AIDS wasliterally, for some on the religious righta
Godsend. "AIDS is God's judgment on a society that does not live by its rules,"
declaimed Reverend Jerry Falwell. For the biblically inclined, this argument had a certain
logic to it. After all, we had been warned: The herpes virus, afflicting as many as 30
million people by the early 1980s, had been deemed "the new scarlet letter" in a
1982 Time magazine cover story explicitly linking the disease to promiscuity. AIDS
led to invigorated calls for monogamy and abstinence by religious leaders and public
health officials. Both religious and secular authorities now had a powerful weapon, in the
form of a medical threat, with which to bring the sexual revolution to a crashing
Today, science has become so woven into moral discourse about sexuality that it is
hidden in plain sight. Ironically, this conflation of scientific and moral rhetoric in
discourse about sexual activity owes much to the work of an obscure midwestern
entomologist who in the 1940s set out to separate religious and moral shibboleths about
sex from actual sexual practices.
Natural, Normal, and Moral
In 1938, Alfred Kinsey, a professor in the zoology department at Indiana University,
was known only for being the world's foremost expert on a small, stinging insect called
the North American gall wasp. But that year, when the university inaugurated a new course
on marriage and asked Kinsey to give lectures for it, the sexual world shifted on its
axis. Kinsey, frustrated at not having enough statistical material for his lectures, began
collecting his own data by surveying students in the marriage class. Finding that data
insufficient, he distributed questionnaires to students and the faculty at large. Finally,
relying on the help of a legion of colleagues, research assistants, and graduate students,
Kinsey began surveying anyone who would consent to be interviewed, ultimately collecting
data on 18,000 people. With funds from the National Research Council's Committee for
Research in the Problems of Sex (underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation), Kinsey
stopped teaching and devoted himself full-time to his survey, founding the Institute for
Sex Research in 1947.
[My note: The summary of the history and context of Kinsey's research that is given
in that paragraph reflects the popular views and myths promoted by Kinsey and his
team. The real story is quite different. Kinsey was a homosexual, addicted to
sado-masochistic masturbation (through which he sustained an injury that quite likely
brought about his death, or at least hastened it) and active in the promotion of sexual
freedom since his time as a Scout leader, long before his interest in sex research was
allegedly sparked through the marriage class he was asked to teach. For a detailed
description of the facts of Kinsey's sex research refer to Kinsey: Crimes &
Consequences, by Judith A. Reisman, Ph.D. Excerpts.
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which became known as the Kinsey report,
dropped like an 800-page bomb into American culture in 1948. No onecertainly not
Kinsey or his publisher, who brought out a first printing of only 5,000
copiesexpected the reaction it elicited. Rocketing to the top of the bestseller
list, where it stayed for 27 weeks, the report introduced facts and statistics into
America's dinner table conversations that dramatically altered perception of sexual
behavior in America. The statistics shocked and scandalized: 86 percent of men said they
had engaged in premarital sex; 50 percent said they had committed adultery before turning
40; 37 percent of men reported at least one episode of homosexual sex; and 17 percent of
men who had grown up on farms claimed to have had sex with animals. The Kinsey report blew
the lid off the container in which sexual experience had been sealed. Sexual activity
previously labeled "deviant" or "immoral" seemed rampant among the
very people who outwardly condemned it.
One of Kinsey's explicit goals in publishing the report was to export discussion of
sexual practices from the realm of morality to that of science. In a scientific context,
whatever the surveys found was "natural" and whatever was "natural"
was "normal" and whatever was "normal" was morally okay. In other
words, he sought to demolish "normal" as a meaningful category of sexual
Whatever the moral interpretation . . . there is no scientific reason for considering
particular types of sexual activity as intrinsically, in their biological origins, normal
or abnormal. . . . Present-day legal determination of sexual acts which are acceptable, or
"natural," and those which are "contrary to nature" are not based on
data obtained from biologists, nor from nature herself.
Because previous study of sexual behavior had been little more than "a
rationalization of the mores masquerading under the guise of objective science," the
report aimed, in the words of its authors, to accumulate "scientific fact divorced
from questions of moral value and social custom."
But despite its claims to separate sex from morality by inoculating it with science,
what the Kinsey group managed to do was pretty much the oppositeto reify science as
morality. Sex, one of the areas of life most laden with taboos, myths, and rules in every
society, had historically been governed by traditional cultural authoritiesreligion,
folklore, literature, law. The Kinsey report solidified science's role as the new,
preeminent cultural authority. And Kinsey's version of the Word of Science was that,
sexually speaking, anything goes. Whatever he found in his surveyand he found great
quantities of adultery, homosexual sex, oral sex, prostitution, bondage, and
bestialitywas by definition acceptable. Our moral values needed to be brought more
scientifically in line with our sexual practicesand the sexual goal of society, the
Kinsey report implied, was to maximize the number of orgasms per week. The sexual
revolution, though it owed much to interpretations (and misinterpretations) of Sigmund
Freud and Wilhelm Reich, found its intellectual underpinnings here.
Kinsey's methodology was badly flawed. Many of his respondents were simply the
most eager volunteers; his statistical sample, while large, was hardly representative of
the larger population. Thus the numbers he published in his reports were very likely
grossly inflated. But this hardly mattered. Conservative critics attacked him on their
terms, not his. It was not the specific quantities of "immoral" sexual activity
reported by Kinsey that riled them; rather it was the report's attempt to use an
implicitly moralizing social science to justify an anything-goes sexual ethos. "It is
impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of
America," declared the evangelist Billy Graham when the Kinsey report's companion
volume, Sexual Behavior in the American Female, came out in 1953. Tennessee
Congressman Carroll Reece formed a committee to investigate foundation support of
"un-American activities," targeting in particular the Rockefeller Foundation's
funding of the Kinsey Institute.
From the Kinsey reports onward, this constant tension between permissiveness and
restraint, between old cultural authorities and new ones, led to a growing moral
bewilderment. What was right? Nobody knew anymore. The sexual revolution and its aftermath
caused this tension to intensify. A 1977 Time poll found that 61 percent of
Americans believed it was harder and harder to tell sexual right from wrong than in the
past. And the most striking feature of the 1993 Janus Report on Sexual Behavior was
the increase in uncertainty between its two polling periods. "For most items . . .
the no opinion responses in Phase Two [1988-1992] were two to three times what they had
been in Phase One [1983-1985]. We observed significantly less firm opinion and more
irresolution in the second phase sample than in the first." Perhaps the most
confusing thing was that "science," deployed by Kinsey to establish what Lionel
Trilling called a "democratic pluralism of sexuality," was now, in the age of
herpes and AIDS, fused to moral arguments for monogamy and restraint. The Age of Aquarius
turned into the Age of Confusion.
[My note: AIDS and Herpes are not the most prevalent sexually transmitted diseases
we now have to worry about. The promiscuity resulting from the new-found
"sexual freedom" caused the rapid spread of many more STDs, such as chlamydia,
human papilloma virus (genital warts, assumed to be the cause of perhaps all cervical
cancer cases) and hepatitis C infections (liver failure, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer of
the liver). There is not yet a cure in sight for HPV or hepatitis C
infections. See also One out of Two AIDS AND STDS AMONG MEN WHO HAVE SEX WITH MEN.
Homosexual men are at high risk for almost every form of STD, but adolescent girls are
close behind. A report from the CDC shows that in 1992 the three leading causes of deaths
related to STDs among American women 15 years or older were cervical cancer, AIDS and
hepatitis b and c. It is probable that almost all cervical cancer is a result of infection
with HPV. Remember that the girl can be a virgin at marriage and still get HPV-caused
cancer if her husband carries the virus.
HPV can be passed from a mother to her baby at birth. In one study of sexually active
female college students, nearly half of the young women were infected with HPV.
Another study found that 60% of sexually active adolescents were infected with HPV.
HPV is highly contagious and infection cannot be prevented by
condoms. The virus is
spread by cells shed from the entire area not just from fluid. Dr. John Derive says
"Human papilloma virus, thought of as the 'seed' of cervical cancer, is a regional
rather than localized disease, and its infectivity is not contained by
THE NEED FOR A COUNTER REVOLUTION,
Speech to Delaware Pro-Life Conference,
By Dale O'Leary
After the Morning After
Katie Roiphe is nothing if not confused; hence she is well qualified to comment on our
postrevolutionary era. As the subtitle of her new book implies, Roiphe's Last Night in
Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End undertakes to examine the contemporary
American social setting in which the moral and social consequences of certain romantic
acts have been replaced by technical and medical ones. Fears about committing a sin, about
being ostracized, about experiencing shame no longer have resonance for many people,
argues Roiphe; what really scares people today are things like having to get an abortion,
contracting herpes, or dying of AIDS.
Technical limitations to sexual freedom have begun to take on the character of moral
strictures. AIDS especiallythe scourge in particular of drug takers and male
homosexualshas become swollen with moral force, as social and moral understandings
of what's acceptable sexual behavior have been collapsed into medical ones. America,
Roiphe writes, "embraced the AIDS epidemicnot the terrible disease itself, but,
in its abstract form, the idea of sexual peril" because it was "an actual crisis
to give form and meaning to our free-floating doubts about sexual freedom."
The 1993 publication of her first book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism,
propelled Roiphe, then a 25-year-old graduate student in English literature at Princeton,
to minor cultural celebrityhood. In that book Roiphe, prefiguring her arguments about AIDS
in Last Night in Paradise, argued that the lobby against date rape was symptomatic
of a more general anxiety about sex, an unwillingness to accept the idea that sex needn't
always have consequences. Her most controversial position was that many instances of what
campus fashion had determined was "date rape" were actually just bad
sexshe knew, she said, because she'd had plenty of it herself. "The crisis is
not a rape crisis," she wrote, "but a crisis in sexual identity."
[In the US, there are an
estimated 520,000 false rape allegations a year 98.1% of all reported
cases. Eeva Sodhi,
Debunking Domestic Violence Statistics; Rape]
In the initial flush of media attention, Roiphe was hailed as a new voice in feminism,
a welcome corrective to politically correct sexual repressiveness. But in the subsequent
caricature that emerged from the negative backlash, Roiphe became a young Camille Paglia,
a neoconservative, neofeminist provocateur who made up in glibness and flamboyance what
she lacked in logic and accuracy. Katha Pollit's brutal dissection of The Morning After
in the New Yorker in October 1993 pretty well demolished any claim the book had to
being a responsible intellectual project.
Unfortunately, no doubt urged on by her agent and publisher, Roiphe has chosen to
continue this project in Last Night in Paradise. But this book comes by its
intellectual confusion honestly: Roiphe freely admits her ambivalence, which may be the
book's greatest strength. Roiphe can't decide whether she'd like still fewer rules or more
of them. On balance, Roiphe seems to favor fewer rules, more wildness; beneath her
analysis lies an implicit plea for joie de vivre, for recklessness, for abandon. Yet her
longing for freedom and romance is tempered by a troubled reckoning of the consequences of
so much freedom, so much fun. "We have no popularly accepted moral attitude about
sexuality that can be passed down from one generation to the next. . . . Without God,
without rigid rules of social class, we have no material out of which to form new
Despite its serious analytical weaknesses, this is in some ways a sympathetic book. In
seizing on our confused attempts to replace "old-fashioned morality" with
"some new technical, institutional code" for sexual behavior, Roiphe is
definitely onto something. She is right, for example, to point out that our "gentle
moral relativism"which accepts legal abortion, birth control, same-sex
marriages, and so on as no big dealbrings out a "vestigial need for strong
social codes, for judgment, context, and tradition." And she is still right when she
explains further that what most inspires nostalgia for a weakly defined
"old-fashioned morality" is an unwillingness to tolerate the ambiguities,
complexities, and desires of the individual. Struggling to find a comfortable middle
ground between a nostalgically embellished "old-fashioned morality" and a
similarly glorified sexual freedom, it is unsurprising that many people would feel the
need for order, restraint, and rules.
The Girls Strike Back
Or for the Rules. In 1995, Warner Books published one of those advice-for-the-lovelorn
pop-psychology books that line the self-help shelves of bookstores. Sales of The Rules:
Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie
Schneider, chugged along modestly for a few months. Then the authors went on Oprah.
All of a sudden, the Rules were everywhere. In 1996, the book reached the top spot on the New
York Times bestseller list. Articles about the Rules started appearing everywhere from
Cosmopolitan and Glamour to the New Republic and the New Yorker.
The authors started offering phone consultingat $250 an hour. My copy of the
paperback even comes with an application form for a Rules seminar.
The Rules consists of 35 simple precepts such as "Don't Talk to a Man
First," "Don't Accept a Saturday Night Date After Wednesday," "Let Him
Take the Lead," and "No More than Casual Kissing on the First Date,"
arranged in rule-per-chapter sequence. "The purpose of the Rules is to make Mr. Right
obsessed with you. . . . What we're promising you is 'happily-ever-after.' " The
Rules amount, in aggregate, to a recommendation of playing "hard to
get"and to a rolling back of women's liberation by maybe 40 years. A
"Rules Girl," according to Fein and Schneider, doesn't put out. She also never
tells a man what to do, always lets him be in control, and doesn't let her children (from
a previous marriage) become an intrusive presence in the relationship. "In a
relationship, the man must take charge. . . . We are not making this upbiologically,
he's the aggressor." No wonder Katie Roiphe is still single.
The Rules no doubt taps eternal fears about spinsterhood, but its commercial
success can be largely attributed to a neat intersection with the zeitgeist. The Rules may
be inane (they recommend studying the mawkish film Love Story like the Bible), but
they appeal smartly to an American society that won the sexual revolutionand then
realized the spoils of victory were not all they were cracked up to be.
Modern women aren't to talk loudly about wanting to get married. We had grown up
dreaming about being the president of the company, not the wife of the president. . . .
Still, we had to face it: as much as we loved being powerful in business, for most of us,
that just wasn't enough. . . . We didn't want to give up our liberation, but neither did
we want to come home to empty apartments. Who said we couldn't have it all?
This weirdly inverts the yearnings of 1950s housewives, for whom family and laundry
were not enough. The question is a good, forward-looking onewhy can't women have it
all?but the solution Fein and Schneider provide is retrograde.
Kinsey and the sexual revolution that followed him erased all the rules of romantic
relations; the Rules, which the authors describe as "a simple working set of
behaviors and reactions," put them back. The authors use a typical combination of pop
science, fear mongering, practicality, and moral cajoling to urge sexual restraint.
"Never get in a car with a man you meet at a party," they tell us, because
"you might end up in his trunk." "Forget all the 'free love'[*] theories from the swinging sixties," they tell us,
summarily discarding the sexual revolution. It's not "cool to have an unwanted
pregnancy or a disease."
The sexual counterrevolution is not limited to pabulum like the Rules. The most
vitriolic backlash is reserved for gay men, who were in many ways both the primary
catalysts and short-term beneficiaries of the sexual revolutionand who have also
suffered far more than anyone else its costs. Gabriel Rotello's Sexual Ecology: AIDS
and the Destiny of Gay Men argues that it was radical changes in the sexual behavior
of homosexual American men that led to a large, sudden increase in the prevalence of STDs
among the gay and bisexual population. AIDS, it should be made clear, is not a
"gay" diseaseoutside of the United States, 90 percent of its victims are
heterosexual. But the new intensity and variety of sexual activity among homosexual males
during the sexual revolution generated an environment in which diseases previously
"held in check" could thrive. The gay New York bathhouses of the 1970s made
possible licentiousness on a positively Roman scale. According to the Centers for Disease
Control, the first few hundred gay men with AIDS had an average of 1,100 (!) lifetime
sexual partners. Rotello, who is gay, makes the argument that, contrary to what many in
the gay political community like to believe, the AIDS epidemic wasn't something that
"just happened." The sexual revolution caused it.
Given the facts, this seems an obvious point, and an important one to acknowledge. But
whether by ignorance or design, many peoplegays and liberals in
particulardon't accept it. To do so, they believe, would be playing into the
moralist rhetoric of fundamentalist conservatives like Falwell and Pat Buchanan, for whom
AIDS is a punishment visited by God upon the sexually deviant. "The poor
homosexuals," Buchanan sneers. "They have declared war on Nature, and now Nature
is exacting an awful retribution." AIDS confers such a moral stigma because
conservatives haveincorrectlymanaged to
connect AIDS to homosexuality, which they consider intrinsically immoral, rather than to
the specific behavior patterns in the sixties and seventies that in the United States made
gays the focal point of the epidemic.
Rotello, like Kinsey, tries explicitly to distance himself from any moral claims
("So let me say simply at the outset that what I describe below are biological, not
moral, events") in making his epidemiological arguments advocating sexual restraint
and safe sex. But Rotello's book effectivelyif unintentionallyillustrates that
science, pragmatism, and morality are clearly interwoven in ways that resist untangling.
Morality and public health are both concerned to protect and enhance the commonweal[th].
But both can also be used to ostracize and deny rightsand they do so most
effectively when they are mixed together.
It's Over! No, It's Not!
The sexual revolution is such a contentious topic that even ostensibly objective social
science gets tinged with the ideological predispositions of researchers. Though the data
are now 50 years old, and though most experts believe its findings of sexual activity to
be grossly inflated, the Kinsey reports remained the standard source for information about
sexual activity until at least 1994. Various academic studies contradicted aspects of
Kinsey's findings, but these studies were of much narrower scope. And broad studies of
society that captured some data about sex, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), found
quantities and varieties of sexual activity much lower than what Kinsey found. Would-be
exegetes of the sexual revolution and its aftermath were left with a morass of conflicting
and outdated information.
In 1993, Cynthia and Samuel Janus tried to rectify this situation,
publishing The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior, for which they collected data
between 1983 and 1992. Their findings only made things more confusing: They were unable to
determine whether they were witnessing a backlash against the sexual revolution or a
continuation of it. On the one hand the AIDS epidemic had made people claim to be more
cautious about sex. On the other hand, they were having more sex with more
peopleespecially among the most at-risk groups. Sixty-two percent of young men and
66 percent of young women reported that their sexual activity increased compared to three
years earlier. Serious decline in sexual activity was shown by only 5 percent of the men
and 9 percent of the women in the youngest group. Moreover, 24 percent of men and 20
percent of women reported "much more" sexual activity than three years earlier,
and 44 percent of men and 41 percent of women reported "more" sexual activity.
All told, 73 percent of men and 68 percent of women reported having the same or more sex
in 1988-1992 than in 1985-1988.
Confronted with the conflicting data, the Januses weakly hedged their bets. This
increase in sexual activity was, they said, the "Second Sexual Revolution."
"The enormous tensions and backlash generated by these devastating sexually
transmitted diseases made the practice of casual sex pause; from this hesitation, and the
reaction to it, came the beginning of the Second Sexual Revolution." In other words,
there was the revolution. Then there was the backlash against the revolution. Then there
was the backlash against the backlash against the revolution. No wonder everyone is so
he Janus report was based on a statistical sample of only 2,795,
and many of the older respondents were found at sex-therapy clinicsso there is good
reason to believe that many of their estimations of activity, like Kinsey's, are greatly
overstated. But the following year another study appeared. Billed as the most
comprehensive survey since Kinsey's, the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS),
popularly published as Sex in America: A Definitive Survey, dropped into American
culture in 1994 like the original Kinsey report had nearly a half century earlier. Only
while the Kinsey report had titillated and horrified with its previously unimaginable
picture of sexual variety in the United States, Sex in America did quite the
What happened to the sexual revolution? Sex in America seemed to provide clear
evidence that it was dead and gone, swept away by AIDS and a revival of sturdy family
values. Some findings from its random sampling of 3,432 subjects: 94 percent of Americans
were faithful to their spouses (up from around 60 percent in the Kinsey, Janus, and other
surveys); only 33 percent of Americans had sex twice or more per week; the median number
of lifetime sex partners for women was two, for men six. One of its more telling findings
was that married people had the most sex, single people the next most, and divorced people
the least. "The more partners you have," the report's authors wrote, "the
more time you are going to spend finding and wooing themtime that a married couple
could be having sex." In other words, if you like sex it doesn't pay to be a swinging
single. Instead, get married and stay married. Our findings, the authors wrote,
"often directly contradict what has become the conventional wisdom about sex. They
are counterrevolutionary findings, showing a country . . . that, on the whole, is much
less sexually active than we have come to believe."
Some found the study's conclusions dubious and its methodology biased, arguing that the
opposition of politicians like Senator Jesse Helmswho in 1987 had blocked
congressional funding for the study (and all sex surveys), forcing the researchers to
apply for foundation moneyhad conservatized its results. John
Heidenry, for example, writes in What Wild Ecstasy: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual
Revolution that the Sex in America survey was "the logical culmination of
the new and improved puritanism of the United States, dressed out in the guise of
objective science." This is precisely the opposite of what critics of the Kinsey
report had said: that its "objective science" gave moral license to sexually
deviant practices. And while Kinsey had set out to abolish the whole concept of
"normal"or moralsexuality, the NHSLS authors strove explicitly to
preserve moral norms by warning that, "Of course, a survey cannot tell us what is
normal, only what is frequent."
While the NHSLS's conclusions about sexual activity were generally much more
conservative than the Janus report's, there were places where Janus's findings supported
theirs. Though the NHSLS found that most young people did not have large numbers of sexual
partners (more than 50 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds had just one partner in 1992), it
also found that "the very sexually active people in the population, who are most at
risk of being infected with HIV, did not seem to have been slowed by fears of AIDS."
For example, 8.7 percent of people ages 25 to 29 claimed to have had 21 or more partners
since age 18; 11.5 percent of 30- to 39-year-olds claimed to have had that many. The
authors point out that if fear of AIDS had affected sexual activity, the highly
promiscuous proportion of the younger group, who came of age after the explosion of AIDS,
ought to have been much lower than it was relative to the older group.
ut the most recent sex studies tell a more heartening
story. On May 1, 1997, the National Survey of Family Growth, a government survey conducted
every five years, released its most recent data, collected during 1995: The data showed
that, for the first time since 1970, the percentage of teenagers having sex had declined.
The percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 having sex declined from 55 to 50 between 1990 and
1995 (the number of married teenagers is so small these days, that even if marital sex is
excluded, the percentage of girls having sex in 1995 falls by only 2 percent); and 55
percent of teenage boys had sex in 1995, down from 60 percent in 1988. Conservatives, no
doubt, will take this as evidence that the sexual counterrevolution is, albeit slowly,
taking hold. (And many adults think it should be taking hold faster; a March 1997 survey
found that 95 percent of people surveyed believe teens should be completely abstinent.)
But while something of a conservative sexual counterrevolution may finally be trickling
down to younger Americans, the most encouraging data vindicate liberal sex-education
policies: Condom use among young women has risen sharply, from 18 percent in the 1970s to
36 percent in the 1980s to 54 percent in 1995; in 1995, 91 percent of women said they had
been taught safe-sex methods of preventing AIDS transmission. If condom use is up while
sexual activity is down, then the conservative argument that sex education and
contraception availability increase "immoral" and dangerous promiscuity looks
Who Won the Sexual Revolution?
"Uninhibited sex," writes the conservative political scientist Harvey
Mansfield in Reassessing the Sixties, "received a rude shock from the
emergence of AIDS. Perhaps you should listen more carefully to the vague menaces of your
mother . . . about what happens to people who do funny things for sex." Well, perhaps
that's trueto a point. But then Mansfield continues. "Since the sixties,
feminine modesty has reasserted itself, though partly in the guise of feminism. There are
now plenty of nice girls . . . but they are confused, apologetic, and unsupported by
social norms. What they get for advice is 'safe sex.' "
Mansfield's tonewith his derisive "under the guise of
feminism" and his patronizing "nice girls"gives away the conservative
game here. What conservatives like Mansfield want is less a curb on sexual excess than a
rolling back of the political gains that women (and gays) have won under the auspices of
the sexual revolution. It is difficult, of course, to tie victories in the political and
social realms directly to victories in the sexual realmmaybe a right to sexual
assertiveness is directly linked to a right to political assertiveness and maybe it isn't.
But at the very least the sexual revolution for women was bound up in the larger
revolutionary changes of the period that led to an improvement in their social status. You
can't have the one without the other. Conservatives like Mansfield and Falwell would like
to erase both.
Mansfield's strategy for achieving this erasure is typical. In fact, it's roughly
what The Rules does. First, point out that sexual liberation had a tangible,
"science"-based cost: AIDS and other STDs. Next, cast the net more widely so
that if sexual liberation was associated with women's liberation, for example, and sexual
liberation caused AIDS, then women's liberation caused AIDS. All forms of liberation and
political change connected to the sixties and seventies get implicated in this way.
Women's rights, gay rights, a woman's right to choose, and the freedom to do what you like
in the privacy of your own bedroom all get thrown out the window with the bathwater.
In 1885, the prestigious British scientific journal the Lancet published an
article arguing that the best method for protecting the young against STDs was the
"cultivation of purity"was "purity" a scientific concept or a
moral one? The ambiguous rhetoric of "purity," neither clearly scientific nor
clearly moral, is what for so many years has enabled traditional conservatives to extract
from biology and epidemiology moral messages that are broader than the science
The sexual revolution eliminated some hypocrisy. Those who trace the ruination of
society to the breakdown of sexual morality forget that the old sexual morality was
honored in the breach as often as not. Sure, in 1960 colleges had curfews and sexually
segregated dorms. But remember that even thenno matter if Kinsey significantly
overstated thingswhen the curfew bell rang, the campus shrubbery would quiver as
young men and women emerged frantically pulling up their pants and smoothing down their
dresses, ready to run back to their single-sex dorms. Failing to acknowledge this, the
anti-fornication crusaders are either dishonest (Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker) or totally
lacking in self-awareness (Robert Bork). In Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern
Liberalism and American Decline, Bork writes:
One evening at a hotel in New York I flipped around the television channels. Suddenly
there on the public access channel was a voluptuous young woman, naked, her body oiled,
writhing on the floor while fondling herself intimately. . . . I watched for some
time-riveted by the sociological significance of it all.
The sociological significance? Right. If Bork had been confirmed as a Supreme Court
justice, we can guess the Court might have taken a lot more pornography cases for careful
sexual revolution may not, in an important sense, have been worth its costs. Most gay men,
the group most galvanized by the sexual revolution, would not say that the considerable
political gains and social acceptance they've won over the last few years was worth human
losses now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But they would not want to give up
those political gains and social acceptance. The Terror did not nullify all that the
French Revolution achieved. Similarly, the ravages of AIDS do not mean that we should now
abandon the liberal advances won by the sexual revolution. Less sexually wanton, yes;
safer sex, yes; but we should not give in to rhetorical appeals for an oppressive new