How to Think About Sex? A Freakonomics Quorum
The externalities of sex, positive and negative, are so strong that some people even have wondered if a sex tax is a good idea, or wished at the very least that people think about price theory when they think about sex.
We approached a few people who have thought a good bit about sex and society — Taggert Brooks, Andrew Francis, Steve Landsburg, Sari Locker, Rita, Pepper Schwartz, and Wendy Shalit — and asked them the following three questions:
1. How differently do Americans perceive sex now than they did 30 years ago?
2. How do you predict sex will be perceived in 30 years?
3. How should we ideally be looking at/treating sex?
Thanks to all for their thoughts. Comments, as always, are welcome.
“Nineteen-eighty-eight will never come again. Thank God.”
In 1988, as Times Square underwent a (partial, pre-Giuliani) sanitization, the erotic writer Pat Califia famously lamented the disappearance of the corny magazines and grainy movies that served to reassure ordinary people that they were not freaks; that others shared their desires for sodomy or bondage or threesomes; that it was possible to act on these desires, even to act on them with care and safety; that exotic fantasies were not the sole province of the freakish, the outcast, and the reckless. Without the porn shops, feared Califia, sexual ignorance would flourish.
Three years later, in 1991, the World Wide Web was born.
Even sooner, by 1989 or thereabouts, bands of tech-savvy sexual explorers were finding each other on Usenet, an all-text, no-pictures corner of the net that predated the web. Among them was software developer Harry Ugol, who formulated the oft-quoted Ugol’s Law: “To any question beginning with ‘Am I the only one who … ?’ the answer is no.”
Today, thanks to the web, the content of Ugol’s Law is common knowledge — even for those who have never heard it stated quite that way. But a mere 20 years ago, for that first generation of Usenet pioneers, it was revelatory. That’s how much the world has changed.
Compared to the Times Square bookstores, Usenet had the great advantage of allowing two way communication, and soon there were vast networks of interlocking and shockingly intimate public conversations — ranging from psychological and philosophical soul-searching through heartrending personal histories to safety tips for applying alligator clips to the labia. Profound trust and intimacy flourished between people who had never met or even seen each others’ photos.
As late as 1993, Usenet readership was small enough — and self-selected enough — that you could comfortably post an announcement inviting everyone to a party. I do not recommend doing that on the web, but that doesn’t matter anymore.
Anyone who wants information about any sort of sexual variation knows where to look; so does anyone who wants to know where the parties are; so does anyone who just wants a little reassurance along the lines of “you are not a freak.” Welcome to the revolution.
The revolution is not just about sex. Yes, the internet is the place to look for that perfect partner who likes barbed wire, nipple clamps, and electrical play; but it’s also the place to look for that perfect partner who reads Steven Pinker, appreciates Sondheim, and enjoys hiking in the woods. Hundreds of thousands have found love on match.com.
Side by side with the growth of the internet, we’ve had an explosion in wealth, which matters because both love and sex can be enhanced by travel, free time, and in some cases, equipment. We keep getting richer, information keeps getting cheaper, and for both reasons, 1988 will never come again. Thank God.
Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, relationship expert for Perfectmatch.com, and author of, most recently, Prime: Adventures and Advice About Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years.
“Sooner or later (and sooner than 30 years from now) we will just accept the fact that teenagers are sexual starting at about age 15 …”
The way I see it, there has been a sea change in the way Americans view sex. Thirty years ago, when I was in my early 30’s, I was one of a small group of feminists who were challenging conventional morality. The idea that women could be independent sexual creatures whose reputations should not depend on having a committed boyfriend or husband was brand spanking new — and not widely accepted.
“Recreational sex” and living together were seen as challenges to traditional American values. The sexuality of teenagers was seen as aberrant rather than expected.
At the time, the press handled this as a crisis, making it sound as if everyone had adopted these values and behaviors; however, they had not.
Now, oddly enough — when just about everyone has adopted early entry into sexualized relationships (more than 80 percent of teenagers have had intercourse by age 19) and the majority of Americans live together before they consider marriage — there still seem to be strong political and religious movements to pathologize and condemn these behaviors.
Premarital and adolescent sex is threaded through every media outlet, half of all teenagers are sexually active by age 16, and most young women and men will have more than 10 sexual partners by the time they marry. All the condemnation that public opinion could muster didn’t stop the tide of the growing separation of sex from the context of marriage. Still, abstinence education is funded (despite a mountain of evidence that it doesn’t work) and you can’t advertise condoms on network TV. What a world!
I predict that sooner or later (and sooner than 30 years from now) we will just accept the fact that teenagers are sexual starting at about age 15, that sex is both an appetite and an emotional expression — but not necessarily concurrently — and that various kinds of hook-ups, commitments, and institutional relationships will happen at every stage of the life cycle.
I think we will also realize that sex isn’t just for the young and beautiful: the ardor of the aging and aged won’t be such a joke as the baby boomers hit their 80’s and 90’s. If we could just accept sex as a fabulous gift that should occur with mutual consent, protecting each person’s health, it would be a great jump forward for personal happiness and a civilized world.
“The young girls who were raised to feel they had to be sexy and ‘hot’ at age four are going to be giving their daughters very different advice.”
Although the prevailing attitude towards sex has shifted to the exhibitionist extreme — with 3- and 4-year-old girls crooning, after the Bratz cartoons: “You’ve gotta look hotter than hot! Show what you’ve got!” — we are also at the end of this exhibitionist experiment. Perhaps precisely because things have gotten so bad, we are now closer to a more wholesome attitude towards sexuality.
Thirty or forty years ago, the sexual revolution was in full swing and modesty and fidelity were equated with sexual repression; without sexual boundaries and reticence, supposedly we would usher in a kind of full flowering of sexuality.
Today we have the grim answers from this experiment and most Americans — at least those who don’t think ideologically — can see plainly that this experiment failed.
Very young girls are now sexualized under the guise of empowerment, but who is benefiting from the spectacle? Creepy older men. Children of divorce and families shattered by infidelity tend not to see adultery in the sexy way it’s portrayed in the media. Colleges abandoned in loco parentis to give students more autonomy, but today many students feel quashed by the pressure to “hook up” and report being depressed by the lack of any dating scene.
Our new repression is emotional repression — the repression of romantic hope — and its burden rivals the old repression. At least with the old parietal rules, those who wanted to have sex could sneak into the dorms; but today a girl who objects to the new doctrine of “flaunt your body” and “be jaded about sex” is ridiculed and labeled a prude (and not infrequently by her elders). Paradoxically, total sexual freedom has led to a narrower range of sexual choices for many young people.
Nonetheless, brave souls at Princeton, Harvard, Notre Dame, and Arizona State are rebelling and launching student groups to restore the idea that sexuality is significant. I think it’s tremendously encouraging that these students are standing up to the cultural and media pressures and saying it is possible to wait for the right person to come along.
We’re definitely going to see more of these groups cropping up in the coming years. Moreover, I predict that the young girls who were raised to feel they had to be “sexy” and “hot” at age four are going to be giving their daughters very different advice. We’ll also be seeing more mainstream sex therapists like Dr. Ian Kerner speaking out against casual sex — not for religious reasons but because “the more casual the situation,” the “less likely” you’ll achieve satisfaction or “any emotional state of happiness,” as he puts it in a recent popular book. (If someone doesn’t give a hoot about you, it turns out he doesn’t care very much about your emotional or sexual needs either.)
In short, America is waking up to the failures of the sexual revolution, and not even Russell Brand’s publicly mocking the Jonas Brothers’ virginity can stop the fact that we’re on the cusp of a much-needed correction.
Andrew Francis, assistant professor of economics at Emory University, and author of “The Economics of Sexuality: The Effect of H.I.V./AIDS on Homosexual Behavior in the United States.”
“AIDS brought sex into the light.”
Thirty years ago, sex was in the dark.
The 1970’s were about free love, big hair, and disco. Risky sexual behavior was on the rise among young Americans, as suggested by increasing rates of gonorrhea during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Even so, most adults remained sexually conservative, believing that sex should only take place between a man and woman in the context of marriage.
However, perhaps surprisingly, not much else was known about American sexual practices 30 years ago, as nationally representative surveys of sexual behavior simply didn’t exist. And even less was spoken about sex.
The H.I.V./AIDS epidemic changed everything.
Since the early 1980’s, more than one million Americans have been diagnosed with AIDS, and it brought sex into the light.
Nowadays, Americans approach sex with cautious curiosity. This is evident in our hunger for information about sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and our own H.I.V. status as well as that of our potential sexual partners. AIDS has also spurred researchers to conduct nationally representative surveys to further illuminate the intricacies of sexual behavior.
Without a doubt, we are headed for a second sexual revolution in which Americans will have unprecedented sexual freedom in a safe, socially responsible, and tolerant environment.
Not only will Americans enjoy more sex but also more sexual diversity — though not necessarily at the expense of monogamy. This will involve a significant broadening of what constitutes personal, fulfilling, and morally legitimate sexual interaction. Such diversity might entail interethnic dating/marriage as well as same-gender dating/marriage.
Several critical factors will bring this about: 1) education about sex, S.T.D.’s, and sexual diversity; 2) social tolerance of sexual diversity and, in particular, the liberalization of attitudes toward gay and lesbian populations; 3) new treatments to treat or perhaps even cure AIDS; 4) sensible laws to encourage testing and reduce the reckless transmission of S.T.D.’s; and 5) new technologies, such as the internet, to facilitate matchmaking.
Sex is a gift and a responsibility.
An individual’s prior choices about sexual behavior and S.T.D. testing are associated with significant externalities that arise, in part, because sexual behavior occurs in the context of intricate sexual networks.
An individual should consider the impact of his choices not only on himself, but also on his partners and his partners’ partners and so on. Therefore, it is crucial that society first provide adequate sexual education and second, craft effective public policies (both public health programs and statutory law) to give individuals incentives to make socially responsible decisions regarding sex.
But society’s role should stop there. To be clear, all forms of fully informed consensual sex should be permissible, because, in the end, sex is and should be freedom.
“[Americans] worry that if they don’t boost the intensity, their sex life will be about as exciting as Ned Flanders’s.”
In the 1970’s, Americans perceived sex as exciting and offering the thrill of freedom. In the 1980’s, we viewed it as a scary precursor to disease. In the 1990’s, we were shocked but titillated as pop culture broke boundaries and exposed every type of sex imaginable. Now, in the 2000’s, too often we see sex as a source of pressure and confusion.
Because of the oozing exploitation of sex on television, movies, magazines, books, and the internet, in the 2000’s we’ve entered what I deem The Era of Sexual Pressure. Few Americans hold remnants of a sexually repressed, puritanical mindset that views erotic pleasure as sinful. Rather, they fear that their sex experiences are not daring enough! They worry that if they don’t boost the intensity, their sex life will be about as exciting as Ned Flanders‘s.
Americans are falling prey to a sexually explicit culture that gives the impression that everyone — from pop stars to average teenagers to so-called desperate housewives — is enjoying outrageously wild sex all night long. Because the internet provides a constant tell-all and show-all of sexual interactions, fewer couples today explore and discover erotic pleasures together. Instead, they are spending more time alone online seeing what feels good to others, and they feel pressured to measure up to unrealistic standards. Many people may feel alienated from their bodies — afraid of being sexual failures, disconnected from their partners, and shut off from their true sexual selves.
At the same time, they have access to quick fixes that allow them to hide from the real causes of their sexual dissatisfaction. Why analyze the reason behind a lost erection when there’s Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra? When your email inbox is filled with promises of porn-star stamina, the warning label of an erection that last for hours sounds less like a medical side effect than a bonus feature.
In all my years as a sex educator, I’ve never seen such a huge gap between the reality of ordinary people’s sex lives and the myths about sex from pop culture that they’re taking to heart. The true challenge is to sort through the sexual “spam” that preys on anxieties, distracts individuals from discovering their unique desires, and blocks them from genuine intimacy with a partner.
To avoid a bleak sexual future, I’d like to see Americans develop healthier attitudes toward sex, free from the influence of pop culture and product promotions. Creativity is great, but let’s strive for balance by looking inward to develop positive sexual selves. Let’s not wait decades to celebrate the simple pleasures of two people having a shared sexual experience and basking in the afterglow.
Taggert Brooks, associate professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin and author of the paper “In Da Club: An Econometric Analysis of Strip Club Patrons.”
“Who knows, one day we may view sex as an act of patriotism, as we may be asked to literally do it for our country.”
The best data on Americans’ perceptions of sex come from the General Social Survey. Assuming Americans don’t suffer from extraordinary cognitive dissonance, we would also expect their perceptions of sex to change with their behaviors.
Sexual behavior since the introduction and legalization of the female contraceptive pill in the 1960’s has changed dramatically from what was once an act that carried the risk of pregnancy to an act which could be accomplished with the risk of pregnancy approaching zero; importantly, it was a technology controlled by women rather than by men (as was the case of previously available condoms).
The primary result of this technological change was the sexual revolution, which started a very slow cultural shift towards a general acceptance of premarital sex.
For the most part, I think a majority of Americans have come to embrace sex as an intimate act primarily for the pleasure of the participants, instead of an act with the primary or even secondary purpose of creating a child. This has led to several other changes in society. No longer is premarital sex as shunned as it once was because no longer is it as likely to result in pregnancy.
And if sex isn’t about creating life, but solely about creating pleasure and intimacy between consenting adults, then homosexual sex — for some people — can achieve that desired end. It is one reason why homosexual relations are gradually becoming socially accepted by many Americans.
There are of course pockets of Americans, generally religious, who still view the primary function of sex as procreation: a view the Catholic Church surprisingly continues to promote 40 years after the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”
How do I predict perceptions will change 30 years from now?
The one caveat to the previous question might be the general decline in birth rates around the globe. Falling fertility rates have put strains on social insurance and retirement systems that rely upon the pyramid scheme of population growth. Italy has talked about subsidizing sex for procreation purposes. Who knows, one day we may view sex as an act of patriotism, as we may be asked to literally do it for our country.
As in the case of the pill, new technologies are probably most likely to facilitate future shifting social perceptions of sex. I think many Americans perceive a dramatic drop-off in sexual activity among the elderly, but I think innovations like Viagra will force us to rethink that stereotype. In fact, there is already evidence that the little blue pill has led to a dramatic rise in S.T.D.’s among older Americans. Senior living situations are likely the next battle ground against S.T.D.’s.
I’m not implying senior living environments have become bastions of sex, akin to college coed dorms, but nonetheless, the technology has allowed for increase in sexual activity — and with it the transmission of disease.
I think we should view sex as a loving, intimate, fun, and pleasurable connection between consenting adults. As such it should not be regulated by the state. Failing that utopian dream, the government should at least let women (and men) in Alabama buy and enjoy their sex toys.
Rita [last name withheld], a pro dominatrix, burlesque performer, sex educator, and writer who is currently studying to become a women’s-health nurse practitioner.
“I’m sort of afraid to even think about what the public attitude about sex will be in 30 years.”
There is a lot of shame regarding sex. I don’t think that’s changed. So many of the clients I had when I worked as a pro dominatrix didn’t feel comfortable sharing their fetishes or fantasies with their partners, so they came to me (and others in my industry) to enjoy them. This was often coupled with a heavy helping of self-loathing, which never ceased to make me sad.
While I was happy to offer my clients the opportunity to play out their fantasies without judging them, I still wished these guys could have shared this part of themselves with their real-life lovers. Of course, that would have had me out of a job.
Publicly, sex is very glossy and commercial these days. The term “sex sells” seems to grow truer by the day. I can’t compare now to 30 years ago, but expectations today for females to be “hot” in a particular way (Skinny! But not too skinny. Tan! Shiny!) seem rampant. Of course, despite this, America still manages to remain as puritanical as ever.
On one hand, I’m sort of afraid to even think about what the public attitude about sex will be in 30 years, with things being the way they are now (tons of plastic surgery, rigid and bland standards of what is “sexy,” people being sexualized at younger and younger ages). I am terrified about the spread of abstinence-only education in schools. I’m dedicated to the cause of promoting real sex education — comprehensive, with information about, and access to, safer sex supplies; access to clinics like Planned Parenthood that offer services and counseling to young people; and discussions about body image, self-esteem, and the role of sex in the media.
Sexuality should be respected, but also revered; it’s awesome. That’s how it should be treated.