Teen Sex Books
Sex Lives & SurveysOur society seems more obsessed with sex than any other in history, yet it remains an open question whether this fascination goes beyond media representation, advertising manipulation and Internet titillation. Two recent books attempt to answer this question. While each assesses the sexual attitudes of university students and young people, the two come to diametrically opposite conclusions.According to Sex On Campus: The Naked Truth About the Real Sex Lives of College Students (Random House), the largest college sex survey since the 1953 Kinsey Report, students have extensive love lives, which began at relatively young ages. But Katie Roiphe, a veteran observer of the youth scene and author of Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at Century's End (Little Brown), questions the validity of those findings.The survey of university student attitudes and practices was originally commissioned by the trendy men's magazine Details, which published the juiciest of the findings in its fifth annual Sex Issue.The poll results suggest that the 1960s' sexual revolution is continuing at a pace that exhibits a startling disregard for the dire warnings present in the era of AIDS. Eighty percent of the respondents said they've had sex, with an average of 6.4 partners. More than half said they made love at least once a week. Probably most surprising, and a turnaround from Kinsey's staid '50s, was the news that women are more sexually active than men, with 36 percent having sex two to three times a week. Only 25 percent of males reported this frequency.For the survey, co-authors Leland Elliot and Cynthia Brantley devised 150 multiple-choice questions, which they sent to 20,000 college students. The students' names came from a national marketing database that included academic institutions, large and small, public and private, secular and religious. Although only 9 percent (l,752 in all) returned the anonymous questionnaires, the responses were weighted to reflect the student population as a whole."We were told this was a fantastic response," Brantley says, "particularly for this kind of survey."The 28-year-old Brantley told the Detroit Metro Times she fears that although sexual activity is widespread today among students, "they're not doing it well or doing it wisely."She cites her survey, in which 55 percent of respondents said they don't always have safe sex during intercourse, and rarely during oral sex. Brantley says the study found little concern for the range of sexually transmitted diseases that health professionals have gone to great lengths to warn people about."We tried to stress in the book, HIV is just one of the many unpleasant things that can happen to you," she says. "The No. 1 STD reported was genital warts, which are highly contagious and very difficult to cure."Although the 6.4 average number of sex partners sounds high, 42 percent reported having had only one or two partners in their lives. And while 92 percent identified themselves as heterosexual, only 2 percent said they are homosexual -- about 10 percent below what is widely accepted as the national figure.According to Brantley, "This seeming disparity is a result of the more active students throwing the curve." Brantley and Elliot's findings might be cheering for the advocates of sexual freedom, but it's important to question the reliability of the statistics. For instance, it's possible that sexually active heterosexual students responded more than other students and thereby skewed the findings. The survey authors say they are satisfied with the number of students answering the questionnaires, but a local statistical analyst thinks otherwise."Ten percent is not good," observes Michael Kruger of Databusters, a Detroit research design firm. "It's a low sample."He says the survey results were taken at "face validity," and more research would have to be done to have supportable data. "With a low sample it's hard to conjecture who is responding and why," says Kruger. "Just the act of sending back the questionnaire in this survey distinguishes a respondent from the other 90 percent who received it."He suggests one way to validate the findings would be to do a random check of 9 percent of the students who didn't respond, to see if their answers are consistent with those who did. Follow-up interviews could also help check the truthfulness of answers about a subject that, along with income, often receives less than honest replies.Many factors alter responses to surveys, including what pollsters call the "halo effect" -- the desire on the part of respondents to appear normal, or to give answers they think the questioner wants. For instance, most men know it's proper to say love is what counts for a good sexual relationship, rather than come off like a clod who wants to date a woman with a "good body" (to which only 3 percent admitted).If Kruger doubts the validity of the statistics, Brantley's fellow Generation X author Roiphe doubts the lusty lives they portray. She thinks there has been a reaction against the sexual revolution, creating a new conservative morality and a limiting of sensual expression.Contrary to the campus sex findings, Roiphe sees a resurgent puritanism, characterized by an obsession with "safety." This attitude results in abstinence, monogamy and even so-called "secondary virginity" -- that is, you did it before but not again until marriage. "Young people are searching for moral order in a chaotic and ambivalent sexual climate."Roiphe believes the country was poised for a sexual backlash after a wild, carnal ride through the '60s and '70s. "The turn in morality, the sexual counterrevolution," she argues, "started before AIDS. It's a very puritanical American concept that one moment of pleasure will create a lifetime of remorse or, now with AIDS, a direct link between sex and death."Roiphe thinks fear of the epidemic serves a purpose beyond health precautions. "Out of this anxiety about disease we've created a new moral system which creates limits in an otherwise limitless world," she says. "It's part of a desire to go back to a less complicated time."Roiphe doesn't downplay the dangers of AIDS and other STDs, but thinks it's sad that young people have been "overterrified" about these threats."For young people, sex has become a matter of risk and caution," she laments. "The terms in which they think of their first kiss has been transformed dramatically from what it was a generation or two ago."It may be impossible to reconcile the statistics and views presented by Brantley and Elliot and Roiphe. The image of the blind men and the elephant easily comes to mind. Your outlook depends on where you touch the pulse or skin or body part of such an intimate and essential subject as our sexuality.