Sex & Relationships

Why Are Americans Still Giant Hypocrites About Sex?

So many Americans object to other people doing it that opposition to sex drives American politics.

Understanding Americans requires becoming well-versed in many things: American sports, sitcoms, YouTube cat videos, superhero movies, and the ever-increasing complexity of ordering coffee. But to truly get Americans, you have to really delve deep into the woods of our hypocrisy. Americans tell pollsters they’re in church when they're sleeping in or watching the game. Politicians don’t dare talk about legalizing drugs, because while Americans are far likelier to use drugs than many other nations, we also reliably vote against anyone who suggests we roll back the legal repercussions. And nowhere is American hypocrisy uglier than when it comes to sex.  

Americans are doing it. Yet so many Americans object to doing it, that opposition to other people doing it drives American politics, even in the face of real problems such as a floundering economy, a foreclosure crisis, and a Republican party that is willing to destroy our nation’s credit rating just to stick it to the president. Without the anti-gay and anti-choice movements riling up religious people to vote against their neighbor’s right to use birth control and abortion, or their neighbor’s right to have sex with someone of the same gender, the Republican party as we know it wouldn’t exist. 

American prudery means that both our tabloid and actual news media are regularly dominated by sex scandals. These are often conducted as if the entire media infrastructure were run by 19th-century middle-aged spinsters, such as when the entire Beltway press regarded a man taking a picture of his erection as if they were witnessing the same level of perversion as a man in flagrante delicto with a barnyard animal.   

You’d think with the springs going out on our fainting couch that we were a nation whose bedsprings got no wear and tear, but you’d be wrong. Americans have sex on average 2.3 times a week, and 19 out of 20 Americans have had premarital sex. Americans like to have sex for pleasure, as indicated by the universal use of contraception. Americans like to mix it up, too, as the rapid rise in Americans admitting to anal sex demonstrates. Needless to say, Americans also love porn, and conservatives who denounce other people’s sexual choices are even more avid consumers of porn than people who take a more live-and-let-live attitude.   

Americans reconcile our desire for the fainting couch and our desires for the sex swing through refusing to reconcile it. Instead, we treat sex like we treat church and drug use, with old-fashioned hypocrisy. Ninety-five percent of Americans have had premarital sex, but 36 percent of us believe premarital sex is morally wrong  Even if you allow that the 5 percent abstainers are all disapprovers, that still means nearly 1 in 3 Americans disapprove when others make the same sexual choices they do.

Americans don’t truck with closeted, ashamed hypocrisy, though. When it comes to looking at our own habits, we think we’re just great. Even Americans who consider themselves "traditional" yearn for sexual experimentation, as long as it's their own personal orgasms that are the result. Americans just love judging other people, even when they act exactly like the people they’re judging. Abortion clinics, especially, have an eyeful of how common this is, as pretty much every clinic worker can tell you stories of anti-abortion patients explaining how they deserve an abortion, unlike those sluts in the waiting room.  

Unfortunately, the “sex for me but not for thee” attitude has profound political effects. Ninety-nine percent of American women may have used contraception, but 38 percent of women want to strip Planned Parenthood of the funding that makes contraception more widely available, and 46 percent of men want to cut contraception subsidies, even though they personally benefit from the widespread use of contraception. Married people and older people were even more enthusiastic about cutting off contraception funding, demonstrating that as long as it’s someone not like them, someone single and young, they’re first in line to throw stones.  

Attitudes toward adolescent sexuality reveal the gulf between American generosity toward ourselves versus hostility toward others. The typical trajectory for an American is to have sex as a teenager, turn out just fine, get a little older, and then suddenly get very concerned about teenagers having sex. Our news media is awash in hysterical stories about teen sexuality, even though kids these days are actually having sex slightly later in life than previous generations did, and teen pregnancy rates have been in a freefall since the 1950s, which many Americans falsely believe was a time when young people were more chaste.

Oral sex rates are up, but it’s worth noting that many researchers suggest this shows kids are embracing responsibility, finding a way to have sex without risking pregnancy. But instead of accepting that kids these days may be just as smart--and maybe smarter--than we were, we as a nation instead eat up hand-wringing articles about “hook-up culture” and alarmist stories that frame the rising rates of oral sex as an indisputably bad trend.   

The good news is there’s no reason to believe that hypocrisy is inevitable. While one out of three Americans may be a massive hypocrite with regards to premarital sex, two in three Americans have reconciled their experiences with their beliefs. It’s hard to imagine that many Americans supporting premarital sex 50 years ago, even as they were awash in teenage shotgun marriages that resulted from their hypocrisy. And even though our hypocritical attitudes toward teenage sexuality have caused damage, especially during the Bush administration when real sex education was ended (and the teen pregnancy rate went up), the larger trend is toward young people learning more about contraception and being more willing to use it. Perhaps we’re only a couple of generations away from a society where people’s beliefs about sex reflect their sex-loving realities.

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