Teen Sex, 'Hooking Up', Gay Marriage, Femiphobia and Bush Victory Are All Interconnected

i-710d005c8660d36282911838843a792d-ClockWeb logo2.JPGContinuing with the last week's topic (originally posted on March 11, 2005 - click on the spider-clock icon to see the comments, including by Mark O'Connell - who I subsequently met and blogged about, on the original post)

Last night I listened to NPR's "On Point" about adolescent sex (http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2005/03/20050310_a_main.asp). As you may have guessed, I am interested in this topic as it can reveal something about the current fixated-on-sex femiphobic culture, as well as evolution of the institution of marriage (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/02/hooked-on-hooking-up-or-whats-wrong.html - please do read this post, it is the Part I of this one).

The show had three guests. One was a conservative dildo, Denny Patten, founder and president of "Silver Ring Thing," an abstinence-only program. Of course, such an ostrich with head-in-the-sand attitude had nothing to add to the conversation.

The other two guests, Mark O'Connell and Lynn Ponton were much more interesting. They mostly agreed with each other, overtly, but their approach is from very different angles, and I have a feeling that they kept up appearances in public but actually have some big points of disagreement thet they decided not to air. O'Donnell is a psychologist who works with a number of adolescent and young patients. You can read his recent article (in agreement, I guess, with his thinking in his book ''The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity and Life in the Family") here: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/03/09/the_epidemic_of_meaningless_teen_sex/.

Ponton, on the other hand, looks at the big societal picture. Ponton is also a psychologist working with adolescents and here is an excerpt from her latest book (The Sex Lives of Teenagers) here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0452282608/ref=wburorg-20/103-3363410-0470205?%5Fencoding=UTF8&p=S00M#reader-link

OK, so here's my beef with what they said. I think they conflate two things that are in fact separate: prevalence of oral sex in middle and high schools on one hand, and the "hooking up" culture in colleges on the other hand. The way they used the terms interchangeably and the way they jumped from one to another and back (often using examples from one to drive a point about the other) demonstrates that they indeed conflate the two. It is easy to see why they conflate the two: both involve people younger than the authors, and both involve a nonchalant attitude towards sex. For instance, O'Connell writes: "As a psychologist who works with adolescents I hear quite a bit about how oral sex is common, not only among college kids ''hooking up," but among middle teens. It even occurs among 12-year-olds and younger. And I also hear what young people say about these experiences: ''It's just a thing to do. It doesn't mean anything.""

I have argued before (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/02/hooked-on-hooking-up-or-whats-wrong.html) that the two are not the same thing. First, there is the difference in age: college students are adults and, arguably more mature. Second, there is the difference in the type of sexual activity: oral sex with younger kids, intercourse with the older. Third, and crucial difference is the difference in gender relations. While "hooking up", "friends with benefits", and "tied at the hip" - the three patterns of sexual activity of college students - are all instances of gender equality, the relationships between the teenagers are anything but. The statistics trotted out on the show were that 97% of the oral sex acts were performed by girls on boys. I was pleasantly surprised that even those remaining 3% existed. But what do you think would be their reactions if the split between giving and receieving was 50-50? Judging from their general attitudes, I believe that O'Connell would still think it was a bad thing, while Ponton would say "Great!". I would say "Great!". Such a breakdown would mean that the kids are educated and aware of STDs, thus abstain from intercourse, yet treat sex as a normal human need and treat each other as equal partners.

Because they conflate the two ages/activities into one and because one of these is obviously amiss, the two panelists are forced to condemn both as negative. But I think they are not. The 97-3 ratio of boy's satisfaction is clearly bad. But "friends with benefits" is, in my book, a positive move. The overal nonchalance about sex among youngsters, the way they freely talk about it and actually do it, suggests to me that this may be the first generation of Americans without hangups about sex - the first non-uptight generation, or at least a significant proportion of the generation.

O'Connell was waxing poetic about the "good old days" when sex was something special and emotional (and nerve-wrecking, secretive and dirty). He would probably prefer, just like the abstinence-only co-idiot on the program, that it would be best if the kids did not have sex at all, and he even suggests some adult-supervised dating nonsense. I think he is jealous of today's kids and their sexual freedom. He wants them to have sexual hangups the way he did when he was young (and still does). He forgets that the equation "marriage = love = sex" is a recent innovation, about 80 years old (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/moral-politics-in-context-of-history.html). The gradual shift in gender equality, resulting in changes in the insitution of marriage, is going to separate these three parameters once again - the state of things for most of human history. Sure, people will still marry for love and have sex, but that is not going to be (actually already is not) the only possible pattern. Marriage as economic contract, platonic love, open marriages, serial monogamy etc. are all on the rise and will continue to rise as the 80-year old "traditional" marriage is becoming defunct due to gender equality, sexual-orientation equality, increased longevity, lower natality, perfected contraception methods, and improving treatments for STDs (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/definition-semantics-and-future-of.html). There is no need, apart from outdated social norms and taboos that go way back to Calvinist Puritan ethic (where every pleasure is a sin) for tight adherence to the above formula. Kids, as usual, are unencumbered by receieved dogmas, they see better than we do how the world is changing, and quickly adapt to the future. Just because they take sex nonchalantly now, does not mean at all that they will be incapable of having deep emotional attachments to their partners and have deeply spiritual sex with them once they grow up.

One reason I believe that Lynn Ponton would respond differently if the stats for teenage oral sex were 50-50 is something she talked about in this context. She cited a statistic that the average age of the first intercourse has not changed in decades - it is 16 years. But the explosion of oral sex we see now is not a new thing - it has happened before in the US history. Do you know when? No, if you thought of "free love" and said "The Sixties" you are wrong. It was in the Fifties, and presumably before that in the 1920s and before that in the 1880s. Why? Those were periods when the society forced assymetrical gender roles: male dominance. Such periods usually occur as periods of backlash of femiphobic males after each victory of womens's rights (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/03/femiphobia-again.html).

When women won the battle over not being their husband's property any more, the conservatives screamed at the top of their lungs about the impending Armaggedon and moral decay of the society, playing into male insecurities and leading to a period of, guess what, increased oral sex performed by girls on boys in high school! The kids are just copying their parents, until they go off to college, see the world, learn something, start thinking for themselves, and start defying their parent's traditions. The same backlash was seen after women got the right to own property, to vote, to work outside the house, to divorce, to have an abortion etc.

More and more it is becoming obvious that stereotypical gender roles in relationships are not necessary for such relationships to work. Success of gay marriages will just be the final nail in the coffin - a final proof that gender roles are just that much BS. The gay marriages performed in San Francisco, some areas of New York state, the legislation such as the one in Massachusetts, are now precipitating such a backlash, helping the conservative doomsday-sayers get Bush back in the White House, and resulting in rise of one-sided oral sex among the parroting kids.

So, the problem with teenagers is NOT that they are having oral sex, but that there is such a huge skew in who are givers and who are recepients. This appears to straighten itself out by college and I am glad to see that new generations are not treating sex as dirty sinful activity, but as a natural physiological function, like eating and sleeping, the way it should have been all along throughout human history if it was not for sexually-anxious inventors of religions and their equally sexually-anxious followers.


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College hook-up culture is far from egalitarian -- you're looking only at how much physical gratification each partner gets, tacitly assuming that men and women give equal importance to this part of a relationship. In fact, while most men would be fine with noncomittal, devoid-of-emotions sex, most women will feel used like a piece of meat and come to regret it. There's probably no easier way to make a girl cry than to tell her that she means nothing to you other than as a sex partner -- she assumes that you and she are involved in something more, even if not super-serious. Hearing that she's just a fuckdoll would destroy her emotionally.

So, what you really need to look at to judge egalitarianism is what percentage of each partner's wishes are being met. If sexual favors are 50-50 in a hook-up scenario, that means a greater percentage of male wishes are being met, since they care mostly about physical gratification; while the emotional and other needs that women have are not being met.

To use an analogy that I hope is valid, imagine two partners exchanging gifts on Christmas: by your metric, there is egalitarianism as long as the monetary value of both gifts is the same. That's mostly what guys are thinking of when it comes to gifts -- "how much am I expected to spend on her?" But women read a lot more into a gift than just how much it cost -- what emotional connotations does it have, how much thought did it take to select, and so on? College hook-up culture is like the female buying her boyfriend some $50 item that he truly desired, and the male giving his girlfriend a card with 50 US dollars inside.

No offense, but as much as you rail against the patriarchy, you're thinking totally like a typical guy would: i.e., that noncomittal sex is easy for both men and women to do, and to the extent that a person (overwhelmingly likely a woman) can't cope with it, then they must have "hang-ups." I wonder what fraction of females would agree with your equating sex with basic functions like eating and sleeping, which typically aren't emotionally rich experiences. I'm sure a lot of the male readers would agree, though -- including me to a large extent. But we have to recognize that women tend to think differently about these things if we want to make sure both sides are happy.

I'm glad that you're pointing out that teen sex hasn't increased over the years (contra the doomsaying that it has and portends our demise), and that we should be concerned with both partners being satisfied -- but unless you account for sex differences in psychology, you'll have a very myopic perception of what counts as both partners being satsified. As a historical note, a large part of the impetus for the women's liberation movement in the 1970s was their dissatisfaction with how the men in the anti-war and civil rights movements behaved -- "free love" and "no hang-ups" meant the guy got to fuck whoever he wanted, while the girl would never get a lasting emotional relationship.

Agnostic, I think you're way off base here. Women are just as capable as men of having no-strings attached sexual relationships.

I don't think there is any such thing as sex that is devoid of emotion. I've had a number of "friends with benefits" and I've felt some sort of emotional connection with each and every one of them. Who would go to bed with someone they didn't at least like?

"...most women will feel used like a piece of meat and come to regret it."

What exactly are you basing this on? I've been around the block a few (dozen) times, usually on foot, but once on a moped and twice in the back of a van. From this experience I have to say that most of the women I know don't have a problem with attachment free sex. The ones who do don't engage in it.

Also, if most women would later come to regret this behavior, then how do you explain the numerous women I know who have had multiple, sequential, no-strings attached sex partners?

By CaptainMike (not verified) on 02 Feb 2007 #permalink

Women are just as capable as men of having no-strings attached sexual relationships.

Well, "capable" doesn't matter -- it's the "actual" that matters. Women "are just as capable as men" of playing pro basketball and pro boxing -- but because of different distributions of height and testosterone, pro women would be destroyed by pro men in these sports; that's why there are separate leagues.

Can a handful of women handle no-strings sex -- that is, are there individual differences here? Sure, and you seem to have met some of them. The point is that most women would be dissatisfied with no-strings sex, so that advising them to accept it as normal, and by implication to accept their true desires as "hang-ups," is just silly. How is satisfaction supposed to spring from viewing one's natural impulses as unnatural? Most women's natural impulse is to want sex in the context of a longer-term, emotionally committed relationship.

Here is an open-access study on casual sex:

The first page provides a good literature review on sex differences in perception and response to casual sex. Basically, what I said.

Agnostic, you are right in saying that classifying anyone's true desires as "hang-ups" is no way approach the subject of sexual relationships (or anything, for that matter). At the same time, you seem to be trying to say that all women at all lifecourse points want exactly the same thing out of any specific sexual encounter while all men always want the opposite...which is also a very bad assumption to make.

In the lit review linked to above, it says that in general females are more likely than males to use sex to try to pull a relationship towards more emotional engagement. Also, while both males and females think emotional investment is a priority, it is somewhat more of a priority for females. So when thinking about relationships in general, females are somewhat more likely to angle for increased emotional engagement compared to males. Okay, fine, we have found an overall trend. But taking a slight trend and coming up with statements like "while most men would be fine with noncomittal, devoid-of-emotions sex, most women will feel used like a piece of meat and come to regret it" does nothing to help anyone achieve his or her own relationship desires and is frankly quite sexist.

�There's probably no easier way to make a man cry than to tell him that he means nothing to you.� Changing the gender in your quote makes it no less true, despite the fact that according to the above model most men should be perfectly happy in this situation. Sisterly figure that I am, I can tell you of many instances where even gentler versions of the same quote have emotionally shattered a guy. And on the other side, there are obviously many women who would rather not become too emotionally attached to the men they have had sex with, even when the men are quite eager for something more.

Your concern in your first comment about making sure both partners in some particular sexual situation are satisfied is also a concern of mine. I just have to disagree with your gender-exclusive assignment of what each person wants from a relationship. There may be certain small gender-associated trends, but each person should be considered as an individual with different desires. Instead of simply assuming that a woman is �thinking differently� and will never have the same goals for a relationship, leading to unhappiness for both parties, it would be more productive to have open communication about what sort relationship each person wants going in. If the goals don�t match, move on, there is bound to be someone with similar goals out there (awkward, but it works).

Also, for what it is worth, while I can�t somehow prove that most (whatever �most� means) college-aged women can both handle and derive enjoyment from the occasional no-strings attached sexual encounter, I will say that many of my former hallmates/dormmates did just that. And also, as a woman I do acknowledge that sex is a natural physiological function like eating and sleeping, and I�m not sure why you want to reclassify it or what you would rather classify it as.

OK, I usually do not respond to comments on my "From The Archives" posts because they tend to be 1-2 years old, it takes me 10 seconds to move them here from the old blog without even reading them (I usually vaguely remember what they are about), so they serve a great funciton of letting me be busty in the real world while commenters talk to each other. But I had to read this - it is all long comments, dammit!

While Agnostic makes some valid points, what really bothers me is a wiff of biological determinism in his comments - something one would expect on a blog like GNXP-Classic, not a serious science blog. Thus, Agnostic treats current usual behaviors and emotions displayed by the two sexes as unchangeable, i.e.,. rooted in biology.

My post, on the other hand, talks about societal changes and how they affect the way new generations have a much more comfortable relation with sex and what it means and how should we approach this positive change. I have a feeling that Agnostic eiter did not recognize, or purely dismissed the point of this post due to his own obsession with biological gender differnces.

I find it interesting that you inferred Agnostic is a man. (S)he sounds like a woman to me, but then I'm a woman. Her take on the issue also reflects mine. I'm a woman who came of age in the late sixties and bought into the no hang-up free love ethos of the time. I wa ssure there were no differences between the sexes except societies constraints, but am wiser now. Both nature and nurture are going on, of course. I don't think Agnostic was being dogmatic at all.

I did not infer. I looked at the picture on his blog - definitely a guy. Just click on his name under his comments and see fore yourself.

I agree that both nature and nurture play a part. It appears that Agnostic feels that Nature far outweight, if not completely obliterates Nurture.

Societal changes are slow and gradual. It is not easy being ahead of the curve, e.g., sexually enlightened, if much of your environment is behind, e.g., patriarchal. There are going to be clashes, and pioneers do not usually fare well personally - but they clear the path for the rest of the scoiety so the next generation finds it easier. That is something that my post was trying to convey.