M. LeBlanc linked kind of baffling but thoroughly interesting screed that Roger Ebert wrote about youthful sexuality.* The point he’s stabbing at seems a little obscure—he’s annoyed at hypocrisy, thinks sex is great for young people to get into, wishes that he hadn’t grown up with prudish prejudices, and wants kids to know making out isn’t just a means to an end, but it’s all sort of a muddle of points—but the story he tells in it is amazing.
See, when Ebert was in college at the University of Illinois in 1959, an assistant professor of biology wrote this letter to the editor:
With modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drugstore, or at least a family physician, there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it without social consequences and without violating their own codes of morality and ethics. A mutually satisfactory sexual experience would eliminate the need for many hours of frustrating petting and lead to happier and longer lasting marriages among our young men and women.
This didn’t go over well in the puritanical era of the 50s. Koch was pushed out of his position and had trouble finding another job, and even when he did, the summer camp he worked at was plagued by rumors of orgies and other such things, and townspeople raided it. Apparently, the attitude was that if you admitted out loud that young people have fairly mundane sex lives without being married, and this is fine, then the door is open to junior high kids having orgies. To really drive home how crazy all this was, Ebert pointed out that another professor who accused JFK of being a communist agent was able to keep his job. Ebert suggests that things have changed wildly since those days, so much that he fears—though really not that much—that kids might be missing out on the slower pleasures of making out before you move on to the orgasm-and-intercourse-intensive sex. I think he overworries on this point, but that’s not the issue I want to talk about.
Is what happened when Koch published his letter so hard to believe now? Sadly, no. I don’t think that someone speaking this sort of common sense in a newspaper would lose his job or get run out of town any more, but Koch still violated a number of taboos that even active pro-choicers are scared to touch in 2010. It’s been 50 years, and it’s still outlandish to suggest that having sex before marriage is not only inevitable, but a good and proper thing to do. Even though most of us actually agree, if not in our words but in our actions. People who would never dream of marrying someone they hadn’t established sexual compatibility with still flinch to hear it plainly laid out as a good idea. People who promote kinkiness as healthy and work as sex educators still flinch when someone suggests that having sex before marriage is not just neutral, but smart. I was listening to the “Sex Is Fun” podcast months ago, and this came up. The podcasters talk about BDSM, fisting, swinging, you name it. But when a caller called in and expressed concern that her choice to be a virgin when she got married might make marital sex a problem, three of the hosts got really upset when the fourth said what we’re all thinking, which is, it’s really dumb to wait until marriage. YOU DON’T SAY THAT. It’s….rude, I guess. Even though she asked for advice. It’s her choice! Though I have yet to hear a good reason that calling something a “choice” or even a “value” puts it beyond examination or criticism.
I’d argue that it’s that we still haven’t gotten over the idea that having sex is about losing that all-valuable self-control, or that abstaining is somehow automatically virtuous, even though we all know intellectually (though we are afraid to say it!) that abstaining does more good than harm. Waiting too long is linked with sexual dysfunction on one hand, and too-early marriage and all its stresses on the other. Avowed abstainers are more likely to forgo contraception when they do have sex. I’m not suggesting that people who abstain because of lack of opportunity or because they’ve absorbed sex negative messages that are hard to shake are bad people—if anything, most of them are victims of our culture’s fucked-up attitudes about sex. I’m just saying that while things have gotten better, the idea that our culture doesn’t still assume abstinence is better (while privately disagreeing) is simply wrong.
We live in a culture where a lot more people feel free to promote abstinence than to suggest that abstaining just for the sake of abstaining ain’t so smart. You can get federal money to promote abstinence, but those teaching real sex education know better than to even suggest that sex is anything more than an unfortunate inevitability that we have to prepare for. Pro-choicers are generally sex positive people, I’ve found, but few have absorbed the idea that sex positivity should be central to their arguments, and even those few (and I include myself in this) have to constantly remind ourselves not to fall into the “sex is inevitable” thinking, and replace it with “sex is fun and you deserve pleasure”.
This is especially true when talking about teenagers and young adults. The arguments for sex education and contraception access for the young are almost never echoing Koch’s letter above, which is that sex is a good that young people should be free to partake of because they deserve pleasure and intimacy. It’s more along the lines of, “We can’t stop them, so why not prepare them?” This kind of thinking is why abstinence-only is proving so hard to kill, because the battle is over whether or not authority’s job is to set standards (even if they’re impossible to reach) or deal realistically with “problems”. Conservatives are allowed to assume that liberals share the standard that young people shouldn’t be fucking, and therefore can argue that we’re doing nothing but lowering expectations. But if we argue, like Koch did 50 years ago, that they should be fucking if they want to, that’s a much harder argument to refute, for the reasons he cited. But it’s more shocking, and so we shy away.
*I have to just take a second to point out that Ebert took to blogging like a duck to water, proving that being an old guard paranoid about the form is not inevitable. I mean, he’s Roger freaking Ebert. He doesn’t have to be flexible. He wants to be.