The Case of Disappearing Taboos

(9/16/13)  Taboos have been perpetually moving targets throughout civilization–rising and falling based on the religious, social or political wind direction of the day.  Recently, though, as societies have become connected like never before, exposure (some might even say, overexposure) to previously taboo concepts appears to have desensitized many to them, leaving fewer inhibitions and more implied freedom to explore.

For the scope of this article, we probably need to establish a common frame of reference that only includes sexually-oriented taboo activities occurring between consenting adults.  Otherwise, it could easily run off in hundreds of tangents and it’s reasonable to presume that taboos outside this spotlight are commonly accepted by the majority as protective in nature.  Inside the above focus, it’s not as much about protection as it is about mature, personal responsibility in exploring something that’s been previously frowned upon, restricted or even prohibited outright because of cultural custom.  Those types in particular have been the taboos that seemingly self-destruct easily these days.

Let’s use a simple, fairly benign example to illustrate:  Until the mid-20th Century, it was generally taboo to discuss sex openly and certainly not in public.  Today, it’s rare that you can sit in a coffee shop and not overhear a gathering at the next table casually bantering the graphic details of someone’s recent sexcapade.  Yeah, that kind of taboo has pretty much been shaved to a nub in today’s everyone-gets-a-trophy-no-matter-how-badly-they-played environment.

Some might criticize that sort of thing as a lowering of social standards while others would praise it as liberating them.  It’s seems pretty natural that every generation rebels in some fashion from the previous one, so it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see such social shifts.  In any event, going from the Leave it to Beaver era where married couples were never shown sleeping together much less talking about it to the fare of today where it’s almost expected that key plotlines will be frequently interrupted with gratuitous sportboinking was a simple, predictable extension of media-induced desensitization.  By default, taboos became less the things of eternal damnation and more akin to advertised fun to be had by those who would boldly fly in the face of artificial/superficial no-nos.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  We’d prefer you judge for yourself and we’d love to hear your thoughts because there are plenty of reasonable arguments to be made on all 47 sides of this phenomenon.  From our point of view, we see the lowest common denominator as simply:  If someone tells us we’re not allowed to do something, we’re instinctively curious about it.  If the “something” proves to be of no harm to anyone else and looks like it might be fun, then trying it is just a matter of individual adventurousness.  Whether consciously or just as a by-product, we become taboo hunter-killers, seeking to stomp those little suckers by breaking through the perceived walls of outdated thinking in order to own today for ourselves.  Since media in all of its modern forms has developed increasingly greater abilities to connect with audiences, giving them what they want–access to what they’ve previously been denied–is a fairly practical outcome.  And once an idea is planted, some form of rooting is usually going to take place.  That’s just nature, folks.

So, in many ways, the kinds of dying taboos we’re talking about here have, in recent years, been treated less like sturdy oaks and more like nasty weeds–being pulled and tossed aside as useless, artificial barriers to enjoying the beautiful gardens that lie beyond.  It doesn’t mean it’s the end of civilization as we know it.  Hardly.  It just means it’s the next step in the evolution of it.

The “Hook-up Culture”–Today’s On-Campus Sex Scene

(9/9/13)  Got your pens or stylus?  Got your notebooks or tablet?  Got your condoms or what?  As the new school year kicks off, keeping up with new terminology, technology and trends is getting to be a full-time gig.  With chalk boards quickly become a relic of the past in favor of touch screens, life at colleges across the country is obviously in flux–making it the perfect time to chase down some current sex-related trends at American colleges.

Two interesting items popped right out that we’d like to focus on:

1)  There’s slightly less sex at America’s campuses today than a decade ago, but attitudes towards sex are much more casual and liberated today.

2)  There’s a growing movement by students themselves to take responsibility for comprehensive sex education, moving it outside the classroom and into campus-wide events–often without official institutional sanctioning or sponsoring.

The first claim is based on a study published last month by the University of Portland.  Researchers used nationally representative samples of approximately 1,800 18-25 year-old high school graduates who have completed at least one year of college, comparing data from respondents during 1988-1996 with those from 2002-2010.  The results showed a 6% decrease in sexual activity between the two samples (65.2% in the first group reporting at least weekly sexual activity to 59.3% currently), but also indicated a shift in attitudes about casual sex with today’s collegiate crowd being about 10% more likely to have sex with a casual date or “pickup” (44.4% today versus 34.5%).  Additionally, the study reported that student’s today are more likely to be accepting of sex between adults of the same sex—an indicator that may have much broader implications when it comes to the near future of several matters on the current political horizon.

While the study draws an overall conclusion that there hasn’t been a significant change in sexual attitudes over the past couple of decades, it’s pretty clear that the pendulum is starting a more progressive arc, shifting away from what used to be known as a “friends-with-benefits” philosophy to what’s now called a “hook-up culture.”  (And, actually, we didn’t realize the former had become passé already.  L’sigh.  The ravages of age.)  There may be a myriad of reasons for this, but one explanation might be found in the apparent unwillingness of today’s college generation to accept a lacking sex education system as it is, opting instead to take their own lead in order to fill in the gaps as they see them.

For example, more and more university student bodies are organizing events such as “Sex Week” where frank panel discussions, lectures and presentations cover an eclectic range of topics such as talking about sex with your doctor, sex and religion, alternative sex lifestyles and even careers in sex-oriented occupations.  While it’s easy to imagine the political nonsense that’s popping up with such activities, students are not being deterred; pressing on with first-rate events that feature diverse points of view including educators, activists, religious figures and health-care professionals, to name a few.  Ultimately, the trend is to focus less on associated political and social agendas and, instead, more on how a huge variety of sex-related topics impact individuals uniquely and on a more personal basis.  It’s also a perfect opportunity for the educators of today to sharpen their repertoires by keeping up with modern science, technologies and social attitudes.

Regardless of how these items are interpreted (and we fully recognize that there are multiple ways they can be spun depending on one’s strategic aim), the key factor is that a growing number of young adults are taking more direct responsibility regarding their dissatisfaction with the status-quo rather than just complaining or assigning blame elsewhere.  If any trend regarding sex at American campuses today is worthy of note, it’s that one.  It’s a positive swing that speaks highly of “Generation Next” and their potential to change the American social landscape for the better.

At Sex Across America, we support these efforts and encourage other educators and activists to be more proactive in supporting the types of events described above. We also hope that our readers will publicize this article through their own channels as a means for bringing more light to what’s developing at America’s colleges and encouraging others to offer their support as well.

Sex Ed Across America and the Rise of the Celebrity Sexpert

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(8/12/13)  Sex education in America has made a lot of progress since the early days of Kelloggs (yes, the Corn Flakes flakes–errrr, folks) and the Boy Scouts touting their views on the alleged catastrophic consequences of masturbation.  We’ve even managed a few steps forward since the Clinton administration’s summary dismissal of U.S. Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, for suggesting that masturbation be included in sex education programs.  But let’s face it: Sex ed is still too divisive as a political hot potato to say that it’s anywhere near where it should be today.

A quick peek at some key indicators might put the current situation in focus.  Less than half of American states require sex ed in their public school curricula and even fewer mandate that, if taught, it be factually and medically accurate(1).  Political and moral arguments aside for a moment, whether you believe that a comprehensive versus abstinence-only approach is best, the fact that over 3/4 of a million young women between 15-19 in the U.S. become pregnant each year–and that over 80% reported their pregnancy was unintentional(2)–should be enough of a wake-up call.  Factor in that young adults account for about half of the almost 20 million new sexually transmitted disease (STD) cases annually(2) and it’s pretty easy to see that any so-called progress hasn’t even closely equated to a viable system yet.

Here’s the rub: Kids having kids or proliferating STDs are only symptoms, not the problem.  Whether by using children as perpetual pawns in never-ending political, religious and social chess games or simply through a basic failure in leadership, the responsibility for not adequately addressing the obvious need for effective sex education lies solidly among adults.  Are we (collectively and generally) really that unwilling to come together on this for the benefit of our youngins?  Or are we just unable to for various reasons, whether legitimate or rationalized?

Let’s be optimistic and presume good intentions for a moment regardless of individual politics, et cetera.  Given the severe stigmas and historical hang-ups associated with such a basic and natural element of the human experience, it’s not unreasonable to think that many adults genuinely don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to the intricacies of sexuality.  This would explain a serious vacuum that’s exponentially amplified when it comes to competently teaching all of the ins and outs to a younger generation or being fully capable of participating in a process for devising a cohesive system to address it all.  The good news, however, is that this is America–and whenever a serious vacuum exists, you can bet your buns that capitalism will find and fill it.  Hence, the rise of what we will hereafter call, “The celebrity sexpert.”

The notion of a sexuality expert with widespread appeal isn’t necessarily new, but its acceptance has taken quite a while to pick up steam and grow.  To put it in perspective, the Jackie Robinson of celebrity sexperts was Dr. Ruth Westheimer.  While the infancy of uninhibited and straightforward sex education for adults was marked by mostly sterile and clinical approaches, “Doctor Ruth” became a bona fide rock star by racing upstream against all currents and relating to people on their own terms.  Her pint-sized stature and ethnic, motherly demeanor (“Don’t be afrrrrrraid of ze PEE-nissss!”) probably afforded her more than a few free-passes when it came to potential opposition (after all, who in their right mind is going to beat up on a little old lady, right?), but it was her solid expertise and sincere compassion that solidified her as a significant resource in adult sex education.  She was a tough act to follow–and for a while, few did.  Replicating her unique appeal was almost impossible, but her success did open the door for a new generation of shtick-savvy subject matter experts.  It also illuminated a significant need along with the opportunity to turn the tide favorably.

At this stage, most blend in rather than lead from the point, but the number of modern celebrity sexperts is now growing steadily and a broad, solid foundation is emerging when it comes to quality adult sex education.  It’s a key trend that needs to be encouraged, embraced, supported and nurtured.  A positive surge in developing better understanding and tearing down outdated and ridiculous stigmas will increasingly influence adult attitudes until the tipping point is reached–finally benefiting our younger generations and those to come.

Rather than feed out what’s likely to be an incomplete list of current or rising celebrity sexperts, we’d like to hear from you.  Who do you think is the rising star in adult sex ed and what do you think makes them a leader in the field?  Let us know!

References:  (1)  (2)