#79: Normal Promiscuity

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #79, on the subject of Normal Promiscuity.

A few weeks before his death, my father forwarded a link to an article which seemed to bother him.  It included interview excerpts from young women, and put forward the notion that now that the governmnent was providing full coverage for birth control they felt free to sleep with as many men as they liked, and were taking advantage of this new-felt freedom by doing so.  His comment to the link was a question as to whether this was really happening, and I was not at the time certain (and never did determine) whether he realized that the article was from one of the sites that rather poorly attempts to do what The Onion does so well:  create parody that looks like news.  They weren’t seriously suggesting that the availability of free contraception caused an abrupt upswing in the sexual activities of young women; they were rather facetiously suggesting the reverse, that those who thought this might happen were being foolish.

Yet the notion returned to my thoughts periodically.  There was something there that bothered me.

L0059976 Model of a contraceptive pill, Europe, c. 1970 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org
L0059976 Model of a contraceptive pill, Europe, c. 1970
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org

Some years ago one of my then-teenaged sons was dating a girl in about as serious a relationship as teenagers have.  On his first visit to her home, her slightly older sister gave him a tour of the house which included what I gather was a laundry and utility room in a finished basement, identified by the sister as the room where you go when you want to have sex.

I was not present; I heard this second or third hand.  I suppose it might have been the sister’s idea of a joke:  “I know you want to have sex with my little sister, well, this is the place for it.”  Somehow I did not think so at the time.  I was a bit upset, but did not know whether it should concern me more if their divorced mother did not know that her teenaged daughters were so open about having sex with boyfriends in the house, or if she did.

That latter possibility reminded me of another woman I had known some years before, a friend of my wife, who had a daughter.  I never had a high opinion of her.  From what I gathered she was certainly no virgin when, in high school, she seduced the boy she hoped to marry and then reported that she was pregnant with his son (it was sometimes questioned whether it was his child), but having failed thereby to induce him to marry her she decided to live with him.  She was believed, even by him, to have had a series of affairs, but when their relationship was struggling she got pregant again and had the daughter (no one doubted that she was his) and finally got the marriage certificate.  (That might be an oversimplification and I might have the wedding in the wrong place; it’s been a couple decades by now.)  Again in what is second-hand knowledge I gather she had a talk with her daughter about having sex, when the girl was about twelve or thirteen.  The gist of it was, “I know you’re going to have sex, so I want to make sure you do so safely.”

It is this underlying presumption that bothers me, this belief that everyone is having sex.  What we once somewhat derisively called “promiscuity” is now regarded as normal.  It was previously regarded as abberant, and I think that in an historical context we might have good reason to consider our age abberant in this regard.  Of course, the majority in any era considers itself normal, its ancestors in error, and its future descendants extensions of its own values.  The third being demonstrably false on the evidence of the second, we should doubt the first.

I understand the logic of the situation.  It is asserted, correctly, that teenagers have always engaged in sex, hidden from their parents, and that single adults have similarly managed secret sexual liasons.  Too, there have always been extramarital affairs, infidelities, as husbands and wives have taken lovers, either those single persons who are looking for sexual partners or the spouses of others.  It has always been so; it is the norm.  The difference, we are told, is that today we admit it and in most cases no longer attempt to hide it.

The error in this logic is evident when you realize that the statement “teenagers have always engaged in sex” is then taken to mean “all teenagers have always engaged in sex.”  That was a misperception when I was a teenager.  I think–I do not know–that there were among my peers some who were having sex, perhaps sporadically, perhaps frequently or even regularly.  For any who were, I suspect that they thought everyone was doing it and they were thus no different; for those of us who were not, I think we thought that everyone else was doing it save for a few of us unfortunates who had been excluded.  In retrospect, the facts of the case then were that very few of my peers were engaged in sexual relationships or activities despite the fact that we were in high school on the tail end of the “sexual revolution”, had regular “sex ed” classes explaining how it worked, and knew something about how to obtain and use birth control.  I don’t know what percentage of us were virgins, but I gather it was considerably larger than even we thought, and that the majority of those who were not had very little actual experience.

I cannot say that my experience even then was typical in a country in which there are so many social and economic variables; I know it was not atypical.  I also know that the idea that “all teenagers are having sex” is not true now.  Nor is it true that all single adults are engaged in sexual activities, or that all married people are having or even have had sexual liasons with other partners.  The supposed facts are untrue.  Yes, there have always been some who have been what we called promiscuous.  It may depend on how you count, but it was certainly not a majority in the past.  It is not even certain whether it is a majority in the present.

However, because of the general attitude in the present, it is likely to be a majority in the future.

We once told our children that sex was a very natural part of being married.  Then somehow we decided that this was too prudish, and started telling them instead that sex was a very natural part of being in love, and that if they were in love they should not be embarrassed about sex.  There are good reasons for the old idea, that sex was part of being married, quite apart from the legal issues of responsibility and legitimacy.  We, as a society, forgot them, and promoted a lesser standard, that sex was fine between any two people who were truly in love.  Then that became too limited–as the Tina Turner song demanded, What’s Love Got To Do With It?  Sex became a recreational activity, something people did for fun, and any suggestion that it was other than that was considered prudish.

Barry McGuire spoke somewhere of his own youth.  His generation was raised by adults who had long lists of things one did not do, who were never taught why you did not do them.  Thus he and his peers were told you do not do these things, and when they asked why not no one had an answer beyond, “You just don’t.”  That being an entirely inadequate answer, he said, “we went out and did them all–and we discovered that you don’t do them because they end in death.”  That has literally been the outcome for many who have lost control of their “recreational” drug use or their “social” alcohol consumption, and of many infected by the human immunodeficiency virus or other sexually transmitted diseases.  It has also been true of many who live in the shadow of death, whose lives have lost meaning because they are so destroyed by these misperceptions–the world teaches them that alcohol, drugs, or sex will make them happy, and when it does not deliver beyond a moment of pleasure (and momentary pleasure is not at all the same as happiness) they wind up seeking the pleasure and abandoning any hope of anything more.

And so today we are teaching our children that sex is nothing more than a recreational activity they should feel free to enjoy carefully–like drinking alcohol or using drugs.  We have lost the moral compass, the moral foundation, of a world in which some things were disapproved because they were ill-advised, hazardous, and thus wrong in the same sense that it is wrong to stick tableware in electrical outlets.

So we have created a world in which promiscuity is normative.

I mentioned earlier that it is a mistake to believe that our descendants will be extensions of our own values.  We cannot predict what will happen even in the next generation.  Perhaps the world will realize its mistake, and some sense of decency will return; perhaps, as with other cultures before ours, the deterioration will continue to snowball and the world as we know it will collapse into chaos from which some new order will arise.  What we do know is that the future will be different.  Our best hope is that we can inform it with values that will make it better.  They are not likely to come from the mainstream of our present society.

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