The Right Way to Have Sex

The Right Way to Have Sex

Debbie Nathan is an attendee of Feminist Futures, a New York-based study group whose organizers include Leonore Tiefer.


Read these two books in tandem and you realize that Bob Dole’s role as poster boy for Viagra wasn’t quite logical: Jerry Falwell would have made more sense. Talk About Sex details how the Christian right in the past generation has made sure that adults who teach sex education in public schools can’t discuss sex with kids–unless they say what the right wants them to. A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems describes how drug companies these days are manipulating the national conversation that adults have with other adults about sex. With new orgasm bromides in the works–this time for women–don’t be surprised if the drug industry hires Phyllis Schlafly as its next celebrity promoter. After all, when it comes to talk about sex in the United States, there’s a growing connection between religion and medicine.

As Talk about Sex describes in grim detail, the Christian right since the late 1960s has virtually shut down meaningful public school sex education in grades K through 12. If this is bad for young people in school, it may be worse after they graduate and grow up. Adults these days–particularly women–tell therapists and researchers about sex without desire, sex without orgasm, sex with pain, sex experienced infrequently and sex had not at all. Pharmaceutical firms are excited about these reports. They’re eager to define women’s sexual complaints as medical problems rather than social, economic or psychological conditions. A furious effort is under way to develop pills, pumps, patches and gels: distaff versions of the enormously profitable Viagra. Will these climax elixirs make women (and men) happier? Or will they keep people ignorant about the all-too-human complexities of Eros as they reduce sexuality to hormones and chemicals–while pressuring consumers to shell out zillions to the likes of Pfizer? Contributors to A New View worry about the latter scenario. And the author of Talk About Sex implicitly lays some of the blame for this dismal possibility on the Pat Robertsons of the world–those who’ve used religious rhetoric to eliminate sex-ed classes.

But wait, you may be saying: My child and my friends’ kids do get sex ed. Yes, but have you checked the curriculum? In Talk About Sex, sociologist Janice Irvine reports that nationwide these days, about one in four US school districts require a sole approach: “Abstinence Only”–no sex until marriage. A raft of covertly religious lesson plans, many with innocuous titles such as “Teen Aid,” hammer home the message. Many are supported by Christian right groups like Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America. Abstinence-only curriculums teach the names of body parts used to make babies, but are silent on how those parts might be used for pleasure while avoiding problems like sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. Teachers obsessively instruct adolescents (girls especially) on how to say no to sex but never on intelligent ways to say yes. They offer no counsel on distinguishing love from lust, and purse their lips at the latter. Birth control is discussed only in terms of its failures. Masturbation is a taboo subject. So is abortion. If homosexuality is mentioned at all, it is typically derided as an AIDS-infected “death style.” Meanwhile, only one in ten classes teach what’s called “comprehensive” sex ed, which is supposed to include objective information on contraception, condom use and homosexuality. But even in these classes, emphasis increasingly is on abstinence only. Many students report getting no information about subjects like how birth control works and where to get it.

All this seems shocking, considering that most American parents consistently tell pollsters they want their kids to have sex education that teaches abstinence but also safe ways to have sex outside marriage. This is the sex ed many schools used to offer, starting in the 1960s. By the millennium, it was an endangered pedagogical species. What happened?

Talk About Sex traces the debacle’s history to the early 1960s and the waning days of the cold war. Back then, the mass media were reporting a sexual revolution in full swing, yet public school sex education consisted mostly of menstruation films produced by sanitary napkin companies. In 1964 Dr. Mary Calderone, a Quaker and former Planned Parenthood official, co-founded the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Soon the group was revolutionizing sex education with a curriculum that endorsed abstinence until marriage but also encouraged age-appropriate sexual knowledge and fulfillment for everyone, including children. Groups like the American Medical Association and National Education Association approved the curriculum and urged the federal Office of Education to fund it.

Almost immediately, Calderone came up against what today is called the Old Right. Groups like the Rev. Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade and the John Birch Society were smarting over the newly passed Civil Rights Act and recent Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. These actions were subversive, the Old Right said, and so was sex ed. SIECUS was part of a Red plot to soften up America’s youth: Introduce them to rutting and they’d be unable to resist miscegenation and Soviet takeover. The right published books and films with titles like Pavlov’s Children. They warned that sex-ed classes would lead to interracial marriage, and were breeding grounds for “Marxism…as well as V.D.!” Right-wing activists attended school-board meetings. Protesters frequently brandished sex-ed curriculums they had secretly “edited” by splicing in pornographic images. John Birchers circulated apocryphal stories of sex-ed teachers having intercourse in front of the class and ordering kids to strip in front of each other.

This talk resonated with broader anxieties and a broader constituency. A group of New York City-based psychoanalysts, for instance, may have sneered at anti-Commie conspiracy theories and racism, but they still thought telling children about the birds and bees would play havoc with Freudian stages of psychosexual development. They supported the right, and the right was delighted. Dr. Calderone was not. By the end of the 1960s she was afraid to make public appearances for fear she would be assassinated.

But this unpleasantness was peanuts compared with what happened in the 1970s. By then, Americans en masse were flocking to fundamentalist churches, and the Old Right was transmogrifying into the New. Anticommunism was mothballed as “Family Values” became the movement’s unifying principle. They included opposition to legal abortion, the ERA, pornography, homosexuality–and sex ed, now that it was clear how this one issue could unify others and bring in new blood. The New Right also developed a positive rhetoric about carnal pleasure for married women. Beverly LaHaye and her spouse, Tim, wrote The Act of Marriage, which recommended that husbands use clitoral stimulation to induce orgasm in their wives. Fundamentalist Christian Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman told married couples to make love under the dining-room table. With this talk, the New Right further established itself as a movement with something to say about sex, even to people beyond its ranks.

By the end of the 1970s, the New Right had launched a full-tilt assault on sex ed. As before, activists would show up at school-board meetings making deliberately false–and now grotesque–claims about the curriculum and teachers (a typical accusation was that educators encouraged students to try necrophilia, bestiality and coprophilia, and played the “orgasm game”). But rather than arguing for abolition of sex ed, the New Right lobbied to reshape it.

The movement got what it wanted in 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. That’s when Congress passed the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) as part of public health funding to prevent adolescent pregnancy. The pet project of Alabama’s ultraconservative Senator Jeremiah Denton, the AFLA was a reward to the spate of right-wing conservatives elected to the Senate in 1980. The act’s sole purpose was to promote chastity among teenagers and keep them ignorant and scared of abortions if they did happen to get pregnant. Sex-ed groups that discussed abortion could not get AFLA grants. Recipients of AFLA funding made no bones about their religious orientation–at least one taught contraception based solely on the rhythm method. Another told students that abortion commonly ends in death and that they should aspire to “Christian values and goals.”

Such talk clearly violates the First Amendment. But AFLA received only $10.9 million annually, and at first, liberals saw it as a harmless sop to keep the right from attacking much bigger federal programs that funded birth control providers like Planned Parenthood. Eventually the ACLU challenged AFLA in court, and the program was ordered to stop funding groups that pushed religion. In response, evangelical sex educators used stealth. Taking a page from the new Christian marriage manuals, they threw in a little something about clitorises and sex feeling good. They excised religious references yet pushed the same moral conservative line. Irvine quotes one educator who, before the ACLU suit, would tell public school students, “Sexual intercourse belongs in marriage, what God intended it to be.” Post-ACLU, she advised them to “place sexual intercourse in marriage where it belongs.”

If these tactics haven’t snowed parents, the right has other rhetorical weapons, lifted from the larger culture. One comes from the playbook of feminist philosopher Catharine MacKinnon and others, who believe that certain forms of speech, such as racist slurs and pornography, can harm women and minorities, and thus should be banned. Extrapolating from this principle, sex-ed opponents insist that uttering the word “penis” in front of students, showing them condoms or speaking dispassionately about homosexuality are, literally, sex abuse. Ergo, sex-ed teachers are child molesters. This rhetoric easily trumps other speech: The culture is chronically anxious about sex to begin with, and sex-positive language is truncated and relatively anemic. So right-wing talk paralyzes school boards and kills progressive curriculums. It makes sex-ed advocates feel dirty and ashamed. It silences people who want to discuss the topic sensibly: teachers, gay activists, researchers, parents at PTA meetings from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas.

In the end, it leaves the Christian right with tremendous and virtually unchallenged influence over American kids’ formal education about sex, even as the right loses control of other issues. By the end of the 1990s, according to Irvine, there were more than twenty major evangelical-influenced, abstinence-only curriculums for public schools. In addition, some thirty major fundamentalist Christian groups with names like the Just WAIT Project send speakers and videos to the nation’s classrooms. New federal initiatives, meanwhile, have won conservatives $100 million annually for programs that stress abstinence-only and claim that sex outside marriage is “physically and psychologically harmful.” (President Bush has proposed raising this amount even as conservatives attempt to cut Planned Parenthood-style contraception-planning programs.) As well, the right has established sexuality “research institutes” like the Family Research Council. These inundate students with assertions for which there is no credible data: the claim, for instance, that the virus that causes AIDS routinely passes through condoms. The result? American kids grow up believing that medical science says intercourse is deadly.

In fact, as A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems tells us, real medical science is polishing the opposite side of the coin. “Everyone for intercourse–and orgasms!” is the rallying cry in research labs, doctors’ offices and quickie prescribing sites on the Internet. Viagra is the product du jour, and chemically induced hard-ons now cost about $12 a pop. Pfizer, the company that put it on the market in 1998, was earning $1.3 billion annually from Viagra by 2000. But the blue pill does not work reliably for females.

So women in the United States are a potentially giant new market, especially since a 1992 poll found 43 percent of them reporting sex lives that were blah, downright unpleasant or nonexistent. Now the race is on to confect medical orgasms for females, too. Physicians are already writing scrip for the “Eros-CTD” (clitoral therapy device), a vacuum apparatus that looks like a Barbie Doll-sized Hoover. Eros suctions the appendage in question until engorgement occurs, which is supposed to arouse the user and facilitate orgasm. The device costs about $375 and is available by prescription only. For ten times less you could buy a vibrator from Toys in Babeland. You could masturbate and figure out how to engorge yourself. You could get your partner involved. Or–as A New View co-editor Leonore Tiefer suggests–you could plant your garden, study French, attend an anti-war rally, eat a peanut butter sandwich.

The last activities, Tiefer believes, are just as “natural” for humans as sex and orgasms are, and for many people they may be more meaningful and fun. As sex therapists, feminists and social constructionists, Tiefer and the other contributors to A New View are deeply skeptical of the notion that human sexuality can be reduced to “normal” physiological functions, let alone functions that should routinely be dosed with pharmaceuticals if they don’t conform to social expectations. Tiefer and her colleagues are fighting the Viagrafying of women’s sexual miseries, even as they study the origins and trajectory of the move to medicalize those problems. It is this research that makes A New View so interesting.

In the book’s definitive essay, Tiefer reprises the work of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The pair transformed our understanding of female physiology when they inserted cameras into volunteers’ genitals during the 1960s, and documented changes during sex. One result of this research was to discredit forever the myth that orgasms are stimulated in the vagina rather than clitoris (and that therefore the “natural” way to come is via intercourse with a penis). This was revelatory and liberating knowledge for women. But physiology is not sociology. Tiefer reminds us that when Masters and Johnson recruited men and women for their studies, they used a highly skewed selection process that virtually guaranteed their eventual conclusion that being regularly orgasmic is “normal” for American women. On the contrary, it apparently wasn’t normative back when the research was going on, and probably isn’t now.

In fact, Masters and Johnson started their research in 1954. This was a year after Alfred Kinsey’s survey research found that only 58 percent of American women reported ever having masturbated to orgasm. Kinsey also discovered that among both men and women, the incidence of masturbation, premarital sex and even nocturnal emissions was tied to socioeconomic factors such as class. Nonetheless, Masters and Johnson limited their sample to people who had masturbated to orgasm and who generally found it easy to come–people, the researchers said, who had a “basic interest in…sexual performance.” The sample was also deliberately weighted toward people with college educations. In short, Masters and Johnson studied middle-class orgasm enthusiasts (who could climax without a hitch even while being observed in a lab).

Hardly a typical group, but with the data they generated, Masters and Johnson elaborated a sexual response cycle that they claimed was gender neutral and applicable to all human beings. The cycle has four stages. It starts with desire, proceeds to arousal and finishes after orgasm. Sex is supposed to proceed smoothly from the beginning of the cycle to the end, and if it doesn’t, something is wrong and needs fixing. With minor variations, the model was later incorporated into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the Bible of the mental health and health insurance industries. Although the Masters and Johnson model probably never described men’s normative sexual response–much less women’s–it became the medical and pharmaceutical establishments’ apologia for Viagra. With “erectile dysfunction” now defined as a medical rather than psychological problem, men come into urology and family practice offices without their partners and get treated in minutes, instead of the hours and weeks previously required for sex therapy. Old assumptions prevail: that erection, penetration and orgasm are the be-all of sex; that one’s partner has no role in one’s sexual problems or their solutions. Now the drug industry seeks to extend these assumptions to females.

Contributors to A New View despise this approach. If it is based on anything normative at all, they believe, it’s male orgasm; and given both physiological difference and the long legacy of patriarchy, women’s sexuality simply cannot be equated with men’s. Sex therapists writing in A New View report that, unlike in the Masters and Johnson/DSM model, women usually don’t separate “desire” from “arousal.” What turns them on is often subjective rather than physical or quantifiable. One writer cites research showing (surprise!) that women tend to think sex is good when they have a good, communicative relationship with a partner. This often is a more important gauge of quality than the presence (or absence) of orgasm.

Further, women tend to shut down sexually when faced with cultural and social problems that the DSM doesn’t list. So Tiefer and other contributors to A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems have developed a women-centered alternative to the American Psychiatric Association’s sexual disorder scheme (see their website at Christened the “New View”–eponym for the book–it’s a nomenclature and classification system that acknowledges the inhibiting effects that physiological factors such as drug side effects may have on sexual desire and response. But far more important, the New View lists sociocultural, political-economic, relational and psychological complications that can repress a woman’s physical capacity for sex. Examples: poor access to birth-control information and services. Shame about one’s body not looking like a model’s. Overwork that leaves no time for family or personal life. Conflicts with one’s partner because of money problems, in-law difficulties or abuse. Fear of being considered a slut. These problems cannot be fixed with tablets or mini-vacuum cleaners. Nor, as one New View writer notes, is the remedy to simply deny that men and women are sexually the same. The cure for women’s sexual problems is a politics that recognizes reasons for the differences between genders and works to equalize those still based on patriarchy.

But where to start with these politics? A New View‘s contributors have some suggestions. One is organizing to demand more community access to information about sex and to services like STD treatment and abortion. Another is to press for government-funded sexuality research that gathers data from people of all genders, ages, ethnicities and classes. This is the only way to challenge skewed, market-driven research done strictly to bolster pharmaceutical-company profits. Of course, the Christian right opposes much public sex research, particularly when it deals with minors.

And this is where the two books meet. Irvine gives us the history and politics of right-wing anti-sex-ed efforts; Kaschak, Tiefer and their contributors provide searing examples of how those efforts ultimately harm women. A report from sociologists Heather Hartley and Tricia Drew reveals that most films used in sex-ed classes legitimize boys’ erotic desire and sexual agency but minimize that of girls or imply that it’s dangerous and deviant. Deborah Tolman of the Center for Research on Women asks what would happen if a heterosexual female were to go to a therapist complaining that she was in a committed relationship with a male but wasn’t sure she felt sexual desire, didn’t come and had sex mainly to please her partner? She’d get a diagnosis of sexual dysfunction and appointments for therapy. But what if she were a teenage girl? No one would blink an eye; after all, teen girls can’t be sexually dysfunctional because they’re not supposed to be sexual in the first place, and if they are, they’re “deviant.” But when a girl becomes an adult, what she earlier learned was “deviant” turns into “normal” sexual function–thus dysfunction. Is it any wonder so many women report low sexual desire and arousal? Talk About Sex suggests that a first step to wresting sex ed from the right is to quit pretending that children are Victorian innocents and fight for reasoned and open discussion about the lives they actually live. Until then, if you’re female, public school may be dangerous to your health. Doctors, too. As A New View puts it, “The only magic pill for women’s sexuality is broad-spectrum freedom.”

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