Why Johnny (and Janie) can't get it on.

Published November 8, 1997 3:08PM (EST)

two columns ago in Salon, I wrote about a heartbreaking visit I made to speak at a liberal arts college in the Northeast, on the subject of "the Sexual State of the Union." I called the column "The Sexless Generation."

I discovered, to my chagrin, that the latest crop of undergraduates was a sexually illiterate, fearful and bamboozled group -- far more so than any other I'd met in the 15 years I've spent traveling to campuses and hearing young people's sexual confidences. Their fears and superstitions went way beyond the usual youthful naivet*.

I couldn't chalk up my dismal impression to a regional anomaly, because the school I visited was mainstream, not at all on the fringe. The students there have all grown up with the standard blizzard of "Say No" propaganda, encountered everywhere from their high school classrooms to MTV. Their older siblings and everyone they know who's come of age since the late '80s has had the same tutelage. Let me be the first to publicly state that this strategy of teenage libido repression has entirely backfired.

Some critics felt I was too harsh and paranoid in my assessment -- or on a mindless boomer bandwagon of '60s hedonism -- but I think I've had my ear too close to the ground to be very far off the mark. To my surprise, I've heard from professors and campus administrators from other universities, telling me how they worry about the same thing and feel so unprepared to address it. "What do we say now?" they wonder: "Yeah, wear a condom, sure, but you don't have to be so neurotic about it!" -- "Why don't you try just one week of having sex without first drinking a keg!" -- "Monogamy is OK, but it might be a good idea to make out with ONE other person before you pledge eternal commitment at the age of 19" -- "Let's haul out that old birth-control device exhibit from the '70s!"

I imagine it's going to be hard to retreat or change tactics from the fear-mongering and abstinence-glorifying that's so in vogue. Knowing what it takes to make a baby or transmit the AIDS virus doesn't give anyone an understanding of how their body responds and feels sexually. One friend of mine noted that our current sex education policies are "like teaching kids to drive by describing to them the internal combustion engine."

A genuine sexual education would include the basics about your body's sexual responses, what to anticipate when you're intimate with another person and how to explore your own fantasies. We should include the notions of pleasure, creativity and communication through sex -- in fact, I would put those toward the front of the syllabus. Without respecting (and esteeming) those motivations, teaching kids to say "no," use safe-sex techniques and prevent pregnancy becomes a mechanical discipline rod that will break under the first strain of life's contradictions. We can't preach to young people about saving their lives if we don't cherish their sexual potential at the same time.

To be fair, it's not the statistical majority of teenagers that I've found sex-phobic -- rather, it's an influential minority, the students who set the tone on campus even if they don't define every single person there. Of course some young people are still "doing it." And just like me at that age, they don't enter their sexual lives at the peak of sophistication and confidence.

But my survey of today's students revealed a profile I had never seen so clearly before. I'd like you to see what students say in their own words and draw your own conclusions.

First, let me tell you how I learned what was on their minds. When I visit a school, I typically hand out index cards and ask the audience to answer a few quick questions. Two of them are: Do you masturbate? Do you have orgasms? I also tell them to write down a quick question for me that might be hard to ask in front of a group. The whole exercise is anonymous and only takes a couple of minutes. I also give out my e-mail address, and afterwards many people send me more lengthy letters.

In my previous campus surveys, I've seen about 18 to 20 percent of young women reporting that they do not masturbate. This is always a significant indicator to me of how knowledgeable these young women are about their desires and how comfortable they are with their bodies. But during this recent survey, 46 percent of the women responded that they didn't masturbate. That's more than twice as high as I've ever recorded before! I could even see in the audience, as I lectured, how many people were in nervous hysterics each time I mentioned the very word. It was way beyond the typical blush and giggle.

What was even wilder was that 9 percent of the young men said they didn't masturbate, and 4 percent reported they didn't have orgasms. That is incredible. I have never had even 1 percent of the men at my lectures describe themselves that way before. Could these be the same men who later asked me, "If I don't have sex, I'll be OK, right? You don't have to have sex to live, right?"

Well, I'm sure the local Family Decency Association would be glad to reassure them that, yes indeed, you can live till you're old and gray without once blemishing your life with sexual intercourse -- but that's not really the point, is it?

They cannot live their lives in total denial of their sexual feelings and yearnings, any more than they could entirely suppress their appetite or their dreams. We've told them that even thinking about sex can lead to dire consequences -- as if eradication of sexual thoughts were some kind of reasonable request, like cutting out cheese from their diet.

We tell kids that they can drive when they're 16, and we teach them how to do it, too. Likewise, they can vote when they're 18 and drink when they're 21. But, apparently, sex is so calamitous we can't even mention an age that would be a suitable point for them to know the basics of orgasm. Gee -- would graduate school be a good time to finally learn how to fuck?

The questions I received from this latest batch of undergrads overwhelmingly asked about the kinds of things one would learn during the first week of a good human sexuality course or if you even had a decent book in your house about sexual relations.

Even the sexual sophisticates and more experienced students on campus were under the thumb of the conservative, let's-save-sex-for-later-and-be-monogamous-and-plan-our-careers crowd. The student who pointed out to me that "no one holds hands on campus" truly made the saddest observation of all. Holding hands is a sign that you might be sexual with someone, and that could cost you your reputation.

Many of the young women I heard from were obsessed about who is and who isn't a "slut." They are the front line of defending this distinction. Why are the girls the most vocal policers? We've all heard about a backlash against women's gains in the economic sector, but things really seem to be decomposing in the sisterhood department. A "good girl," it seems, has no erotic self-interest or solidarity with other lusty women whatsoever. In all her innocence and ignorance, she trades sex for the allegiance of the highest status mate possible. In the '90s, women aren't chaste for religious or moral reasons, but because they are now supposed to use their sexuality as the ultimate commodities brokerage! To the Big Sisters of New Order, a girl who has sex because it feels good is just giving away that cream for free -- and depressing the market for other milk cows on the move!

I've been aware of the trend in anti-sex propaganda aimed at teenagers for years, and how its ante got upped by the AIDS panic. Yet the examples I saw always seemed so laughable to me -- an erotic variation on "Reefer Madness" -- that I couldn't believe that many young people would fall for it. After all, they don't believe anything people over 30 say, right?

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case. Teenage sexuality is depicted in two ways -- as that of a victim or a criminal. Other role models are loathe to step forward.

A few kids asked me if I had ever had anonymous sex -- and as I replied, I began to realize that by "anonymous" they meant "sex on a first date" with somebody who you know on a first-name basis! For me, responding to their question meant I had to flip a switch in my definition. Finally, someone they could point to who would admit to acting spontaneously on their sexual attractions! Yes, I had sex, before and after AIDS -- with quite a few people -- and here I am, standing up, nowhere near a gutter, with no regrets. I have a family. I have a home. I masturbate and fantasize whenever I want. It all worked out.

This country has been riding high on what I call the War Against Teenagers, and it's only getting worse. It's so depressing! Here our new generation stands, in the physical and sexual prime of their lives, and our culture tells them that thinking about sex will only get them in trouble, and actually having it will more or less ruin their lives. Go get 'em tigers!

I personally intend to tell every young person I can that having sex with other people, taking pleasure in their own bodies and contemplating their sexual feelings and fantasies is one of the most beautiful, provocative and creative experiences they can enjoy -- not to mention one of the few things that connects them to every other person on earth. If critics say, "It doesn't look that way to me," they need to look at the capitalist carnage around them, instead of at their cunts and cocks, to find out the reason why.

By Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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