Finally, there's a sex survey for the tired, for the huddled masses,
for those yearning to breathe free -- or at least for those yearning to
cough out their suspicions that most people's sex lives don't quite measure
up to the visions we see glorified on screens big and small.
A new beacon of sexual research -- in the form of a dignified article in
the Journal of the American Medical Association -- has reached out to us
with some well-documented conclusions. If you're having bad sex, painful
sex, embarrassing sex, then you're huddled in the same boat with an awful
lot of other Americans. The article, "Sexual Dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and
reports that 43 percent of women and about a third of men report sexual
dysfunction, defined as lacking desire for sex, arousal difficulties,
inability to achieve climax, climaxing too rapidly, pain during sex and
just plain ol' "not finding sex pleasurable."
When the survey made headlines in nearly every daily newspaper, many
pundits wondered: With all the sex mania in this country, can it be true
that most Americans would rather knit one and purl two? The New York Times
editorial page went so far as to say, "Many people find their hobbies more
interesting. Sex is a modest pleasure."
I don't find the pleasure in, or the concern about, sex to be modest at
all. It's about time the medical community spoke up about the
tremendous number of sex-related health problems evident to any
body-positive practicing physician.
What struck me about these new statistics was how similar they are to those
I've found in my own informal surveys of college students over the last 10
years. My numbers, particularly for young women, are almost identical to
those found in the JAMA article. I find, as they do, that a large minority
of young women have quite poor responses to their sexual experiences: They
have not had orgasms, they don't masturbate, they are not particularly
aroused. In my analysis, these young women see sex as something they are
supposed to master in order to land the kind of man who can raise their
social status. When it comes to their own erotic desires, they seem
bewildered, repulsed or oblivious.
In my college audiences, I don't see a lot of older men and women except
for a few professors. If I had more, I'll bet I'd find stories that echo
the JAMA survey results: namely, that as women get older, they enjoy sex
more, but ironically, as men get older, they experience more distress.
This distress has nothing to do with the anxieties that typically bother
women. Men over 40 don't have to search for their penises, the way that
young women often have to "hunt" for their clitorises. Men aren't clueless
about what makes them hot, unlike young women who complain that they don't
have any fantasies. But some men do get thrown for a loop when changes in
their bodies clash with their beliefs about how their penises should
If their erections don't appear on command and salute for a studly amount
of time, lots of older men consider themselves DOA. Sometimes that's
because their partners see them as sexual failures, but even if a man's
lover is satisfied, he may feel that their lovemaking doesn't bring him the
physical joy he felt before. Viagra is the little blue message in a bottle
that's supposed to fix all that -- but as many men discover, it takes more
than an "instant hard-on" to make sex gratifying.
Some writers who specialize in male sexuality are putting forth new ideas
about sexual health and pleasure beyond this Johnny Rocket model. Books
like "The Multi Orgasmic Man" by Mantak Chia and Douglas Abrams Arava
explain how a man can have orgasms with a "soft-on" or suspend himself in
pre-climax rapture -- also known as foreplay -- for hours. Men can be
superb lovers when their timing and the endurance of their sensual powers
aren't defined simply by getting it up and getting off.
For sex "experts" everywhere, including me, seeing this survey reported
in the daily newspapers, spun as a public health concern, was a huge lift
for sex education. This perspective holds out the promise that someday this
country might treat sex as something other than a crime, a sin or a
"youthful indiscretion." We should be concerned as a nation that
our sexuality, such a central part of our lives -- like it or not -- is
burdened with so much ignorance and stress.
It was pure sick synchronicity when, on the very day the sex survey
results were published, another set of alarming sex statistics appeared. A
review prepared by the Henry Kaiser Foundation and endorsed by Health
Secretary Donna Shalala warned the public that "sex on TV" is rampant, and
is putting our children's innocence at risk -- not to mention threatening
our own fragile states of mind.
I don't know what channels you're tuned into, but I had to ask, "WHAT sex?"
Unless you subscribe to the Ultra Spicy and Expensive Softcore Channel, the
only actual sex to be seen on television these days appears in those
very interesting animal shows -- I love them -- that detail exactly how
one lizard humps another. This is as close to uncensored erotica as anyone
gets with standard cable in my town.
What the Kaiser survey calls "sex," as it turns out, means anything from
flirting to racy language to bikini shots. I would not call this "sex" per
se; I call it titillation. It's the advertising-propelled need to tickle
the public's appetite with insinuation and insecurity -- with the hype that
there's something to buy out there, some adornment you can purchase, that
will make you a very hot number.
What no one tells you on television -- or in the Kaiser survey -- is that
achieving sexual pleasure or contentment has nothing to do with having a
bikini or a big car or liposuction. That stuff is like a ticket that gets
you into a very crowded foyer, with no guarantee that you'll ever find a
room to call your own.
I wish there were sex on television. I wish there were shows about
babies being born and what people's faces look like when they come, not to
mention full service maps to the prostate gland and the G-spot. I wish we
saw all kinds of bodies in out-of-bikini situations. I'd like to see people
talking about their actual sex lives more often in real life. We've got sex
problems all right, as well as real opportunities to change -- and no
hobbies, snobbies or sex-phobic lobbies are going to turn the numbers
around to say otherwise.