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Condoms and Skins

America’s Changing Sexual Appetites

by DAVID ROSEN

In America, a teenager is more likely to use a condom during sex than an adult. This was one of the most revealing findings from the 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) study, a comprehensive snapshot of current American sexual practice. Its findings suggest a bright spot in the otherwise bleak culture wars.

Ironically, around the time the study was released, MTV was planning the launch of its America version of the popular British program, "Skins," a weekly dramatic series ostensibly depicting the life of contemporary teens. The U.S. series has generated considerable attention because, in program 3, a naked male youth with a chemically enhanced erection blithely parades through a scene. Sadly, condom use, let alone sex education, seems to play no meaningful role in the MTV series.

The NSSHB study suggests that American sexual practice is changing. The traditional "missionary position" which long defined patriarchal intercourse, and thus inter-personal sexual relations, is being superseded.

Americans across all age groups, genders and race/ethnic groups are enjoying a wider sexual pallet, including masturbation, oral sex, anal sex and homoeroticism, then anytime in the nation’s history. Equally revealing, where once American sexuality was defined by the dictates of male satisfaction, sexual pleasure today seems increasingly the province of both the man and the woman. Pleasure seems less about selfish satisfaction than mutually experienced fulfillment.

The culture wars played a minor out-front role in the 2010 elections. Two of the leading traditional "values" issues, abortion rights and gay marriage, played a secondary role to concerns about the economy, jobs and health care. However, but perhaps more sinister, values issues hovered behind the campaign like solemn articles of faith, unstated assumptions shared by most Tea Party and Republican conservatives. This likely signifies a deepening entrenchment of the forces of repression.

In the past, values concerns served as "red meat" issues, as get-out-the-vote rallying cries. It remains to be seen whether the culture wars will re-emerge as a critical factor in the 2012 presidential race. If so, teen sexuality may be a determining issue.

* * *

The NSSHB study was based on online interviews with nearly 6,000 people ranging in age from 14 to 94 years and used a methodology to safeguard against the problems associated with self-reported survey. Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, which traces it roots to Alfred Kinsey, conducted the study and Church and Dwight, the company that makes Trojan condoms, sponsored it. It assessed some 41 combinations of sexual acts as well as condom use.

(Other studies, especially one by Eve Rose of Emory University and published in the "Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine" casts doubt on some of the NSSHB findings.)

The NSSHB study confirms many classic America sexual troupes. One of the most persistent concerns men’s and women’s very different perception of their respective sexual experiences. One classic finding among those 18 and older was that 85 percent of men said their female partners had achieved satisfactory orgasms during sex while only 65 percent of women said their male partners satisfied them. (The findings refer to the respondents’ last sexual experience.)

The study found that the five leading sexual practices among respondents were: penile-vaginal intercourse, solo masturbation, mutual masturbation, oral sex and anal sex. Most fascinating, 16 percent of women aged 18 to 24 reported that they’ve engaged in four of the five techniques while 8 percent of women aged 50 to 59 also engaged in four of the techniques.

Americans seem more open to a wider range of sexual pleasures than ever before. Looking at oral sex, masturbation, anal sex and same-sex relations reveals much about America’s changes sexual mores.

§ Both men and women engage in oral sex to give and receive sexual pleasure. Nearly nine-tenths of men (88%) aged 30 to 39 have performed oral sex on a woman and one-fifth (20%) of boys aged 16 to 17 have done so as well. More than half of all women reported receiving oral sex from a male partner in the previous year; 12 percent of females aged 14 to 15 years, 23 percent aged 16 to 17 and more than half of those aged 18 to 49 said they had engaged with a male partner in oral sex.

§ Both men and women engage in masturbation for self-pleasure and to please another. Solo masturbation was the most common sex practice among men 14 to 24 years as well as those over 50 years. Women partook in masturbation with equal vigor, with more than half of the women aged 18 to 49 years reporting having masturbated alone during the previous 90 days, even if they were in a relationship. Nearly a quarter of all women reporting said they had engaged in mutual masturbation with a male partner in the previous month.

§ Anal sex was once considered a perversion and is now becoming oh-so ordinary. In 1988, the University of Chicago’s National Health and Social Life Survey found that only 12 percent of American women aged 25 to 29 years had engaged in ("voluntary") anal sex in the previous year. The 2010 NSSHB study found that more than one-fifth (21%) of women had engaged in anal sex in the previous year and more than 45 percent had had such sex at least once.

§ Same-sex erotic play seems less of a taboo than at any time in American history. The very 20th century dichotomy between the "heterosexual" and the "homosexual" is in flux. The study reports that 7 percent of men and women report themselves to be "other than heterosexual," i.e., homosexual. More revealing, nearly 15 percent of women in their 30s reported having performed oral sex on another woman at least once in their lifetime. Surprising, 13 percent of men over 40 said they had had sex with another man; half the men aged 50 to 59 said they had received oral sex.

With regard to achieving orgasm, men and women differed significantly. Men were far more likely to achieve orgasm during penile-vaginal intercourse, while women reported they were more likely to do so if their partner was open to more than one of the five sexual techniques, especially all of them!

It should be noted that about a third of women reported experiencing some form of genital pain during their most recent sexual encounter, while only 5 percent of men felt the same way.

Assuming that the findings from the NSSHB study provide a meaningful (however accurate) snapshot of the sexual practices of 21st century Americans, something significant has changed since the post-World War II days of Ozzie & Harriet. The nation’s notions of "perversion" as analyzed by Kinsey more than a half-century ago have become the norm.

According to Debby Herbenick, one of the Indiana University researchers: "The findings demonstrate the enormous variability that occurs in the [American] sexual repertoire."

* * *

According to Michael Reece, director of Indiana’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, the study’s most revealing finding involves sex and condom use among adolescents, especially black and Hispanic teens.

Reported sex among young people is revealing. Among those 14 to 17 years, only 4 percent of males reported having sexual intercourse compared with 9 percent of females. Among teens 17 to 18 years, 40 percent for males reported have sex while 36 percent for girls said they engaged in sex. Surely, something more then hormones are at play.

Most revealing, the study found that the highest rate of condom use was among teens aged 14 to 17 year. Four-out-of-five (80%) boys and more than two-out-of-three (69%) girls reported they used a condom the last time they had sex; this compared to a quarter (25%) all men.

Condom use among black and Hispanic males was considerably higher than among white men. Teens reported being well aware of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Reece noted that 70 to 80 percent of teens said they used condoms the last time they had vaginal intercourse. He said, "condom use has become a big player."

Sadly, this post-AIDS, 21st century sensibility among American teens is not reflected in MTV’s new series, "Skins." Writing in AlterNet, Julianne Escoberdo Shepherd distinguished the British from the American version of the show: "everything that was sweet and human about the teens in the UK show has been stripped away in lieu of exploitative, explosive and faux-controversial in a cynical ratings ploy by MTV." She adds, "if the show illuminates anything, it’s that U.S. attitudes toward sex in comparison with the rest of the Western world are pathetically squeamish, bordering on terrified."

Fierce reactions against MTV’s obvious pandering to teen viewers accompanied the launch of "Skins." Groups from the New York Times to the Parents Television Council (PTC) railed against the show. Embracing the old adage, no publicity is bad publicity, MTV sees "Skins" as a follow-up hit to its to equally high-minded series, "Jersey Shore." "Jersey Shore" pulled 8.4 million viewers with its 3rd season premiere in January 2011. "Skins" drew 3.3 million viewers for its premier episode in January, but since then has witnessed a steady erosion in viewers; its latest shows have seen viewers decline to 1.5 million as of early February. [see documentarytelevision.com]

Under relentless pressure from the PTC, "Skins" has lost nine sponsors, including Schick, H&R Block, General Motors, Wrigley, Taco Bell and Proactiv. Stay tuned to see what happens with Schick, L’Oreal, Subway and Footlocker, among others.

Television is one medium of the distraction industry. This industry is a phantasmagoria of false consciousness, of quasi-voyeuristic associations and intimacies that make-up an essential part of the cultural vocabulary people live as their everyday lives. The contradiction between the findings about young people in the NSSHB study and their distorted portrayal in "Skins" marks out the boundaries of the sexuality of American youth today.

Unable to reconcile this contradiction, some conservatives are becoming evermore mean-spirited if not immoral. Each year, the House of Representatives goes through a ritual of extending the notorious Hyde amendment, which restricts federal monies for abortion-related health services.

The upstanding Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) recently proposed a new twist to limit Medicaid funds to terminate a pregnancy due to rape. Smith proposed that if, for example, a 24-year-old male impregnated a 13-year-old girl she would not be covered by statutory but rather a partner in "voluntary" rape and no longer covered by Medicaid to end the pregnancy. The Smith amendment was not attached to the final bill.

DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009). He can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.