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What is the best way to determine the true pulse of the nation? How are we to measure the “recovery” from the Great Recession of 2007-2009? Is it the New York Stock Market’s new highs, now well over 15,000 from a low of 6,547 in March ‘09? Is it the unemployment rate, now dipping to 7.5 from a high of 10 percent in October 2009? Is it the foreclosure rate, which peaked in 2010 at 2.9 million properties, but fell to 1.8 million homes in 2012?
Or is the true measure something more intangible, something more humane and personal such as people’s sex lives, the most intimate human activity people engage in other than childbirth and death?
Like personal “wealth” or work experience, sex tells the story of American life. And like the other two social dimensions of personal life, sex is both private and public, a secret — as practice and as honestly spoken about — shared with only a few and then all-too-often falsified. So, how often do you have sex? And when you “do” it, is it pleasurable? Does it remind you that you are alive, a living natural human being?
Often forgotten when considering the mounting ecological crisis now gripping the globe, humans are natural beings, living nature. The crisis now remaking the global environment is mirrored in the health and wellness crisis affecting human life, in each living, reproducing and dying human being.
The sexual experience is more than the physical act of copulation engaged in for the purpose of species reproduction. Modernity represents the triumph of technology over nature, of pleasure over reproductive purpose, of desire over need. What were once the indulgences of grandees and decadents are now the pleasures of the many.
But what happens to pleasure during a period of social crisis? What if, as some worry, the U.S. is undergoing a social restructuring, expressing the tyranny of the oligarchs not unlike the decades before World War I? Was the post-WWII phase of modernity an aberration?; an era of socially-shared prosperity before artificially-imposed austerity? Is the U.S. returning to the gory-glory days of pre-WWI America, of Robber Barons and Progressive puritans?
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Where is Alfred Kinsey now that we really need him? His twin studies of 60-plus years ago, about male (1948) and female (1953) sexuality, were denounced when they first appeared. They revealed too much about the sex life of ordinary Americans than those in academic, religious, medical and political authority wanted to acknowledge. (Nevertheless, the first study, a 600-page tome, sold over 200,000 copies, which said a lot about what Americans wanted to learn.) Kinsey’s studies remain the touchstone against which to judge subsequent portraits of the nation’s sexual life.
Today, there doesn’t seem to be a similar single authority like Kinsey to shed light on the sexual state of the nation. Nor does there seem to be a reliable study of the impact of the Great Recession on the nation’s sexual life.
Rather, a handful of federal agencies (most notably the Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health), nonprofit organizations (e.g. AAPR and Guttmacher Institute) and private companies (e.g., Durex/Trojan condoms) have released reports over the last couple of years that illuminate the nation’s sex climate. Findings from these and other sources begin to illuminate the nation’s sexual state of affairs.
“Sexual health is an intrinsic element of human health,” notes the CDC in a 2012 study. Sexual health “is based on a positive, equitable, and respectful approach to sexuality, relationships, and reproduction, that is free of coercion, fear, discrimination, stigma, shame, and violence.”
(For a very different analysis of the sexual status of individual states, check out Variance’s Sexual Health Rankings.)
The CDC paints a pretty gloomy picture of the nation’s sexual “un-health”: 19 million cases of sexually transmitted disease (STD) infections; 1.2 million people are living with HIV and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and about 50,000 new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections annually; between 800,000 to 1.4 million people are living with chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection; more than 1.8 million women experience unintended pregnancies; and 1.3 million women are raped.
The CDC acknowledges that “sexual satisfaction, pleasure, and functioning are important domains of sexual health,” but warns “these topics do not appear on ongoing, frequent national surveys.” However, a number of federal studies provide insight into some sexual practices. A 2011 CDC study is a snapshot of the sex life of adults aged 25–44 years. Nearly all adults have had vaginal intercourse (women = 98%, men = 97%); many have engaged in oral sex with an opposite-sex partner (women = 36%, men = 44%); and more women then men have engaged in same-sex contact (women = 12%, men = 5.8%). The NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found in 2012 that “masturbation was common throughout the lifespan and more common than partnered sexual activities during adolescence and older age (70+).” It also found that “more than 20% of men ages 25-49 and women ages 20-39 reported anal sex in the past year.”
In a somewhat dated but more revealing study from 2010, “Sex, Romance and Relations,” the AARP found that more then two-thirds (69%) of Americans 45 and older where in some form of a relationship; more than half (54%) were married and 15 percent were dating or engaged. It reports that nearly three in 10 (28%) claimed they had sexual intercourse once a week or more often on average in the last six months, and 40 percent report having intercourse at least once a month. Men report engaging in “self-stimulation” three times more often then women (women = 12%; men = 34%). Men were nearly twice as likely to acknowledge engaging in oral sex (women = 12%, men = 20%). Just 5 percent reported having same-sex partners (women = 2%, males = 8%) and 3 percent reported being gay, under half of 1 percent lesbian and 1 percent bisexual. One in four (25%) said they had sexual thoughts, fantasies or erotic dreams at least once a day, including 16 percent who said it was more than once a day. And men were nearly twice as likely as women (21% vs. 11%) to admit to having had a sexual affair outside their long-term relationship.
A 2012 study by Durex (maker of Trojan condoms) had a more sobering perception of American adults sex life. Half of those reporting were dissatisfied with their sex lives. Of these, 37 percent felt that sex was too hurried and 37 percent reported they did not have time to “cross the finish line” at the same time as their partner. Nevertheless, couples keep at it. Three out of four (75%) had rendezvoused in an adventurous local; 65 percent reported getting it on in a car; 35 percent doing “it” in a swimming pool; and 31 percent had done it at the beach. And just about two-thirds (65%) fantasize about making love outside of the bedroom.
Over the last decade, the AARP has conducted three studies on the sex life of “midlife and older adults”, in 1999, 2004 and 2009; its time for another! One of the most revealing indicators of the nation’s changing sexual values is the significant shift in terms of the belief among adults 45-plus about out-of-wedlock sex. In 1999, 41 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “People should not have a sexual relationship if they are not married.” However, in 2004, that number had declined to 34 percent and in 2009 it as at only 22 percent, a 45 percent decline.
Between 2004 and ’09, key sex-related behavioral indicators showed a marked decline, an indication of the recession’s eroding effects on personal life. Among 2009 respondents, 43 percent said they were satisfied with their sex lives; this was down from 51 percent in 2004. People reported having 10 percent more incidents of sex intercourse in ’04 then in ‘09. In addition, respondents reported that kissing, hugging, sexual touching and caressing were also down. Unique among large-scale surveys, AAPR asked respondents what would improve their level of sexual satisfaction. It found that “26 percent of men and 14 percent of women say better finances would help—up from 17 percent of men and 9 percent of women in 2004.
Adding to the complexity of a meaningful analysis of the nation’s true sexual life is the mounting lists of associated factors that impact people’s daily lives and reverberate in their sexual experiences. Two are representative, domestic violence and family structure.
Social science research has overwhelmingly shown that during periods of economic stress, domestic violence by males against women escalates. One study found that during periods of financial strain, the domestic violence rate is 9.5 percent compared with 2.7 percent during baseline periods. One can only wonder what the sex life for a couple under such stress would be like?
The recently released Pew study of “breadwinner moms” further compounds the social context for most people’s sex life. It found that two-fifths (40%) of American households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family. These working mothers consist of two groups: (i) 5.1 million (37%) who are married mothers and have a higher income than their husbands; and (ii) 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.
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The weird thing about the preceding picture of the reported sex life of American adults is that it’s hard to jive with other indicators, phenomenon that collectively paint a very different picture of the nation’s sex life. Seven indicators suggest that something else is going on:
· Pornography is a booming, $15 billion business, including print, TV/cable, in-room, DVD and online programming and services.
· Sex paraphernalia – now rebranded as “sexual wellness” — is a $15 billion business, with Amazon the nation’s largest purveyor.
· Gentlemen’s clubs are no longer limited to Las Vegas; TUSCL, a website of strip clubs, lists 2,800 operating throughout the country.
· 1970s swinging scene is back — NASCA International, a swingers association, identifies 168 swingers clubs across the U.S.
· Explicit adult “safe sex” clubs for gays and straights operate throughout the country; specialized fetish clubs catering to b&d, s&m and other once-perverse tastes operate in many major cities, often hosted by a professional dominatrix.
· Prostitution is estimated to be an $18 billion business.
· Gay bathhouses remain notorious venues for sexual liaisons.
If you are an adult with a credit card and a certain yen, the nation’s sexual culture has rarely been better.
The unanswered questions remain: What is the sexual state of the nation? and how has it changed in the wake of the Great Recession?
David Rosen writes the “Media Current” column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.