A Psychological Argument For
Implications For Sex Education And Counseling
Investigation into risks, causes and consequences for premarital sex and current dating trends: An argument for abstinence and commitment.
An argument for abstinence and commitment:
Implications For Sex Education And Counseling
- Brock Alan Salzman
The public for years has grown increasingly aware of the physical dangers and consequences of having premarital or premature, promiscuous or unprotected sex. The Center for Disease Control (1990) reported that around 12 million cases of sexual transmitted diseases occurred annually (McDowell, 1992). Strikingly, 86% of people infected with sexually transmitted diseases were aged from 15 through 29 (Pepe, Sanders, & Symons, 1993). The majority of these sexually transmitted diseases are incurable. In the extreme, STD’s can lead to death, cause infertility, and be passed down to your offspring. Besides STD’s, pregnancy can also drastically change your life. Approximately 3,000 teenage girls in the United States will get pregnant today. This is the highest rate in any industrialized nation (Strasburger, 1985), even despite America’s command of the highest teenage abortion rate. These physical and medical consequences, though very disturbing (especially with the rise of AIDS), may only reveal one part of the social disruption and consequences of engaging in premarital, promiscuous and uncommitted sex. Though vast research, statistics, and public health information exist on the physical risks and dangers of premarital and unsafe sex, no comprehensive study has investigated the social, psychological, relational, and emotional factors related to uncommitted sex and premarital intercourse in humans and their relationship to unsafe, promiscuous and uncommitted sex.
The “sexual revolution,” which created more relaxed sexual morals and of increasing sexual promiscuity, does not appear to be over. Studies from the late 1960s, through the early 1980s, indicate a growing permissiveness in premarital sexual attitudes and behavior (Roche & Ramsbey, 1993). Many research articles and reports demonstrate that this “sexual revolution” has resulted in many consequences that supersede the physical and medical realms. Besides today’s obvious concern with HIV, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, Rollo May (1953) commented almost prophetically ahead of his time that, “the most common problem now is not social taboos on sexual activity or guilt feeling about sex in itself, but the fact that sex for so many people is an empty, mechanical, and vacuous experience” (p. 16). The purpose of this article is to bring May’s perspective on sexual activity to sex education, counseling, public health and sexual behavior in our population.
The populations of individuals of biggest concern regarding sexual decisions are adolescents and young college adults who are often ill prepared and not well informed. Sex today among the high school and college age adolescents, besides being risky, is filled with heartache, deception, pressure and disappointment. These risks may never have been higher considering how the current adolescent environment is conducive to encouraging sexually active behavior. Engaging in sex many times seems like a goal, propagated by social influences and glamorized by exciting images. Masters and Johnson (1972) commented on this trend of goal-oriented sex:
Goal-oriented sex concentrates on this moment and this act. It demands gratification now. Usually, goal-oriented sex is self-defeating. Sex interest is soon lost as the result of performance demand. At first, there may be extraordinary high sensate response, but a steady decline in sexual interest is virtually inevitable because the power to evoke sexual response by purely physical, tactile stimulation is subject to the law of diminishing returns. (Hettlinger, 1974)
In our society, this “steady decline of sexual interest” commonly means someone “fell out of love” and may just move on to the next relationship, since no real sense of commitment was ever established, or even desired. In addition, the power of the sexual act controls the path of many relationships and when it fades the relationship fades. Intimacy appears to be equated with sex and as quickly as intimacy came it may be gone. Though the intimacy may be false, the social, emotional and psychological pain that can result from sexual relationships that end abruptly is very real. Emotions may be the largest component.
It is clear from years of studying the psychology of human needs, that love and security are two very large components of emotional fulfillment. In today’s adolescent relationships, sex is becoming more of a temporary substitute for genuine emotional needs, although the hope of sex itself could not deliver as promised. Hajcak and Garwood (1988) feel that adolescent sexuality (including both grade school and college age), driven largely by emotional needs, can result in various dysfunctions. In summary they say:
Using sex as a coping mechanism can create depression, low self-esteem, or interpersonal problems, and often leads to hyper sexuality. It also can inhibit intimacy, prevent personal and interpersonal growth, and diminish sexual satisfaction. Unless we help adolescents become aware of these needs and how they influence sexual behavior, they will develop immature, ineffective, unsatisfying relationships and sexual habits that will carry into adulthood. (p. 755)
Shaughnessy and Shakesby (1992) explained that adolescents have a tough time with true emotional intimacy for three reasons. First, they do not have the verbal skills to effectively label or describe their feelings. Second, their hopes, dreams and aspirations are not very concrete, and third, sharing emotional intimacy does not always involve a conscious decision like having sex. Thus, sex has become a convenient symbol and method to deal with this need for emotional intimacy. However, true emotional growth may be stunted by the substitution of sex for intimacy. Hajcak and Garwood (1988) state, most teenagers have too many unresolved nonsexual needs to truly enjoy and grow through an active sex life. Indulging in sex inhibits their emotional and sexual needs and, unfortunately, many of these teenagers will never learn to separate the two. (p. 760)
It is for this very reason that Shaughnessy and Shakesby (1992) argue that sex education for adolescents needs to include discussing emotional needs, components of relationships, and the long-term consequences of sexual decisions such as pregnancy and disease. This type of education is important, especially when adolescents are being bombarded with media messages, provocative advertisements and MTV, which gloss over the complicated and emotional act of sex with adventure, glamour and excitement.
Peer pressure instigates many of the myths and desires that may encourage experimenting in sex, without full knowledge of the consequences of the sexual act. Sex is a hot topic for discussion and something that almost everyone is curious about. Many social influences, primarily aimed at emphasizing physical appearance and erotica, have added to this sexual hype. Weinstein and Rosen (1991) state that sexual activity is instigated and positively reinforced by trends and what friends think is “cool.” However, discussing real intimacy and emotional needs, along with sex, is not typically part of these discussions, especially vacant from the male point of view. Weinstein and Rosen (1991) report the following consequences for this peer induced and emotionally uninformed premature sexual behavior:
Sometimes these initial sexual experiences are fraught with anxiety and performance failure, resulting in complicated, long-term, covert sexual problems. In such cases, the adolescent male’s progress toward relational sexual intimacy is more likely to be slowed or impaired. The need for counseling may occur later, as commitment, intimacy, and long-term relationships are unsuccessfully attempted. (p. 337)
Overall, it appears that the complexity and emotional intensity of sexual behavior can cloud and confuse those who have not yet identified their emotional needs and discovered how to meet these needs through a relationship.
It also is quite apparent many relationships use sex as the primary way to fulfill intimacy and closeness. One study (Peplan, Rubin, & Hill, 1977) demonstrated that sexual involvement often preceded forming emotional intimacy in heterosexual couples. They found that the major difference between couples who engaged in sex early or later in the relationship was based on the emotional component. For couples who waited, emotional intimacy was established; for those who had sex early in the relationship, emotional intimacy was not a prerequisite. Without direct research comparing these two groups for relational success, longevity and satisfaction, I can only hypothesize that establishing emotional intimacy before sex, will improve the satisfaction, self-esteem, and longevity of a relationship.
Premature and potentially risky sexual behavior has now been found to be associated with other psycho-social risk factors. Orr, Beiter, and Ingersoll (1991) discovered that non-virgin adolescent boys were 6.3 times more likely to use alcohol, 6.7 times more likely to consider dropping out of school, seven times more likely to be suspended from school, and four times more likely to use drugs than virgin boys. Non-virgin adolescent girls were 6.3 times more likely to attempt suicide, 6.1 times more likely to use alcohol, 17.9 times as likely to run away from home, and 2.1 times as likely to feel lonely compared to virgin girls. This, accompanied by other similar studies, may indicate that premature sex is related with, a result of, or creates psycho-social risks.
Though it has also become clear that sex is related to other psycho-social risk factors, one has to question whether the emotional needs of adolescents can be met in single-parent families and how this relates to premarital sex. Previous studies have shown a high rise in risk factors like using drugs and alcohol, stealing, skipping school, and suicide for adolescents with single-parent families.
Dawson (1991) revealed from his analysis of the 1988 National Health Interview Survey that children living with a single parent (mother or father) are more likely to he treated for behavioral and emotional problems. However, Kandel and Rosenbaum (1990) provided a strong study relating the importance of the nuclear family to the decreased likelihood of premarital sex. Fourteen percent of adolescent males (age 14 or younger) that lived in a nuclear family setting, compared to 34% from single-parent families, engaged in sexual intercourse. For women the figures were 9% in single-parent families, compared to 3% from nuclear families. In addition, these results were replicated using 47,000 6th-12th graders (Search Institute cited from Youthworker Update). For grades 6-8, 8% of youth living in a nuclear family were sexually active versus 20% living in single-parent families. For grades 9- l2 the difference was 35% compared to 53%.
McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) report from six nationally representative data sets that children growing up in single-parents households have twice the risk of becoming teenage parents themselves. A reasonable conclusion from these disparate results is that adolescent emotional needs may be met in single-parent households. More research in this area would be needed to validate the link with the emotional needs of today’s youth, which may not be met with only one parent in the household.
Alcohol, too, may be fulfilling an emotional vacuum, but beyond that appears to compound the concern of premature and unsafe sexual behavior. Among college students and adolescents the association of sexual intercourse with alcohol is becoming more prevalent. Meilman (1993) reported significant findings between the consumption level (minimal, moderate, or high) and the prevalence of sexual activity, sexual intercourse, and unsafe sex practices. Alcohol is widely known to impair the judgment of an individual when under the influence, and research demonstrated by Meilman (1993) shows sexual occurrences increase on a continuum with the amount of alcohol consumed. Thus, the responsible use of alcohol consumption is important in preventing sexually transmitted diseases, making value-laden sexual decisions and avoiding unwanted intercourse. Previous studies relate alcohol use to the failure of condom use, increased male arousal and sexual expectations, and acquaintance rape (Meilman, 1993). In many cases, sex will occur when one party is not able to react or even make a decision about engaging in sex.
Alcohol also seems to be used as a social lubricant. There is a strong relationship between the length of the time someone has known a partner and the likelihood that alcohol will be used to facilitate an encounter with the opposite sex. Temple and Leigh (1992) reported that alcohol among college students was far less likely to be consumed during events with a primary sexual partner versus a new or potential sexual partner. Alcohol can be seen as a way of breaking the ice, but can result in more than many students bargained for. The effects of alcohol desensitizes and “relaxes” your decision making process. In the same study both men and women reported that when using alcohol that their sexual experience(s) were far more unexpected when they occurred. The connection between alcohol, social facilitation and new partners, sexual intercourse and unsafe sex practices (while engaging with high risk partners) leads to huge concern both from a health and educational standpoint.
In general, high alcohol users may be higher risk sexual partners than other people, since their alcohol intake behavior puts them at risk for more sexual partners (combined with the findings of Orr et al, 1991). In addition, the influence of alcohol on the ability to use birth control and protective devices along with the “relaxed” concern with the potential risk of the sexual partner increase the risk. Alcohol, in and of itself, can also take away from any emotional components. Individuals will feel very strongly towards others while intoxicated (though these feelings are created or intensified by the alcohol). At the same time, many of these students with large numbers of previous sexual partners or currently induced by alcohol (or other drugs) may have lost any connection of emotion in the act of sex. In these situations, sex for many is just an act of quick passion that as psychologist Larry Crabb says, “the pleasure is real, but the thrill runs shallow, endures only for a moment, and carries a large price-tag” (lecture by Michael Horner, entitled “Safe sex and intimacy”). The price tag for premature sex these days reads STD’s, pregnancy, cervical cancer and other emotional consequences; indulge at your own risk.
Combining the risk factors alcohol or drug use with sexual activity reveal another important consideration. Combining these two risky behaviors makes determining the relative risk of your partner even more difficult (as well as making your partner more risky). In someone’s choice of sexual partners, there is a concern for their past sexual behavior, or there should be. The looming concern is that it appears adolescents may have a difficult time validating someone’s true sexual history. There appears to be double standards and contradictions that influence people’s honest disclosure of their sexual history. Women have been socialized to maintain sexual purity, wait for “love,” or at least not be “easy,” while men commonly are under no such social mandate. This double standard may easily provoke women to fudge in reporting their number of sexual partners, especially in the beginning of a relationship.
Many women are also aware of a male’s expectations once finding out they have been sexually active before. Furthermore, if a female has had multiple sexual partners she may feel anxious that a man may come on stronger (be more sexually aggressive) and have expectations of gaining the same sexual access. On the other side, men do not want to appear overly sexually promiscuous to a new female partner, who might be scared away. Nor do they want to damper a romantic, possibly sexual moment, by revealing their experience with multiple partners. In either one of these cases, revealing one’s true sexual history may be embarrassing and put a damper on the eventual goal of sex or a relationship. “White lies” may be told so not to ruin the moment, scare the other partner, and to ensure your partner that “you are the first” or “I never do this on the first date” in order to stay in tune with societal expectations and the romantic moment. Romantic themes and ideals that adolescents have been fed through their lifetime also do not correspond with the need to investigate someone’s sexual history, nor is this ever modeled on TV.
One study (Stebleton & Rothenberger, 1993) revealed that 60% of women and 47% of men felt like they had been lied to for the purposes of sex. The Centers for Disease Control (1990) reported that over half of STD-infected students still had unprotected intercourse and 22% did not inform their partners at the time. Cochran and Mays (1990) added that 20% of men would lie if their HIV antibody test was negative. In addition, they report that 47% of men and 42% of women purposely would underestimate the number of previous sexual partners. Furthermore, if they had only one episode of sexual infidelity 43% of males and 34% of females would never disclose this to their partner. While the trend in sexual disease prevention education is to inquire about one’s sexual history before having sex with them, this appears to be no guarantee that the sexual history reported is accurate. Stebleton and Rothenberger state, “If almost 50% of partners can be expected to give dishonest responses, the usefulness of this strategy may be limited” (p. 53).
Stebleton and Rothenberger (1993) revealed three more disturbing results from their study. First, 33% of men in a current monogamous relationship claimed they told a lie to have sex. Second, 57% of the women in non-monogamous relationships feel they were lied to in order to have sex.
Most frightening, were the non-monogamous (high risk students) who when asked, “Before engaging in sexual activity, did you ask your partner(s) about their past sexual history?” 37% of the women and 75% of the men never asked at all. These numbers become even more alarming when you consider the increased likelihood for dating and social interaction in our society. This research shows that many times the truth may not be told in monogamous relationships (where the same motives and concerns exist). However, even though it seems like the safest form of emotional and physical protection is getting to know your partner over time (and their reputation), research reports that many are still willing to accept that what their partner says is true, have sex before they research their partner or not even ask at all. This suggests a strong argument for waiting, at least until you expect a more accurate report of someone's sexual history.
Dating appears to be one of the biggest markers for social normalcy among today’s adolescents and college students. In fact, just being with someone of the opposite gender in a social context implies for many that “dating” is occurring. With the high prevalence for dating there is the increased potential for the occurrence (or perceptions) of sexual intercourse. This may produce both physical and emotional risks (of being lied to), when considering the prevalence of dating infidelity shown in research.
Rothenberger and Stebleton (1993) reported that 36% of men and 21% of women involved in monogamous relationships reported being sexually unfaithful. These were relationships where a commitment had been established. Thus, the infidelity numbers for more casual dating relationships may be much higher. Cochran and Mays (1990) report that of the people sexually involved with more than one person when dating (32% of men and 23% of women), 68% of men and 59% of women said the other partner did not know.
Over 50% of the students surveyed in one study (Roscoe, Cavanaugh, & Kennedy, 1988) had been sexually unfaithful to a dating partner. This research has reported some telling explanations and sexual concerns for the casual dating population, namely the rationale for infidelity. Some of the reasons that were most commonly cited for being unfaithful were; dissatisfaction with the dating relationship, boredom, revenge/anger/jealousy, being insecure and unsure of the relationship, and variety/experimentation. One has to wonder how many of these concerns relate with how a relationship was built in relation to sexual involvement. The long-term consequences for future relationships from these rationales and findings are most telling: findings from the present study suggest that in many ways, views on dating and marital infidelity are similar. Both types of infidelity share many behaviors, reasons, and consequences. Such information can be useful to adolescents and to professionals who interact with them, since it supports the view that some aspects of the dating relationship are similar to those in marriage, and may establish lasting behavioral patterns. (Roscoe et al., 1988, p. 42)
In short, the dating trends of today may be socializing the same types of decisions and rationales that will be made in future marriage and cohabitation relationships. In addition, infidelity can also be linked with a loss of sexual interest in a previous partner, which we know from Masters and Johnson (1972) may eventually occur in any relationship (Hettlinger, 1974). The relationship of this “feeling” when sexual interest is lost as a prime reason for infidelity is a social concern. This may also be one reason for the rise of “serial monogamy” that adds even more risk to today’s dating scene. Serial monogamy is a premarital sexual pattern in which there is a relationship that develops, but ends, and then the person moves on to a new partner (Hyde, 1993). The reason for moving on may be similar to the rationales given in previous research (Roscoe et al., 1988). Hyde (1993), cited research by Sorensen (1973) that found serial monogamy to be the most common premarital sexual pattern.
Today there seems to be the false security that these kinds of relationships are safe, since they are not “one night stands.” Someone might respond, “Well I only have sex with people whom I have formed a relationship with.” This person you come to find out may have had four “relationships” that year. Richard Hettlinger, in response to the reality of adolescents maintaining a permanent relationship said, “Many students, however much they may hope it will ‘last forever’, see a formal, lifelong commitment as hypocritical, outmoded, and premature” (Middleton & Roark, 1981, p. 6).
Even more disturbing seems to be the misconception about the actual definition of monogamy among college students. Rehnberg (1991) in his study on safer sex practices reported that all subjects screened into his study reported having multiple partners during the previous twelve months before the study. However, at the time of the follow-up, 66% reported being in monogamous relationships. Though these results are perplexing, it appears that college students assume while they are in a relationship it is monogamous, until they breakup and go on to the next.
In any event, the image “of sleeping around” is hidden in the term monogamous. Only sleeping with one partner at one time seems more reassuring than multiple partners at once. However, these attitudes do have a large risk that go along with them. The risk of diseases increases exponentially when you compute all or someone’s sexual partners (whether or not they were all at the same time of over the course of a year), the sexual partners of their partners, and so on. Thus, the sexual partners one has had (along with the sexual partners your partner has had) add up quickly. From an emotional standpoint, one could hypothesize that increased exposure to the sexual act in “relationships” will slowly detract from the emotional involvement each time. This trend also may be involved with the ease and number of marriage breakups today.
Along with a rise in dating and sexual behavior in dating, one must ask about the rationale for engaging in sex. Weinstein and Rosen (1991) list some of the reasons for adolescents who participate in sexual behavior: inquisitiveness; physical urges; all of their friends are “doing it;” it is proof of their desirability and popularity (measures of worthiness); it proves “you really love your partner;” and it represents adult status (since sexual activity is considered appropriate behavior for adults). (p. 333)
Hajcak and Garwood (1988) also provide a list of the most common non-sexual needs that adolescents try to reach through sex: confirmation of masculinity/femininity; affection; rebellion against authority, parents, or social norms; build self-esteem and feel important; acquire or avoid intimacy; revenge, or to hurt or degrade others; alleviate anger; ensure fidelity (keep girl/boyfriend); alleviate boredom; and express jealousy. (p. 757)
Though many of the reasons listed do not seem conducive towards building a close intimate relationship, there is still hope. Maybe the biggest indicator of engaging in premarital or premature sex seems to be linked with the label of “love” or “falling in love”. Both genders, women being the most pronounced, are willing to participate in sexual behavior if it is grounded in love. However, the problem today has been defining, deception, and commitment in regards to genuine longevity of “love”.
Hettlinger (1974) writes a powerful but telling statement of a woman, regarding the danger of using the “love” rationale when having sex, in response to male’s request for sex based on “sharing something special.” She replies, “What if I did share with you, and then found out I didn’t love you. So then I met somebody else and had deep feelings for them too, and so then I shared with them. And then I met somebody else and I just kept on sharing and sharing and sharing” (chap. 5). This statement speaks both to the emotional desensitization of reoccurring sex without real intimacy and commitment and the misguided paths that “feelings” alone can give in making sexual decisions.
Many relationships can become manipulative all in the name of “love” which many times is disguised as “lust and sexual control.” Love will always wait for sex, but lust is very impatient.
Pre-marital sexual behavior has been shown to have social effects on friendship, dating, and marriage desirability. Research (Sprecher, McKinney, & Orbuch, 1991) found that the lowest levels of sexual activity (for a partner) received the highest marriage and friendship desirability ratings. In contrast, moderate and high sexual activity was more preferred in a dating relationship. This double standard (provided equally by both genders) is clearly a warning sign again for the dating population and those looking for future marriage partners who have spent years dating.
These seemingly irrational sexual expectations are validated by Roche and Ramsbey (1993), who discovered that college students were more stringent on defining proper sexual standards for themselves, more permissive in their actual sexual behavior, and most permissive in what they believed others were doing (potentially justifying their own behavior). Many times it seems that adolescents have to weigh their standards with the costs and benefits of having sex. However, the scale seems to have an imbalance considering the inundation of sexual messages and visual mediums that adolescents are exposed to, without any reinforcement in many cases for waiting till marriage. In addition, the “just say no” message without any rationale for why they should wait is just as tempting for adolescents to disregard. Consequently, it seems that in many cases the short-term benefits are outweighing the long-term (and many times unknown) consequences. Influences, perceptions, physiological responses and emotions many times overrule rational thinking and reasoning.
In addition, the results of this study may relate to the lack of honesty in the disclosure of sexual histories. Very sexually active people may be prone to lie about their history, because they are also aware that individuals having a large number of sexual partners are undesirable marriage partners. However, with the rise of HIV, the requests for sexual histories will increase and the sexual history of a partner may (with or without the other partner’s knowledge) effect the decisions that others make in a relationship.
Sexual involvement today is often left without intimacy and commitment. According to Sternberg’s triangular theory of love (Hyde, 1990), intimacy and a commitment make up two-thirds of the love relationship. More than ever, relationships are gauged by the degree of passion that is felt (which without intimacy will fade). More than ever, the date is more of a formality of getting to the sexual intercourse versus sexual intercourse being a result of intimacy built through a dating relationship. Hettlinger (1974) states that, “The process that had been affirmed in our friendships -- closeness first and sex growing out of it -- was reversed. If friendship entered into our relationships (sexual) with boys, it was by a freak chance” (chap. 5).
The overwhelming concern with overt displaying of affection as evidence of love is that sometimes (unless a true friendship was established before the affection) a friendship is never developed because sex interferes with the ability to become more intimate. Even dating, at times starts with no structure and one goal in mind. This “pseudo dating” occurs when, for example, people meet unexpectedly (but with the motivation of meeting someone) and then become sexually involved. The unfortunate joke on many college campuses is about individuals not remembering their partners name in the morning or being sexually involved with three people at once (while neither partner knows).
In fraternities, the first question that some men will stereotypically ask in the morning after a dance is, “So, did you get anything?” A response of, “Oh, well we kissed” would often be followed in response with “you’re lame” or “that’s weak.” Of course, many times men will lie to avoid that very response. Sex for many is just to validate that they can achieve that goal, rather than actually wanting to genuinely have sex. This leaves no room for intimacy, especially among sexual partners.
More and more often, groups of people will get together and verbally share their sexual intimacies and stories with others. The degree to which sexuality was once sacred and personal information that was kept between sexual partners now has moved into the public domain. Sex has in many cases become a recreational activity to share with others at the expense and degradation of other human beings. For many adolescents this realization can be painful and influential on their identity and self-esteem (Shaughnessy & Shakesby, 1992).
It is becoming more and more common for people to engage in sexual intercourse without really knowing each other. Hettlinger (1974) states, “increasing degrees of physical intimacy are enjoyed without any simultaneous development of personal involvement. Even the language of love is not intended or taken as an expression of serious commitment or concern; it merely forms a conventional background for sexual coupling” (chap. 5). So if intimacy is not always the innate goal, what needs are being met through sex?
Sexual intercourse may be fulfilling one of four needs; the need for sexual gratification without concern for intimacy, the need to satisfy curiosity, societal expectations and peer pressure, the need for emotional stability and security (hidden under the guise of sex), and the genuine need to be more intimate once a relationship has been established. However, comprehensive research shows that wide differences occur between males and females on these needs. Men are clearly more likely to engage in sex for the first two reasons and women for the two later ones.
McCabe (1987) came to similar conclusions about commitment and gender expectations. First, women only enjoy sexual intercourse when there is a greater level of commitment within the relationship. Men desire sexual intercourse within a “caring” relationship. Byers and Lewis (1988) reported a clear disagreement between genders over when and how fast sexual intimacy would occur in dating relationships. McCabe also pointed out that in her study there were a greater percentage of men than women who wanted to experience intercourse but had not achieved this desire. Again, this may be due to societal pressure on males to be sexually experienced. Further more, Christopher and Cate (1988), cited from their earlier research, that “males expect greater sexual involvement earlier in relationships and are more likely to be influenced in their sexual decision making by social pressure when engaging in the first act of intercourse in the relationship” (p. 800). Weinstein and Rosen (1991) also throw in a strong statement for the development of this gender specific sexual socialization. They state that, “Parental and media influences on sexual intimacy are frequently gender specific.”
Often the message to early and middle adolescents males is that sexual intercourse represents admittance into the “brotherhood of masculinity” (p. 334). Thus, this kind of sexual behavior for males seems expected and appropriate. On the other hand, some young women look for any sign that love and commitment are present in a relationship before becoming sexually active. When seemingly present, sexual intercourse often happens. These sexual experiences (accompanied by an eventual end of the relationship) often result in disappointment and sometimes unintended pregnancy (Weinstein & Rosen, 1991).
After conducting 300 clinical interviews with sexually active unmarried teenagers, Coblinger (1981) found that their sexual relationships could be described as shallow, unsatisfying and trapped in the act of sex (unable to replace the sexual act with other intimate things, such as talking or doing things together). Hajcak and Garwood (1988) add that “adolescents have unlimited opportunities to learn to misuse sex, alone or as a couple. This happens because of the powerful physical and emotional arousal that occurs during sexual activity” (p. 756). This clearly can appear to be intimacy, especially when that is exactly how intimacy is portrayed in many instances that adolescents are exposed to.
While establishing emotional intimacy and expressing feelings is risky and uncomfortable (Shaughnessy, Shakesby, 1992), especially for young adolescents, “sexual activity temporarily abates uncomfortable or confusing emotions they may have been experiencing. The end result is that adolescents condition themselves to become aroused any time they experience emotional discomfort or ambiguity” (Hajcak & Garwood, 1988, p. 756). More and more, communication and the amount of time adolescent couples spend together are replaced by the quick, but temporary, act of sexual intercourse. Thus, many adolescents, unless exposed to positive role models, never learn the satisfaction of waiting and building a true intimate relationship.
McCabe (1987) outlined a study that measured satisfaction in dating and sexual involvement. Men were far more satisfied “non-virgins” than women when sexually involved on the first date (32% to 13%) or several dates (58% to 37%), however women became more satisfied non-virgins in the “going steady” category where a relationship was defined and intimacy may have been established. The biggest overall percentage of dissatisfaction arose for men (16%) and women (18%) who regretted their sexual involvement (that occurred after a first date or several dates with a partner). In addition, the most common label that was accepted by the women was that of “satisfied virgin.” Overall, women who remained virgins were very satisfied, along with women who had intercourse once they formed a relationship. Men and women were both equally likely to regret early sexual encounters in a relationship, but men were also much more likely to be satisfied as a “non-virgin” from early sexual encounters.
There also has been research and implications for the experience of sex with self-esteem. A study of college co-ed students showed that the first sexual experience may lead to a lower self-worth (Orr, Wilbrandt, Brach, Rauch, & Ingersoll, 1989).
Research on adolescents showed no significant difference for boys who had experienced sex or remained virgins. However, girls who had experienced sex had a significantly lowered self-esteem than virgin girls. Research has not concluded whether low self-esteem could have resulted in having sex or that sex could have resulted in lower self-esteem. Self-esteem may also be related to societal messages, gender roles and sexual scripts. Essentially men wanting to and validated for having sex and women expected to save it can provide powerful explanations for the social messages that may effect self-esteem from engaging in premarital sex.
A portion of the self-esteem issue seems to relate with the “love” or security that sex can provide, temporarily giving self-esteem and fulfilling those needs. Weinstein and Rosen (1991), along with Hajcak and Garwood (1988), feel that the development towards sexual intimacy is strongly related with that person’s needs. An example given by Weinstein and Rosen (1991) suggests that if someone has the need to belong, be accepted, or be loved and each of these is not being met, resulting in low self-esteem, “there is a much greater likelihood of multiple casual sexual partners” (p. 334). Peck (1978) warns that, “If being loved is your goal, you will fail to achieve it.
“The only way to be assured of being loved is to be a person worthy of love, and you cannot be a person worthy of love when your primary goal in life is to passively be loved” (p. 102). This statement is very descriptive of many sexual interactions that occur because one partner wants intercourse and the other partner, out of fear of losing him/her, consents to have sex, later regretting it. Thus, using sex to reach those emotional needs will always be temporary.
A study by Hally and Pollack (1993) provides some interesting analysis regarding sexual satisfaction and self-esteem. One hypothesis in their study predicted that very liberal sexual attitude scores would also report high self-esteem scores. In fact, the opposite result was reported. Another hypothesis was that individuals with a wide range of sexual experience would have high self-esteem scores.
This prediction, though statistically insignificant (p 12) did show results in the opposite direction. In addition, individuals with a wide variety of sexual experience reported significantly higher sexual arousal measures. This may be a concern with the ability to discern intimacy and closeness from the perceived sex drive and arousal from previous sexual adventures (in hopes of the next). This is consistent with Hajcak and Garwood (1988) who state that exposure to sexual arousal and experience will increase the cognitive desire and ability for increased further arousal.
Hally and Pollack (1993) did find a relationship between self-esteem and sexual satisfaction. Though not mentioned in the study, I believe it could be attributed to individuals who had a high self-esteem before deciding to have sexual intercourse and the structure of the specific relationship, which may have built self-esteem, trust and intimacy. It could be suggested that in relationships where self-esteem is present or resulting from commitment and intimacy in the course of a relationship sexual intercourse will be “safer” and more likely to be satisfying. These research questions need to be clarified with additional research.
Sex is so spontaneous, so romantic and so erotic, or is it? Christopher and Cate (1988) reported, “conflict played a major role in predicting premarital sexual intimacy, especially during the early stages of relationship development” (p. 800). Weinstein and Rosen (1991) also confirmed that in the early development of sexual intimacy, sexual activities often meet one person’s needs while the other is coerced into participating. In addition, the study confirmed that early sex showed limited communication and a confusion between “love” and passion. Hettlinger (1974) added that, “Adolescent relationships between the sexes all too often resemble a carefully planned and cunningly executed assault on the one hand, and a more or less persistent resistance in defense of virginity on the other” (chap. 5). However, these research findings do not match up with other messages that adolescents receive in education and especially the media. In television and movies, love and sex are often portrayed as spontaneous and magical.
Christopher and Cate (1988) reported again that their findings “contradict popular recurrent romantic themes which picture premarital sexual interaction as growing out of the amorous and erotic exchanges of the couple” (p. 800). Furthermore, while turmoil and perceptions exist over gender roles and the appropriateness of when to have sex, the ultimate decision to engage in sex many times is labored over discussions, thought and persuasion.
Even so, there are instances where the act of sex follows suit to common romantic erotic scenes of uncontrolled and unimpaired sexual attraction. So, in reality does love occur instantaneously? Is there such a thing as “love at first sight?” Peck (1978) explains the fallacy of instantaneous love and “falling in love”:
When a person falls in love what he or she certainly feels is “I love him” or “I love her.” But two problems are immediately apparent. The first is that the experience of falling in love is specifically sex-linked erotic experience. We do not fall in love with our children even though we may love them very deeply. The second problem is that the experience of falling in love is invariably temporary. No matter whom we fall in love with, we sooner or later fall out of love if the relationship continues long enough. (p. 84)
Leo Buscaglia, a former USC professor who created a university course on “Love,” after interactions and discussions with hundreds of college students on the subject came up with some factors found in his book entitled “Love” (1972) that dispose the romantic ideal of love that is still perpetuated in society; love is learned, love involves responsibility, love recognizes needs, love requires that one be strong and love themselves and love involves a giving of the self, not a taking.
One has to wonder how many times these factors are present when two people fictionally meet in a book, TV show, or movie and indulge in a passionate act of sex, declaring “love” for each other. Hettlinger (1974) even went as far to make the suggestion that James Gould Cozzne’s book By Love Possessed should by rights have been entitled By Lust Possessed. In essence, declaring these interactions as “love” is completely false and has made an impact on adolescents.
Clearly love for many adolescents conveys a similar meaning. Weinstein and Rosen (1991) explain that for adolescents, “when one shows love for another, it is done by being sexual” (p. 332). Hajcak and Garwood (1988) add that “adolescent sexuality is largely driven by emotional needs that have nothing or little to do with sex” (p. 755). These emotional needs for love cannot be met solely by an instinctual biological drive that is further aroused from environmental stimuli. Fortunately, the recent movie Basic Instinct had the discretion to label the non-stop sexual, violent, and erotic behavior as “instinct” instead of love. Instincts are merely lust that reveals part of our physiological make-up.
Viktor Frankl (1984) also makes this clear distinction between sex, instincts and love:
Love is not interpreted as a mere epiphenomenon of sexual drives and instincts in the sense of a so-called sublimation. Love is as primary a phenomenon as sex. Normally, sex is a mode of expression for love. Sex is justified, even sanctified, as soon as, but only as long as, it is a vehicle of love. Thus love is not understood as a mere side effect of sex; rather, sex is a way of expressing the experience of that ultimate togetherness which is called love. (p. 116)
Frankl’s description of “ultimate togetherness” implies that lots of time goes into developing love and that sex is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Many experiences, hardships and challenges are what constitute the unbreakable bond of love. Thus, many would argue that once love is established it cannot just disappear and move on to the next person. Sol Gordon defines love as “caring, intimacy, loyalty, and trust during the good times and bad, holding strong in the face of illness and adversity” (Nelson, Hill-Barlow, & Benedict, 1994, p. 36).
Love takes time and maturity, especially in adolescent relationships where life experience is very limited. Research also indicates that love develops overtime. Christopher and Cate (1988) also reported that measures of love in their study were the greatest for college students at the later stages of dating (where the more time had been spent with each other).
Perceived “love” has also been noted in research to be addictive and potentially leading to a progressive physical, social, and economic deterioration (Nelson, Hill-Barlow, & Benedict, 1994). Their study reported that the love addict undergoes many of the same effects as does the drug addict. These initial “love” experiences were described as “an initial high in the relationship, a euphoria and excitement when one feels that the needs for love, attention, and emotional security might be met” (p. 36). When this initial experience dwindles after each meeting, one works harder and harder to reach this same level of “love,” with failure. This can even become more addictive and confusing when sexual involvement is part of this “love” experience and satisfaction. Hajcak and Garwood (1988) report three dangers of the attempts to use sex to satisfy and fulfill these “love” needs:
First, the need to engage in sexual activity is only temporarily satisfied, and soon there is the desire to indulge again. This is where the behavior can become addictive, at least cognitively and through perceptions.
Second, the real non-sexual needs (love and security) are only temporarily satisfied and that is only during the sexual act. This is where the relationship outside of those intimate sexual moments can seem so empty. In the overall scheme, sex may lead to jealousy and higher insecurity, thus hindering and reversing the original need.
Third, “the two needs become paired or fused through conditioning. The force of the sex ‘drive’ will seem considerably stronger because more and different situations can lead to sexual arousal” (p. 757). Unfortunately, many times in these relationships, one partner will use “sexual control” and manipulation because of the addictive nature, powerlessness and confusion that engulfs the other partner.
Though not clearly stated in research, it is apparent that the extent to which others are perceived as “having sex” is much greater than the actual numbers that do. In fact, at Washington State University a research study aimed supposedly at a “high-risk” sexual population had a high abstinence rate, inciting dozens of students to complain that people were assuming they were having sex (personal communication with Darrelle Koonce, 1994-95). Some of these assumptions people, and even researchers, make about actual sexual activity among the population were verified by Roche and Ramsbery (1993). They reported that college students were the most conservative in what they felt was proper sexual behavior. They were more permissive in their reported behavior, and most permissive in what they believed others were doing. In addition, many of the subjects, especially the females, had an inaccurate image of the extent of premarital sexual behavior. Sex quite often is clearly perceived as more prevalent in other people, thus “everybody’s doing it.”
The reinforcement, security, and “moral” comfort of being in the majority or part of the crowd may be a huge influence on sexual decision-making. Thus, instead of assumptions, real numbers and an emphasis on personal choice (including abstinence) regardless of societal trends is needed in sex education.
Part of this sexual decision-making again revolves around the concept of “love.” The perception or reality of “love” or “being in love” is clearly the boundary marker for most people to engage in premarital sex. Mahoney’s 1979 study found that 85% of men and 74% of women approved of premarital sex when the couples loved each other (McCabe, 1987). Although love may be the most significant factor, at least ideally, with having sex, it is misperceived in many ways. Peck (1978) explains: It is obvious and generally understood that sexual activity and love, while they may occur simultaneously, often is disassociated, because they are basically separate phenomena. In itself, making love is not an act of love. Nonetheless the experience of sexual intercourse, and particularly of orgasm, is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser degree of collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. (p. 95-96)
A strong degree of physical attraction towards someone, the labeling of words or actions, and the powerful physical and emotional state at the occurrence of sexual intercourse (even occurring with other intimate sexual interactions other than sex) and climax can have a powerful feeling and physiological aura that is perceived as love. The sexual act for many leaves the desire not to become closer in heart, spirit, or understanding but again in physical intimacy (Hajcak & Garwood, 1988). Eventually, opinion conflicts, annoying traits, boredom, another sexual opportunity to try a new partner, or some other factor will close out this experience as nothing more than the sexual act that it was, leaving the false image of “love” on the horizon.
While the desire and passion of sex may die out and encourage partners to move on to bigger and better things, the physical stimulation itself and reinforcing moments of “false intimacy” will also keep people together when there is absolutely nothing else supporting a relationship. Because of that close nature of sexual sharing that can never be taken away, I have witnessed dozens of relationships (sexual in nature) that never seemed to end. Sex became the reason to interact, rather than the result of a commitment (which was over anyway). Due to the “false” intimacy that was originally based on sex, it becomes easy to join again for this sexual bonding. Eventually, the relationship pans out to what it really were in the first place, a sexual engagement. Again, it is much easier to express emotions with sexual intercourse, not having to delve into the complicated and uncomfortable area of true feelings and commitment (Hajcak & Garwood, 1988), which are commonly left behind every time the person leaves the bedroom.
Many times individuals were so sure that those feelings were love (because that is what they have learned), that once one partner finally decided to shove them away, the pain was that much greater. Confusion, depression and distress commonly set in. Sometimes, a person feels like they gave up something special (their sexuality) and will do anything to hold on to the fantasy that was labeled as “love”, so that something special was not given away in vain. In this way, many hopeful relationships end in distress, jealousy, confusion, and hate. It seems that the sexual act itself makes it more difficult afterwards to remain friends, interact alone without running the risk of getting sexually involved, or having someone carrying emotional baggage that interferes with genuine human contact.
Leo Buscaglia (1972), in his book on love, emphasized that love was a learned phenomenon. More and more researchers, educators, and counselors must ask what kind of love are today’s adolescents learning? Unfortunately, love and passion/desire are often confused (and not fully addressed), especially with the clear portrayal that is seen on television. In fact, Parade magazine reported the work of two researchers who counted 20,000 sexually suggestive scenes on prime time (1978-79) with hardly a mention of the consequences of the sexual act and the need for contraceptive protection (McDowell, 1992).
A Planned Parenthood Poll from 1986 reported that 41% of teenagers feel that television’s portrayal of sexual consequences and pregnancy is real. These perceptions are powerful and could be a large factor in shaping learning and the emotional experience accompanied with sex (many times not being present, or superficially represented at best). Hatfield and Rapson (1987) cited the role of these perceptions and the mind with the nature of passionate love: People’s assumptions about what they should be feeling have a profound impact on what they do feel. People learn (from society, parents, friends, and their own personal experience) who is appealing, what passion feels like, and how lovers behave. Thus, cognitive factors influence how men and women label their feelings. (p. 262)
This really brings about the concern about the following associations that are commonly perpetuated in different facets of society, education, music videos, motion pictures, and television; dating is associated with sex, love is associated with sex, sex is associated with love, sex is spontaneous and wildly passionate, sex is not associated with visible efforts at birth control, and that feelings of love can go away (when actually they are physical feelings that seem to go away, while true love remains an undiscovered entity).
A more current study in 1987-88, estimated that 65,000 episodes of sexual behavior occurred on prime time television alone. In addition, Broadcasting magazine reported, “daytime television contained 50% more sexual references than prime time” (McDowell, 1992). A 1989 report in TV Guide reported findings from communications professor, Dennis Lowry. He found that there were 10.9 sexual behaviors per hour. Professor Lowry was quoted saying, “Sex (on daytime soaps) is for the bold and the unmarried, for the young and the promiscuous.” (McDowell, 1992, p. 270).
Sex appears most often as a spontaneous and exciting event. One has to wonder if the expectations and sex scenes on television and in the movies can even match up with the actual sexual experiences that students will have, which many times fall short (Hajcak & Garwood, 1988). Today a common reason people cite for engaging in sexual relations before marriage is making sure they are sexually compatible.
One has to wonder if sexual compatibility is being compared with movies, TV, or the erotic relationships that one hears about. It seems that sexual compatibility is much more than if two people can “get each other off.”
Masters and Johnson reported, “there is no way for a good sexual technique (trying many partners) to remedy a poor emotional relationship” (lecture by Michael Horner, entitled “Safe sex and intimacy”). It seems like being sexually compatible is related to genuine caring, loving, and emotional sharing (assuming both people are physically attracted to each other).
For emotional, social, psychological, relational and physical safety, deeply getting to know your partner would enhance safety and ease the concern for sexual compatibility. This also would seem to relate to the reasons for dating infidelity and serial monogamy, where boredom and curiosity would spark one to venture into outside sexual relations. With these ideals, sexual compatibility essentially may never be fulfilled even after marriage. Sex can never hold up over time to meeting continued physiological arousal. Research and human experience tell us there has to be more.
Sometimes passionate love is a joyously, exciting experience, sparked by exciting fantasies and rewarding encounters with the loved one. But that tells only part of the story. Often, passionate love seems to be fueled by a sprinkling of hope and a large dollop of loneliness, mourning, jealousy, and terror. In fact, in a few cases, it seems that these men and women love others not in spite of the pain they experience but because of it. (p. 262)
Research by Tennov (1979), after interviewing more than 500 “lovers,” discovered that they assumed that passionate love involved both misery as well as ecstasy (Hatfield & Rapson, 1987). In addition, wide ranges of experience bring about the realization that the longevity of these “passionate love” relationships is low. Stampeding into sex, without previously establishing intimacy, brings about dangers in communication, sex being used as a power play, sex never allowing real intimacy to be built (because interaction will always result in sex) and jealousy.
Mass communication research reveals many potential disturbing affects from the way that sexual intercourse, relationships, and intimacy are presented to the public today. Based most on Bandura’s social learning theory (Tann, 1985) there seem to be four strong arguments for television’s contribution to much of our societies sexual dysfunction. First, is the principle of modeling and learning acts of sex through the television. Though sex education is fairly common in high school, younger kids are exposed to acts of sex and seductive scenes from cable, movies and regular television programming. Secondly, when these acts are reinforced or not punished they are more likely to be imitated. Thus, youth become disinhibited to the act of sex through generalizations from repeated exposure and the vicarious reinforcement of having others being reinforced (with pleasure, “love”, status, acceptance, etc.). At the same time, when youth see no consequences (pregnancy, using birth control, breaking up, etc.) or the long-term outgrowth of consequences and impact from the sexual act, it may also encourage further vicarious reinforcement. Also, part of this disinhibition is the perceived similarities between viewers and the model on television. The more the model is looked up to or can be related to, the more likely the behavior will be imitated (the Fonz, Dan on Night Court, Roseanne).
In addition, the perceptions gained from viewing sex can lead to a perceived reality of the act of sex, when in fact it is closer to fantasy. With all the special effects, make-up, attractive actors, and perceived perfect passion and orgasmic potential how can have sex ever match up to this “reality model.”
Third, is the principle of desensitization, which claims that the more repeated exposure to television sex, the less anxiety or hesitation someone will have in accepting it or even engaging in it. This factor may have a more profound influence on sexual attitudes, than actual actions. However, attitudes from one person do indeed affect youth behavior by peer pressure. The final influence noted by mass communication researchers may be the direct effect of arousal turned into sexual act. This theory is less supported (even though pornography definitely serves this purpose) because the drive of sex will tail off. However, if someone is aroused constantly by television and acts out with thoughts or even masturbation, then real life arousal situations with dating scenarios may turn into a “sexual catharsis” where that sex drive needs to be released (because it has before, or previous thoughts wanted to follow through with sexual intercourse). Overall, we need to be aware as educators of two things: First that youth are highly engaged and exposed to media messages, both print and television. Second, that the socialization that creates attitudes and perceptions of social reality and behavior may indeed be giving youth a false and shortcut version of sex education that will have long-term heartache to come.
Clearly, the most politically correct and sensitive term for having intercourse in our society is coined “making love.” However, in many relationships it seems that couples are only making false promises, not love. If anything, they are really building intimacy within an already established love relationship, not “making love.” Research has demonstrated a correlation between “passionate love” and sexual excitement. Hatfield and Rapson (1987) cited Sprecher’s 1985 study that correlated “passionate love” (p. 49) with the amount of sexual excitement felt for your partner. The sample studied was all involved in intimate love relationships. It appears from this that “love” and “passionate love” are viewed as two different entities for individuals in “love” relationships. Hettlinger (1974) cited Keniston (1965) suggesting that passion is “virtually synonymous with sexual excitation, and hardly ever conveys deep or ennobling feelings or dedication to an ethical or spiritual ideal” (chap. 5). Of course, sex can be an expression of many of those feelings in intimate and committed relationships. Regardless, the main concern today is that the very act of sexual intercourse, relationship established or not, is often connected with love. Passionate love and “being in love” are all thrown into the same vague category as love, giving mixed messages and providing false promises to adolescents.
Love has several ideals or definitions, most of which are not found in the mainstream concept of passion love. I gleaned an operational definition of love from 300 surveys of co-ed freshman at Washington State University that reported what characteristics women would want in a husband. This husband is someone it can be assumed they are in “love” with.
The top six characteristics were all focused on internal qualities, sexual performance and physical body features falling near the bottom of the list. However, these reports do not always seem at all consistent with student behaviors. In overhearing conversations, having discussions with people, looking at the posters on people’s walls, observing the relationships people are in and noticing people’s actions there seems to be an overwhelming fascination with external things and “being in love” with someone after seeing them once (not even talking to them). It is clear in many instances that influences from the powerful mediums of books, magazines, television and motion pictures have instilled the falsehood that true love really is created from a picture, even though we seem to know otherwise.
We are living in a society where many people are programmed at certain levels to physical fascinations, when that will have minimal bearing on building emotional intimacy and longevity in a relationship. Many times the physical picture is taken in hopes that the rest of the frame will mold around, but that is often not the case. A picture is not the foundation that is going to keep a relationship together and using that as original criteria may distort and deviate the original path of the relationship.
Thus, it is also apparent in our society that men and women, though ideally have certain traits in mind, will overlook them for physical appearance and status when seeking a partner. Much research indicates that physical appearance is more important to men in a partner than to women.
There is some common sense application, outside of pure moral convictions, that make the instruction of waiting to marriage a wise choice. One has to wonder how many couples that have been engaged, promised, or “going steady” had intercourse with the intention of staying together, but because of our “always find something better society” many of these sexual acts turn out to be just that. The psychology of public goal setting simply reports that individuals who publicly declare goals in front of others are more likely to accomplish these goals. James and Greenberg (1989) reported that revealing public declarations among groups would seem to motivate a subject to maintain their self-esteem, thus increasing performance and commitment to the task. Marriage is much like that in reinforcing the commitment to another person. This is a public “guarantee” to stay together forever. This is the closest thing one can get to “safe sex.” Commitments outside of actual marriage are just not the same. In addition, cohabitation has replaced what marriage was decades ago and is resulting in many false promises. If you are not willing to make the commitment of marriage, then why are you living together? Many times the couples understand the flexible level of commitment, but many times not. The point here is that a couple may have a mature intimate relationship and have made a rational decision to have sex before marriage, however this does not give optimal results that their relationship will result in marriage. Sex in many cases seems to change the whole picture.
Safe sex, now factually corrected to “safer sex” (since condoms and other birth control devices can fail), is essentially publicized in our society as putting on a condom. While “condo mania” is spreading faster than ever, many educators see a missing link. Joseph Califano Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, states, “medicalization over 20 years has not reduced teen pregnancy in America, nor has it stemmed the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among teens. Life for American teenagers is more than a bowl of condoms” (Spokesman-Review editorial). In fact, the contraceptive revolution has appeared to make things worse. Unwed births have increased 83.8%, 63% of STD’s are from ages of 25 and below, HIV has increased 44% since 1989, and abortions have increased 67% since 1970. In addition, unwed births make up 27% of all births in the United States, which is 2.5 times higher than 20 years ago. Sexual decision making involves more than picking what color or flavor condom you will use when you have sex, but what values are important to you and what future consequences (social, psychological, emotional, and relational) you are aware of and prepared to deal with. Thus, I suggest the premise that true safe sex has three components: The physical component, relational component and social component. First, the physical component is referring to the risk of having sex with a particular partner. This involves someone’s sexual history, being medically tested for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, and their commitment and knowledge of using contraceptive devices. The emotional, relational and social components are best described by Weinstein and Rosen (1991) in their description of relational sexual intimacy: During this stage, rarely reached by early or middle adolescents (thus the need to wait), sexual activities become an expression of the depth and meaningfulness of the relationship. The partners will not be using sex to satisfy some social or personal needs or criteria. Sexual intimacy supports each partner’s sense of self-respect and self-esteem. The sexual activities are non-positive and nonexploitive and occur in an atmosphere where each person feels free to choose or refuse. (p. 335-336)
It seems clear that for adolescents to truly enjoy and have responsible sex without dragging behind emotional, physical, psychological and social baggage, they must learn how complex sexuality really is. Sex education must be more than demonstrating safer-sex techniques and handing out “fear” statistics. True sex education must dive into the complexities of our needs, values, and social influences, building relationships and intimacy and physiological human factors that constitute the base of why we engage in sexual activity. Only by learning all these aspects, can adolescents truly make fully educated sexual decisions. Handing out condoms is far from doing justice to adolescent sex education. One must assume that if parents are not educating on birth control, they are also not educating on the complexity of the sexual act.
It also seems clear that adolescents are fighting a clear dichotomy of mixed messages. On one hand, educators claim, “wear a condom” or “just say no” and then they watch a movie or television show that shows someone saying “yes” and not using any form of birth control. This dichotomy needs to be addressed through education and the clarification of one’s values. It is clear that people hold much stronger values than they uphold in their actions. One has to ask to what degree are individuals in our society today, reinforced for “moral beliefs.” Abstinence or waiting to have sexual intercourse is clearly not publicized or encouraged, even by sex educators. It is merely mentioned in passing that it is the only 100% effective way to prevent disease and pregnancy, while even educators are bending at the influence of the media messages that “everybody’s doing it.” The immediate public health response to the AIDS crisis was to promote condoms, rather than make a strong public health statement for abstinence, which stops, not just prevents, the problem. Magic Johnson became a spokesman for “safer sex,” while the looming moral question of sleeping around just passed over everyone’s heads in the name of condom prevention. Magic’s message was certainly a preventive, not a moral one. John Silber, president of Boston University, agrees, “The only sure prevention is an enlightened monogamy or abstinence, and for three decades our culture has been on a jag in which monogamy is dismissed as unfulfilling and abstinence as unnatural and even impossible” (Barnet, & Bedau, 1993, p. 312). If sex educators assume everyone is having sex, it is no wonder that more and more people are having sex. The self-fulfilling prophecy is very powerful.
Contributing greatly to this self-fulfilling prophecy is all condom jargon, “safe sex” flaws of a “quick fix” solution so easily provided to adolescents. One has to wonder that in the name of public health, why condoms are promoted so vigorously when research from the New England Journal of Medicine (1987) showed that 17% of married couples who knew their spouse had HIV still transferred HIV to their partners when using condoms. The percentages increased to 30% over two years. One would imagine the failure rates being much larger for couples just dating or not aware that one of the partners has HIV. Research by Weller (1993) found that condoms are only 69% effective in preventing the transmission of HIV in heterosexual couples. Furthermore, medical science has informed us that the HIV virus is much smaller than the pores in any condom, however when contained in the larger red blood cells they cannot squeeze through these pores. Condom advocates should be asking if the HIV virus ever wanders around outside the red blood cells. If so, condoms may be 0% effective. Encouraging the use of and passing out condoms without fully educating the user seems almost immoral.
Condom failure rates in general are quite variable. Depending on age, commitment level of the couple, socio-economic class, experience or education with using condoms, impairment by alcohol or drugs or putting on the condom in a passioned frenzy in the dark are just some factors that reduce the rate of condom protection for pregnancy and disease. In addition, failure rates for condoms are projected from resulting pregnancies. Steven Stone, a research technologist at WSU, stated, “A woman is, on the average, only capable of being fertilized about 36 days per year, but is capable of contracting AIDS 365 days per year.” It only takes one virus to be infected for life. Abortions, which are a common answer to the pregnancy dilemma, will not stop STD’s.
Simple common sense mandates that sex education needs to promote the safest form of birth control possible. Stating that “abstinence is not realistic” as the reason for not promoting it seems irrational considering the poor results shown from research of condom use even after students are “condomized” with education. Of course, some will always choose to have premarital sex no matter what you teach them, but the ones who do listen will be 100% protected, not 80%. Many abstinence-based programs have even been accepted with positive results from adolescents, who many times do not want to hear about having sex now, knowing they are not ready. True education needs to separate itself from the media and popular culture and give adolescents real information about sex, including needs, motivation, values, consequences, and love. Hettlinger (1974) reports that, “A virtual relearning of attitudes and even of the facts may be necessary if the distortion of adolescents and preadolescence are to be corrected and healthy openness to sexuality established” (chap. 5). A condom will never cure the distortion, pain, and confusion over the role and function of sex in adolescent relationships. A condom can never protect emotional scars and false promises. A condom cannot reconcile regret after having sex with someone who is no longer your partner.
In summary, I conclude that with the wide range of risks, causes and consequences for sex, one must put more of an emphasis on full sex education (including alcohol awareness), rather than contraceptive shortcuts that leave many adolescents helpless in discovering the emotional components that are involved with sex. It is clear from various research on dating and sexual patterns, alcohol, honesty of reporting sexual histories, passion and love, and media perceptions that sex is more confusing and dangerous than ever. Public health officials, educators, and counselors must begin to take a hard look at the research and implications for today’s adolescents participating in at-risk sexuality and actively promoting abstinence as the best prevention option.
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