Are Americans really in the dark about sex?

Linda Cotton

September 21, 1990|By Linda Cotton

AMERICANS have gotten used to surveys and reports that prove we know less about politics than the Europeans, less about math than the Japanese and less about geography than a middle school student in Botswana. These things do not seem to affect our national self-esteem, which more and more is rooted in a kind of perverse pride at being able to debate whether Tony and Angela will get married this season on "Who's the Boss." But sex is another matter.

When researchers at the Kinsey Institute reported, earlier this month, that Americans were sexually illiterate, we all had one good, collective yuk. Americans ignorant about sex? C'mon. ("Haven't had any complaints lately; you know what I mean?" Wink. Wink.)

This is all very funny. But the fact remains that most Americans are shamefully uniformed when it comes to information that is much more sophisticated than how babies are made. The proof? Kinsey researchers asked almost 2,000 American adults between 18 and 80 a series of 18 true-or-false and multiple-choice questions about sex, and 82 percent couldn't get more than 11 right. Only five of the participants -- less than 1 percent of the total -- knew 16, 17 or 18 of the answers.

Sure, some of the questions were quirky. But, it is important to note, these were not the kind of things people ask when they call in to the Dr. Ruth Show at midnight. They were, rather, pretty basic clinical stuff gleaned from the sexual concerns most commonly mentioned by the people who call and write to the Kinsey Institute. Questions like whether a woman can become pregnant during her menstrual period (yes). Or what percentage of women have experienced anal intercourse (30-40). Or whether baby oil is a good lubricant to use with a condom (no).

Americans cringe. Condom is a word hardly mentioned in public. Anal intercourse is not discussed in mixed company. This is, in the sociology of 1990s America, disgusting. Whaddya have to talk about this kind of stuff for, anyway?

The answer is implicit in the drawn and hollow faces of the men and women -- more and more of them heterosexual family-types -- who engaged in unsafe sex and whose lives, and now those of their families, have been consumed by the HIV virus.

It is there in the sickly droves -- particularly in the inner cities -- where the syphilis infection rate now rivals that in the poorest parts of the Third World. It is there in the babies who are born for lack of contraception and die for lack of care.

In this country we have now reached the unenviable point where a teen-age girl becomes pregnant every 30 seconds. And where every 13 seconds a teen-ager gets a sexually transmitted disease. Pretty funny stuff, huh?

It is in this dismal context that the results of the American ignorance about sex need to be viewed. Half the participants in the survey, for example, did not know that certain lubricants, like petroleum jelly and Nivea, shouldn't be used with a diaphragm or condom because, within 60 seconds, they can make microscopic holes big enough for the AIDS virus or sperm to pass through. A startling 95 percent did not know that they could buy over-the-counter spermicides at the drug store that would kill the AIDS virus, and maybe save their lives, when used with a condom or diaphragm. Half didn't know that you can't get AIDS from anal intercourse with someone who isn't infected.

More than a third didn't know that withdrawal is not a reliable method of contraception, and nearly half thought a woman could not become pregnant if she had sex during her menstrual flow. Only one in four knew the average American teen-ager has his or her first sexual experience between 16 and 17. (Ask any parent; he or she will tell you the average age is three years older than their son or daughter.) Three-quarters had no clue that 37 percent of American men have extramarital affairs. (Ask any wife; she is sure it's the next door neighbor's husband, not her own, who's got multiple sex partners.)

Damn the bowling alley jokes and the locker room bravado. We now face a health-care emergency that is draining federal resources, and a spiraling rate of unwanted pregnancies which brings into the world sickly babies who are drug-addicted or themselves dying of AIDS.

More than that, we face a social emergency as the costs of our self-conscious silence mounts. What good does it do to spend billions on AIDS research if people don't have the foggiest idea how to protect themselves from infection? What point in putting the condoms on display at the local pharmacy if people don't know when and how to use them?

This is uncomfortable stuff to talk about, sure. But our unwillingness to do it doesn't make the long-term dangers of our ignorance any less dangerous.

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