WASHINGTON. — Washington-- The vestiges of prudery in American culture were long ago covered by an avalanche of sexual explicitness on screen, in print and, often enough, in personal public behavior.
Delete sex from the thoughts of most people and their brain waves would appreciably flatten. Fornication ranks with TV as a favorite activity, indoors and out, of many kids too young for a learner's permit. And condoms, not too long ago behind-the-counter items confined to drug stores, are now out ,, there in the supermarket, alongside the toothpaste, opposite the canned soups. Sex has not merely emerged from the closet. It's on center stage in America.
In these circumstances, one might assume that enlightened government would welcome the acquisition of reliable, systematic knowledge of sexual practices, not out of prurience, but because sex is the main transmission route of an incurable disease -- AIDS. Though sex is all around us, trustworthy, up-to-date information is sparse about many of its aspects, such as the frequency of sexual relations, adherence to so-called safe-sex practices, the incidence of bisexuality, and the use of birth-control methods.
For the control of AIDS, which must at present rely primarily on an educational strategy, information about these subjects is as indispensable as battlefield intelligence. And good information is obtainable through carefully designed and executed surveys. The Bush administration, however, is squeamish when it comes to questioning the public about sex.
Last July, the secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis W. Sullivan, canceled plans for a five-year American Teen-Age Study that was designed to question 24,000 youngsters in grades 7 through 11 about a variety of behavioral matters, including sex. The survey, praised by AIDS researchers, passed muster in a series of reviews by the National Institutes of Health.
Under the rules of the survey, parents would have had to approve questioning of their children, and the parents, too, would be interviewed. The designers of the study defended it on the grounds that it would provide valuable information for discouraging teen-age pregnancies and the transmission of AIDS.
Dr. Sullivan, however, expressed fears that the survey might encourage casual sex, though he did not explain how.
The secretary's action, warmly praised by the conservative Family Research Council, sent a message to the research establishment. Another sex survey, this one focused on 2,500 adults in two cities, recently made it through the review process at the National Institutes of Health. But now sensitized to the politics of sex surveys, NIH officials prudently dropped the project.
One official there was quoted as saying, ''We felt it just wasn't a good time to go ahead, given the situation in Congress and the administration. We're going to put it off for the '92 budget and maybe things will settle down and reason will surface.''
The hope is understandable, but unrealistic. Political sentiments can easily change, but psychiatric hang-ups tend to endure. The sexual sensitivities of the Bush administration are taking on the attributes of a serious psychiatric disorder. The symptoms are denial of reality about sexuality in America and hallucinations that a few questions might undermine chastity.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.