Era Of Easy Sex Blurs Fragile Meaning Of Love

ALICE STEINBACH

December 05, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

In the matter of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial -- which began only a few days ago in West Palm Beach, Fla. -- I admit to having already arrived at a verdict:

I find Roy E. Black -- the lead defense attorney for Smith -- guilty. TC Of slander.

Indeed, I find Black's description of what happened between Smith and his accuser as a "totally consensual act of love between two people" one of the most slanderous attacks on the English language and the definition of "love" in recent memory.

This is a lawyer who, in a just world, would be sentenced to a rigorous consciousness-raising course in what "love" is.

And what it isn't.

Love, of course, is not expressed through the act of rape. Neither is sex. What's being expressed in rape is violence.

But neither is love being expressed when two strangers pick one another up in a bar and then agree to a one-night stand -- despite defense attorney Black's argument to the contrary.

Now it is up to the jury to decide whether Smith is innocent or guilty, but in either case there is no way such an encounter could be described as a "consensual act of love." Consensual sex, yes. Love, no.

Not, at least, if you believe that while the sex act may or may not involve just flesh, the act of love implies more. An emotional bonding. Respect. A sense of concern for the other. Perhaps a spiritual kinship.

Qualities, I would argue, that you do not pick up in a bar with a one-night stand.

But attorney Black's offensive attempt to defend his client by linking a casual sexual encounter with an act of love is well-aimed. It hits at something deep in the prevailing culture: our willingness to accept love and casual sex as synonymous experiences.

By now I guess we should be used to this devaluation of the emotion known as "love." Since the 1960s ushered in free love, we have increasingly separated the act of sex from the developmental emotion of love. In fact, in a reversal of the 19th century concept of sexless love, contemporary society now enthusiastically embraces loveless sex -- the kind depicted by Erica Jong's creation of "zipless" sex.

Long gone, for the most part, is the idea of -- to use psychoanalyst Reuben Fine's phrase -- "a developmental line of love." In Dr. Fine's opinion, the development of love in adult life goes through the same stages as in childhood: attachment, admiration, companionship, sexuality, intimacy and finally caring.

But in today's permissive attitude toward sex, such a slow progression toward sexuality -- remember, it comes after attachment, admiration and companionship -- seems old-fashioned, almost prudish.

Ours, after all, is an age in which we have become good at sex but not at love. Nowadays we don't need sex manuals but we do need how-to books on intimacy and caring.

And ours is an age in which even the most reckless promiscuous sex is considered by many to be an acceptable way of life. We elevated basketball star Magic Johnson almost to sainthood after he bravely announced he is infected with the AIDS virus, not questioning very much the kind of freewheeling, sexual lifestyle that led to his infection.

In fact, he was admired for it: "I lived the kind of social life that most guys in the league wanted to lead," he wrote in Sports Illustrated.

In recent weeks, however, the basketball player seems to have reflected a bit more on that lifestyle. At first, he seemed to be telling young people that it's OK to be promiscuous as long as you protect yourself. Now he endorses not only safe sex but also less promiscuity on the part of his young fans.

But it may be too late to slow down the trend to ever more precocious sex in our society. The age at which our children begin to engage in sex seems to drop with every decade. And so too does our disapproval of such premature sexual activity. We tend to look the other way. Or hand out condoms.

Of course, we can always try to scare our kids out of precocious and promiscuous sex by raising the specter of AIDS. But that's the easy way out.

The more difficult route in trying to reconnect sex with love for the younger generation lies in helping them to rediscover that "developmental line of love." It's a difficult task because it flies in the face of contemporary society's worship of anything that supplies instant gratification.

There will always be sex without love. Which can be enjoyable.

And there will sometimes be love without sex. Which can be frustrating.

And it will always remain one of life's hardest tasks to find both in the same experience. But at the very least we ought to find a way to point our children in the right direction. The rest is up to them.

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