Sizzle

October 13, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- So here's the newspaper. Dysfunctional Congress collapses, it says. Schmoke warns landlords. Postal officials go on junket. And hey, what's this? ''Americans' sex lives turn out to lack sizzle.'' While no one seems to be watching, let's sneak a peek at that one.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be about as titillating as the draft screenplay of ''The William Donald Schaefer Story.'' The ''landmark'' study which is the subject of the article indicates that the sexual habits of Americans are pretty ordinary, which shouldn't surprise anyone except those credulous souls who thought that today's popular culture accurately reflects today's reality.

The study, based on data gathered from several thousand presumably candid individuals, suggests that people in the United States copulate less frequently and with fewer partners than had been assumed. And it further suggests that they're not especially unhappy about it.

The idea that ordinary American lives don't much resemble the lives of the characters on ''Melrose Place'' will seem obvious in most quarters, but it certainly isn't non-controversial. There has been some remarkably testy criticism of the published study. The implication that in many households the Old Morality still endures strikes some of our self-appointed cultural referees as irritating and perverse.

Why this might be isn't entirely clear, but it's probably related to the current notion that anyone who isn't sexually active must be either repressed or physically handicapped. People admitting sexual inactivity ought not to be pretending that they're content, therefore. They ought to be applying for counseling assistance from a member of the so-called helping professions.

No matter what their conclusions, most surveys are misleading in one important respect. They fail to take into account the tremendous mobility in American society. While they may portray a collective truth, they also imply a static quality in individual lives that simply isn't there.

It's been well established that in the 10-year periods between one American census and the next, there's tremendous economic movement. In the course of a decade, many people in the bottom fifth of the population in terms of income will rise to higher levels; people in the top fifth will tumble down. Sometimes this is because of work or fate, and sometimes only because of the passage of time. A poor medical student may well, in 10 years, have become a rich doctor.

The same is surely true of sexual activity. Those who are rich in love this year may be deprived a decade later. I suspect that most people's sex lives resemble certain novels of an earlier era, those that contained a few ''good parts'' -- which everyone who read them remembered -- and a lot of quite ordinary narrative.

It ought to be obvious that life can't be all sizzle, sexual or otherwise, and equally obvious that a life never touched by sizzle at all is a life incompletely lived. And just as any society has a share of both monks and libertines, a single life can include seasons of celibacy and seasons of indulgence.

American lives lack sizzle? Be careful how you define that term. There's a direct relationship between the quality and the quantity of sizzle. A steak on the table twice daily isn't the equivalent of the steak you've been anticipating for months or years while living entirely on pork and beans.

Songs, books and poems have been written about brief love affairs so passionate and so overpowering their memory infuses their participants' entire lives. Wordsworth understood that connection as well as anyone. Poetry, he said, ''is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.''

Who's to say that some of those interviewed by the researchers for the survey at hand, people who describe what sound like sexually arid lives yet profess themselves to be deeply content, aren't being sustained by the power of memory? The statistics of sexual encounter as compiled by social-scientist number-crunchers don't provide that information.

The researchers might find that a certain middle-aged man ''has not engaged in sexual activity'' in quite a while, That's a statistic. But the numbers won't add that because his body and soul knew fireworks once, he now finds celibacy surprisingly easy to bear. And while the statistics might note that his sexually-athletic neighbor across the street ''has sex'' many times a week and has lost count of his lifetime partners, they won't explain why he is so filled with despair.

What the headline-writers call ''sizzle'' is a more complicated concept than simple sexual score-keeping. And while Americans may tend to be careful how they talk about it, it might be a mistake to conclude that the numbers on the scoreboard suggest a lack of excitement in their lives.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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