How candid are we about sex?

October 27, 1994|By M. G. Lord

LAST YEAR on cable television, I saw a sex and hypocrisy double-header: "Peyton Place" followed by "Return to Peyton Place."

The first movie begins with shots of the village churches, which do a brisk business on Sunday morning.

Then it shows what the sanctimonious churchgoers do the rest of the week -- the drunken lout who rapes his stepdaughter; the unwed mother who invents a dead husband to legitimize her child; the self-deluding mother whose refusal to acknowledge incest in her family leads first to murder, then to suicide.

I thought of "Peyton Place" when I read the University of Chicago's National Health and Social Life Survey, which has just been published as a hardcover book called "Sex in America" and purports to be a definitive account of American sexual habits in the 1990s.

This study, distinguished from other sex surveys because it investigates a "random sample" of respondents, suggests that the sexual revolution never happened. It presents Americans as a faithful bunch -- 85 percent of married women and more than 75 percent of married men say they engage in sex exclusively with their spouse.

It also shrinks the figure for gay men and women in the general population from Alfred Kinsey's 10 percent for men to 2.8 percent for men and 1.4 percent for women.

And it suggests that conservative Protestant married ladies have better sex lives than their secular counterparts -- a phenomenon linked without irony to Marabel Morgan's 1973 best-seller "The Total Woman," the basis of a marriage-enrichment course taught in church-affiliated workshops that cited scripture to justify adventurous marital sex.

Is it just me, or are these results so foreign as to be almost otherworldly? Is it hard to take such statistics at face value?

From "The Scarlet Letter" and "Ethan Frome" to "Rabbit, Run" and "Revolutionary Road," Americans in literature have maintained the appearance of propriety while surreptitiously indulging their passions.

Is it odd to think that real-life Americans might do the same? Would the burghers of Peyton Place have confessed to a researcher from the University of Chicago what they couldn't tell their spouses, clergymen or closest friends?

"People might find it hard to tell the truth in a face-to-face interview because they feel that to confess behavior that seems bad or degraded is to risk being unlovable," Ellen Handler Spitz, who writes on aesthetics and psychoanalysis, said to me recently.

Not only do they conceal their behavior from others, "they may not even be able to admit it to themselves."

True, the University of Chicago team made every effort to glean the truth from its 3,432 participants.

In their face-to-face interviews the researchers asked the same question different ways, and allowed written answers in response to potentially embarrassing questions.

But quantifying sexual practices is not as innocuous as charting the brand of soap people prefer, even when the sexual behavior seems to have the soaplike attribute of being 99 44/100 percent pure.

Statistics can be used to influence public policy. This is not to tar the Chicago team as a dupe of cultural conservatives.

When Sen. Jesse Helms accused the project of being anti-family in 1991, it lost federal financing and had to apply for private grants.

But the alleged return to marital fidelity can be used to "prove" that heterosexuals are at relatively low risk for contracting AIDS and thus to justify cutbacks in research financing.

Back to the study. Can you imagine a husband mindful of his image telling the lady from Hyde Park (the neighborhood in which the University of Chicago is located) -- most of the interviewers were middle-aged women -- that he often visits prostitutes on business trips?

I'd be a lot more comfortable with the Chicago study's figures if they had been obtained with a polygraph.

A friend recently told me that when her gynecologist asked her how many sexual partners she had had in her life, she blushed and reduced the number by half.

Her lie reminded me of the section in "Sex in America" on losing virginity. Allowed by the researchers to circle only one motive from a list of choices including "peer pressure," "affection for partner" and "wedding night," virtually no women "said that they wanted or went along with sex for physical pleasure."

Well, that's what the women said, anyway.

M. G. Lord is author of the soon to be released "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll."

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