Speaking of Sex: Beyond Slogans

BOSTON — Boston. -- When Magic Johnson first started talking about AIDS, condoms, and abstinence, he got his words a bit muddled. "The best sex," he said at one point, "is no sex."

That wasn't exactly what he meant. Somebody out there may be getting ready to publish "The Joy of No Sex." But Mr. Johnson was talking about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the one sure way to avoid them.


Still, in the months that have followed, months full of a sober and necessary discussion about sexual risks and sexual values, his original bungled phrase has stayed in my mind. There is something missing from the public discussion about sex. The current no-no, the one forbidden word is not the anatomically correct name of a body part: It is the word pleasure.

The debate among those who teach the young and single is deeply divided between two camps. Those who want to teach "safe sex" and those who teach "saved sex." The community is replete with intense arguments over what to say to young people.


On any given morning, one school in the country may be giving away condoms and describing birth control while another school may be leading their students in a chastity pledge: "Do the Right Thing, Wait for the Ring." Religious leaders on one front may be preaching abstinence at Sunday morning services while on the other front, the Harvard Divinity School, celebrates AIDS Awareness Week with an art exhibit entitled, "Sacred Condoms."

These arguments rage in communities from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Greenwich, Connecticut. The consensus that we have to give our young some sex education splits right down the middle. Should the education be from the chastity curriculum like SexRespect, or the caution and condom curriculum. Which breaks more easily: condoms or vows of celibacy?

For all the furor, both sides share the same subtext: danger. And only occasionally do we notice a problem with this shared anxiety. Perhaps, for example, when a 9-year-old boy tells a reporter here: "When I grow up, I'm not going to have sex because I don't want to die."

Sex -- that word that we too often limit to mean intercourse -- has both dangers and pleasures. In the '60s and '70s, we talked about pleasures and forgot about dangers. Many of our children, our daughters in particular, were not liberated by the sexual revolution but made more vulnerable -- to pregnancy, to disease, to exploitation. But in the 1990s, we talk about danger and forget about pleasure.

"We use AIDS to clobber our young people, " says Debra Haffner of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States. "We are trying to say to them you will die therefore don't do it, rather than to talk about values, relationships, decision-making. Pleasure? We don't talk about it at all."

None of this is surprising. When AIDS-infected "Uncle Eddie" makes front-page news for sexually exploiting young men in Philadelphia, pleasure is not the first thought on a parent's mind. When 13-year-olds are having sex and 15-year-olds are having babies, the most popular p-word is protection.

And when the sexual messages of movies and TV and MTV are locked in a media time warp where sex is rarely safe and never saved, we see our own role as one of rebuttal. They talk about sexual license, we talk about sexual danger.

Sol Gordon, one sex educator who speaks the language of young people even says, "I'm at a stage where I can't even talk about pleasure as a sex educator, I have to talk about health issues, life and death issues."


But to talk only of danger is to limit all human sexuality to the sex act. To remain silent about sexual pleasure leaves the field to the exploitative distortions of the mass culture.

This may be a hard time for any sexual ethic more complicated than a bumper sticker. That may be especially true for those of us who believe in both postponement and protection and pleasure, according to its time and place and person. Those who believe in caring and carefulness.

Yet, there is nothing contradictory in teaching children about both the risks and delights of sex. If we don't, we may leave them safe but crippled. Along with all the other anxieties of the age, add this to the list: We need to also fear the fear of sex.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.