Boston -- If Jesse Helms had known it would come out this way, he might have mortgaged the state of North Carolina to come up with the research funds. But when the conservative senator put the kibosh on federal money for a study of sex back in 1991, he didn't want to pay for filling in a landscape of licentiousness.

O, ye of little faith.

It turns out that the report, and the book, released this week presents a portrait of "Sex in America" that is anything but X-rated. Our national sex life is rather staid, especially compared to our fantasies about this life. We are not all Sharon Stone. In fact Sharon Stone probably isn't Sharon Stone.

"We are not teakettles full of hot sexual steam," say the University of Chicago researchers.

It seems that we have had years of flawed research from Kinsey to Hite to Playboy. More to the point, we've had decades of what amounts to propaganda from Hollywood, television, and advertising suggesting that we are teakettles. Or, rather, that everybody else is a teakettle and we're just tap water.

For decades now, the boys and girls in the Calvin Klein ads, the zipless sex in the movies, the endless couplings on soap operas and talk shows, the gyrations on MTV, have all added up to an American counterlife. In this counterlife, somebody, maybe everybody-but-us, is going at it full steam ahead.

Now it's good news of a sort that this propaganda hasn't actually changed behavior. The sexual lessons from the media, the chief teaching tool of our times, haven't produced a generation of students practicing what the media preach. The soft porn on the movie screen hasn't spawned soft porn lives any more than the (( slim waistlines of stars have made us a thin nation.

XTC But it seems to have affected our minds. Until now, the propaganda has made many Americans believe their private norm is abnormal. That they are living on the tame side.

The selling of sex has surely also contributed to the deep conviction that there really is a moral decline in America. That we really do live in a country where sex is recreational and marriage is a vow to break. This fantastic counterlife has become the licentious twin of real life.

All through the book, the researchers present their statistics against this pulsating backdrop of the dominant cultural images. It's hard for us to separate American life from American image. Just imagine what it must be like in other countries where our movies and television shows are sent like ambassadors of ill will.

Now come the facts. "America is not the golden land of eroticism where everybody who is young and beautiful has hot sex," conclude the researchers. "Nor is it a land where vast hordes of miserable people, kicked out of the sexual banquet lick their wounds in silence and resentment."

It turns out that we live in a land where sex has its place in the social order. Mostly married, mostly monogamous. It's a land where sex has its moments in a busy life -- somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour, maybe once or twice a week.

Funny, but you'd never have guessed it by looking around.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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