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Defining sex not just problem for scientists


ACCORDING to a timely "bombshell" of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, U.S. college students most often equate the words "having sex" with "having sexual intercourse" and don't view other kinds of sex -- such as kissing, fondling, oral sex, etc. -- as "real" sex.

Ironically, the publishing of the study on Jan. 20 proved too timely and too much of a bombshell for AMA Executive Vice President E. Ratcliffe Anderson Jr. He promptly fired JAMA's senior editor for tarnishing the professional image of the journal by attempting to influence public attitudes toward President Clinton and the impeachment process.

However, the real story here is neither the politics nor purity of science and medicine, but the credibility and integrity of a culture that needs to take a long hard look at itself in the mirror. Do we really need a scientific study to "prove" to us what should be an obvious truth?

In my line of work as a sexuality educator, I listen to people talk about sex all the time -- from preteens, teen-agers and college students, to teachers, parents, health care professionals and social workers. I also pay a lot of attention when others speak about sex on television and radio, and write about it in popular media and professional journals.

If I had a nickel for every time people didn't mean or think "sexual intercourse" whenever they said or wrote or read the word "sex," I'd almost have enough money for a cup of coffee at the end of the semester.

A little quiz

If you doubt me, try this simple quiz: Your son or daughter asks you if it's OK to have sex if you're not married. Do you say: a) yes, b) no, or c) maybe? Or, do you, d) refuse to answer, and say instead: "Well, that depends. There are all kinds of sexual behavior that two people can engage in, from kissing to touching of various parts of the body to intercourse in its various forms. What kind of sex are you asking about?"

Would you hear the word "sex" and automatically think "vaginal intercourse?" Would you immediately insist on clarification, carefully acknowledging to your child that sex and sexual intercourse are not one in the same?

See what I mean?

It's certainly fair to ask why these seemingly tedious distinctions are important or relevant apart from our president, his troubles and his legal strategies.

For one thing, in the midst of being very wrong about a lot of other things, it seems as if Mr. Clinton got it exactly right when he asserted before a federal grand jury that Americans think of "real" sex as vaginal intercourse. (Everybody has been so busy making fun of him ever since, they don't get the fact that the real joke is on them.) And for another, the positive implications for young people growing up in the aftermath of the scandal are potentially enormous, but first we have to realize how and why.

Power of language

Language is powerful not only because it communicates what we think, but also because it actively shapes how we think. (And conversely, a change in language can prompt changes in how we think, and how we act).

As long as we unconsciously continue to use language in a way that relegates non-coital sexual activity to the realm of the unreal, we reinforce a whole host of inadvertent and problematic assumptions that never get questioned, critique or remedied.

If other types of sexual behavior are unreal, then doesn't that imply that one can engage in them without having to take any kind of real personal responsibility?

In other words, can't one conclude that they don't count, that they exist in some kind of ethically free zone where questions of morality simply don't apply? (Mightn't that be just the kind of thinking that got Mr. Clinton into trouble in the first place?)

Listen to kids today talk about non-coital sex and you'll hear old familiar terms that play this very assumption right back to us -- that it's just "fooling around," "making out," or only going to "first," "second," or "third." Only when you have vaginal intercourse -- or go "all the way" -- does it really count.

Where does all this leave gay teens (or adults)? Is it just another way that culture invalidates their very existence and legitimacy? Where, too, does it leave prevention messages about sexually transmitted diseases, which depend on an understanding that very real consequences can result from very real kinds of non-coital sex?

In the midst of a popular culture that screams "just do it" to young people at every turn, it's up to the adults in their immediate lives to help them understand that there's no "just" about it.

All sexual behaviors, we should be prepared to explain, and our use of language should reflect, are to be considered real, meaningful and significant. All involve real feelings, real decisions and real accountability.

While some may require much more maturity and commitment than others, all involve unique and special powers and responsibilities -- physically, socially and emotionally. There are no ethically free spaces, no matter what.

We can only hope, especially for the sake of our children's health and well being, that Mr. Clinton's foibles may yet enable and prompt us to see our own. Now that would be a legacy to be proud of.

Deborah M. Roffman has taught human sexuality courses at The Park School of Baltimore since 1975. She is associate editor of the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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