The Lie behind Sexual "Liberation"

Reflections on a pornographic culture


by KATHERINE KERSTEN

We baby boomers can be mighty proud of the legacy of sexual liberation we've bequeathed to our daughters.

We banished the oppressive "double-standard," jettisoning the antiquated notion that girls' sexual nature is different from boys'. We handed out condoms at school so our daughters could "take charge" of their own bodies and sexuality. We swore that they'd never be sexual playthings, or some man's property, as our mothers and grandmothers were. Right?

Oops. Seems things haven't quite gone according to plan. Today -- -- guys seem to be calling the sexual shots with a vengeance.

Consider: At a daily beer-chugging contest in Cancun, boys "punish" girls who spill a drop by demanding a "breast-flashing." A female diarist reports that "Megan and Anna were chosen by the guys up on stage to run into the ocean and do a bathing-suit swap with the guys." At a disco, a young man pulls down a girl's skirt and bites her buttocks, while other girls are raised in dancing cages, giving boys the chance to peer up their skirts. In a Penthouse-sponsored contest, a male audience shouts for young women to "take it off," and many comply. ("If you don't show skin, people get mad," a girl explains.) Nearby, a smiling mother confides, "I love how much fun the kids are having."

Free at last. How great it feels.

This is how our crusade against our own parents' "patriarchal" sexual etiquette has ended. It's led, not to equal-opportunity sexual nirvana, but to Jerry Springer, not to our daughters' liberation, but to their debasement. Why? Because this crusade was based on a lie -- that women want the same thing from sex as men, that to be men's equals, women must approach sex as cavalierly as men do.

How much more abuse must our daughters endure before we acknowledge the truth? Generally speaking, girls and boys have very different sexual natures. Most girls yearn to find a man who will respect and love them forever, while most boys just want to have fun, so long as they can find a willing partner. (As a young friend recently told me, the difference between her male and female classmates is that, the day after sex, the girls wait for the boys to call.)

In her insightful new book, "A Return to Modesty," writer Wendy Shalit musters telling statistics. For instance, she cites a 1994 survey by David Buss and David Schmitt in which male respondents reported an ideal of eight sexual partners over two years, while women's ideal was one partner only.

Traditionally, adults in our society sought to protect young women from male sexual exploitation in two ways. First, they made rules: Decent boys treat girls like ladies; college students live in single-sex dorms. Second, they respected and encouraged girls' natural modesty. In their view, modesty -- the quality which leads human beings to avoid sexual displays -- acts as a kind of armor to protect girls' sexual vulnerability.

Wendy Shalit agrees. Modesty, she says, provides a crucial counterweight to girls' desire to please boys, and their tendency to place great importance on personal relationships. Far from oppressing girls, modesty puts them on equal footing with boys, by prompting them to avoid casual sex while they search for a suitable lifelong partner.

But today we have stripped our daughters of these traditional forms of protection. Rules? How confining! Modesty? Get real. We buy our girls postage-stamp size tops and skirts, and drive them to movies that glamorize promiscuity. In our schools, we support sex education programs that approach sex clinically, break down modesty, and dismiss embarrassment about sexual topics as a sign of immaturity. And then, puzzled, we run to the bookstore and buy the latest volume about young girls' declining self-esteem.

It's time to face facts. We have created what social commentator Maggie Gallagher calls a pornographic culture, and flung our daughters into it. A pornographic culture, says Gallagher, is not just one where pornographic materials are available, but one which accepts the ideas about sex on which pornography is based.

Such a culture views sex merely as an urgent bodily appetite, "whose satisfaction has no more affect on our spiritual nature -- our personhood -- than eating and drinking or defecating." In reality, however, sex is a profound act of human connection, "which defines, alters, imposes on the personhood of those who engage in it." By trivializing sex, we trivialize our own humanity.

Is it only girls who lose in a pornographic culture? No, boys suffer too. For starters, they grow up confused. As Wendy Shalit observes, if boys are taught that girls always want the same thing they do from sexual encounters, and that it's sexist to assume otherwise, they are much more likely to be impatient and uncomprehending of a woman's "no."

But ultimately, a pornographic culture injures boys in a far more serious way. If girls collude in their own exploitation -- rather than making sex contingent on a permanent, loving commitment -- boys will founder in their journey to manhood.

By delaying sex, girls inspire boys to strive to be worthy of them. They help boys learn to consider others' needs and desires, and prepare them to assume the obligations of home and family. By ignoring this great truth, our pornographic culture -- in Maggie Gallagher's telling phrase -- has helped turn Eros into a buffoon.

-- Katherine Kersten is a director of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

Copyright 1999 Minneapolis Star Tribune. All rights reserved.