the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Amen, Sister: Joycelyn Elders’ Call for More Sexual Frankness

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One lesson I’ve learned: When people feel repressed — when they feel sex is shameful — an underworld of sexual activity bubbles below the surface of society.

I discovered that reality when I wrote “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” a few years ago. The South has always been a region of moral conservatism and Bible thumping, with churches on every corner to remind people of their shame and sin.

I was reminded of that truth when I read a recent sex survey of 5,865 men and women aged 14 to 94 that has gotten a lot of press attention. The survey, the largest nationally representative study of sexual and sexual-health behaviors ever fielded, focuses on condom use, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex and just plain old vanilla sex.

On the survey’s surface, it would appear that the United States is getting busier and bolder in the bedroom. But in the same newly published journal where the survey was featured, there was also an article by former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. She makes the point that we are still not talking about sex in a frank, healthy manner, which in my experience brews that underworld of sexual activity mentioned at the start of this piece.

Many best remember Elders for how she lost her job: she was fired by President Clinton in 1994 for voicing her politically explosive opinion that masturbation should be taught to children.

“Hiding from sexuality is not realistic when we know that humans are inherently sexual beings,” Elders more recently wrote. “A sexually healthy society must be our new goal for the 21st century.”

Amen, sister.

Elders is absolutely right when she says this country has a long way to go before it becomes honest about sexual topics, especially where politicians and politics are concerned.

Just in the past few years, politicians have emerged with stories of sex and betrayal more tangled than soap opera plots. There was John Edward’s double-life revelation with a secret baby and sex video, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s Argentina soul mate. In Louisiana, Senator David Vitter, who is running for re-election, got caught up in a prostitution scandal. So did New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer, who reinvented himself as a CNN show host.

But true to form, politicians seldom address sex except to apologize for it. They just brush it under the carpet or twist it for political gain in a campaign to shame the other side.

Most recent case in point: Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul’s flashing back to the 1990s and lobbing a reminder to everyone about Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

“I’m not sure I would trust a guy who had had sexual relations with an intern,” Paul said on Monday after Clinton made a campaign appearance in Kentucky for Paul’s opponent. “I mean, do you think he’s an honorable person?” Oops, Rand Paul, your age may be showing. The Lewinsky scandal happened when today’s new voter was in first grade.

The recent sex survey indicates oral sex is no longer the taboo that it was in 1998 when the Lewinsky scandal brought the topic into America’s living rooms. Perhaps Bill Clinton is to blame — or thank, depending on your mindset — for the increase in oral sex, especially among teens.

According to the survey, teenagers of both sexes are indulging in oral sex at young ages — among 14- and 15-year-olds, 9 percent of boys said they’ve engaged in oral sex. That number more than doubles to 20 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. The numbers are higher among girls. Thirteen percent of girls age 14 to 15 have performed oral sex, as have 29 percent of girls 16 to 17. Sixty-one percent are oral sex veterans by the time boys and girls graduate high school and enter college.

Another long-time taboo that’s clashing with reality is homosexuality in the military and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In the national survey, 7 percent of women and 8 percent of men identified themselves as non-heterosexual. Five percent of women identified as lesbian or bisexual and nearly 7 percent of men identified as gay or bisexual. Still, the issue of gays in the military remains controversial.

But we’re making progress in some areas. For example, Elders says masturbation is something we’ve started talking about. Elders writes, “We have finally included masturbation in our national conversation and as a result stopped checking our hands for growing hair.” ( Back when Elders was fired, masturbation was a big no-no, as Christine O’Donnell preached on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” television show.)

That controversial act that tainted Elders’ career seems so tame now. Yes, teenagers still do it. Researchers found that masturbation is still the prevalent sexual behavior of teens. And they don’t outgrow it, most adults – male and female – masturbate regularly.

Elders’ drama created such a notorious ruckus back in the good old 1990s. It seems almost quaint now that politicians use such descriptive words as “whore” and “slut” about their opponents and to describe their own pasts. These days, some bold congressional candidates – Krystal Ball is the best known – opt to face their racy pasts with directness instead of denial.
But Krystal Ball is the exception in a world where politicians are — and may always be — behind the curve when it comes to evolving standards of sexual morality.

Both Democrats and Republicans will continue to thump the tub for a return to the good old days of fidelity and modesty. But they live in a country – as the sex survey proves – where people across all age groups have sex before marriage, engage in sexual acts other than intercourse which many enjoy for pleasure and not just procreation

Until we are honest enough to embrace that reality, we’ll continue to behave like so many do in the South, where I live — seemingly pure on the surface, oh-so tawdry on underneath.

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Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:12 pm

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