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Urban Rhythms

Just Say No

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 7/25/2001

Some conservatives believe there is no such thing as safe sex and that public-health officials ought to be saying as much to the American public. Abstinence before marriage and absolute fidelity to your spouse after marriage is healthiest and best, they say.

For once, conservatives are right about something.

The question came up earlier this month after a National Institute of Health panel of experts concluded that the best available research shows that condoms are effective at preventing HIV and male gonorrhea. But the panel also concluded that studies are inconclusive about how effectively condoms prevent syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, and some other sexually transmitted diseases. Conservatives used the report to tout abstinence and fidelity.

"When condoms are discussed, it is no longer medically accurate to refer to sex as 'safe' or 'protected,'" said former U.S. Rep. Tom Coburn, a physician from Oklahoma who last year asked the panel to review existing literature about the effectiveness of condoms.

Liberals argued that the conservative approach is both unrealistic and dangerous. "People are turning around the findings to say that to promote condoms is incorrect," said Edward Hook, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama and a member of the panel. "I think that's a very, very dangerous thing to do. I would not want it on my conscience if somebody were to read some of those statements, decide not to use condoms when they were having sex, and acquire a disease that could change their entire life, much less end it."

At a glance, the two messages don't seem to be mutually exclusive. One side is saying that condoms protect you against sexually transmitted diseases. The other side adds that abstinence is even safer. Most thoughtful people would agree with both. Problem is, a lot of people think with their . . . well, they don't think with their brains. And those people might find the two messages, taken together, a little ambiguous. Thus, it is better to take a firm stand one way or the other--particularly when you are communicating with children and young adults.

So, which side do you take?

This question would be a no-brainer, were it not for the mythology that has grown around sex: that folks just gotta have it. People act as though sex is as addictive as heroin and believe that most everyone, young and old, copulate like rabbits six days a week and thrice on Sundays, or would if they had the opportunity.

This almost certainly isn't true. Let me be the first to testify: Most sex is forgettable, and most people are raw amateurs at it, even though they may have been practicing for decades. Women often make fun of young men's first fumbling attempts at lovemaking--the wild, undisciplined thrusting and thrashing that misses the mark more often than not. Being gentlemen, most men have refrained from telling the other side of the story--that most young women could benefit from a few lessons themselves.

And so the myth grows and grows, until today my fellow liberals will argue in all earnestness that it is all but impossible to suggest to young people that they wait a bit.

My guess is, most young people would be relieved to be let off the hook. We need only find the courage to confess that sex is better--no, best--when you have the emotional maturity to care for your partner, to be responsive to his or her needs; when you discover the joy in giving pleasure as well as taking it. The most glorious moments I had as a young adult did not come from the rare bouts of intercourse, but from those hot, humid moments of exploration: the first kiss, the awkward embrace, those fevered gropings into forbidden territory--what folks in the Victorian age called "petting."

Unfortunately, we tell kids just the opposite of what they need and, I suspect, want to hear. Television seems so silly and sophomoric that most of it seems to have been written by 12-year-olds. Movies--especially that silly genre called "date movies"--are so damned immature that, watching them, I find myself shaking my head in sadness and murmuring, "These people have no clue."

The subtext in much of the so-called entertainment media is that everybody is getting laid. Or, more specifically, everybody is getting laid but you. Children and young adults must feel almost compelled to join the mainstream. In fact, some studies support me on this. For example, most unwed teenaged mothers were impregnated by someone older than themselves--suggesting, perhaps, that those older men, eager to do what they assumed everyone else is doing, sought out someone impressionable. And the younger girls, seduced by the notion that sex is the norm, succumbed.

In this context, conservatives are right when they complain that public-health officials shouldn't be assuring people that sex can be made safe. Officials ought to be laughing in people's faces. "Sex?" they should be smirking. "Sex? Most of you don't even know what real sex is."

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