Sex in the city. The words conjure up a flurry of images: smoky bars, one-night-stands, eager women exposing all manner of cleavage and prowling Casanovas drenched in bad cologne. In this hot-and-bothered depiction, everyone, it seems, is doing a little dance, making a little love and living out a freewheeling existence in the liberated aftermath of the Sexual Revolution.
The idea of the teeming metropolis as a place where sexuality has been freed from the constraints of family, religion and traditional mores presents a titillating picture that is continuously reinforced and reinterpreted throughout pop culture, from Playboy magazine to HBO's sitcom "Sex and the City."
Even the fear factor thrown into the equation by AIDS and other STDs has had little effect on this perception. The notion endures that the city is a great hub of carnal freedom, home to every sexual activity and proclivity.
But the truth is more elusive. Sex in a city like Chicago-and sex in general-is a far more complicated phenomenon than any single storyline can suggest. There are certainly bedhopping twentysomethings out there (not to mention adulterous fortysomethings), but there are also thousands of people who hook up through the decidedly old-fashioned auspices of church groups and social networks. For every whip-wielding dominatrix and Internet tryst, there are cocktail nights at the Museum of Contemporary Art and health clubs offering yoga classes for singles.
Thanks to biologist Alfred C. Kinsey's research in the early 1950s, our initial-and, in hindsight, rather flawed-understanding of sexual behavior was focused on the human being as a biological entity. The unit of analysis for Kinsey was the orgasm. He wanted to quantify all the occasions when men and women had the opportunity to have one. Of less concern was whom it was with and how they met.
Kinsey's mystique remains so strong 48 years after his death that he is the subject of a widely heralded, eponymous movie that opens nationwide this week and a just-released novel, "The Inner Circle," by T. C. Boyle.
And the orgasm is still an area of keen interest. Men have one 75 percent of the time, women 26 percent. For what it's worth, 45 percent of men think that women always have one.
But beyond Kinsey and his interest in quantifying carnal delights, longstanding societal givens-that cities are basically fleshpots, that marriage is the natural human state, and that matrimony acts as a stabilizing counterweight in people's lives-are being reexamined at the University of Chicago, among other institutions. In a quiet corner office in the sociology department, professor Edward O. Laumann has become one of the nation's leading thinkers on the topic of sex.
Unlike Kinsey, Laumann is less interested in biology and more concerned with sociology-who is having sexual relations with whom and how they arrive at those relations. To Laumann, sex is the result of careful and deliberate negotiations within a highly structured social order, not some wild bathhouse of free love.
His research raises some interesting questions: What will the future in a city like Chicago look like if, as Laumann contends, "the incentives to marry are going to hell"? How does the large influx of women into the workforce affect society's sexual dynamics? And what does it mean if, as the data suggest, people are spending more of their lives essentially alone?
Besides sociologists like Laumann, there are now economists, mathematicians and brain researchers poking around our bedrooms. In answering the question "How many partners should I have before I settle down?" Clio Cresswell, author of "Mathematics and Sex," proffers "The Rule of 12 Bonks." Based on findings by mathematician Peter Todd from the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Germany, she recommends testing a sample of 12 partners. After the 12th, she advises, continue testing but take the next best partner that comes along. This will give you a 75 percent chance of finding Mr. or Ms. Right.
In a paper published in May called "Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study," David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick in England cross the economic with the erotic in contending that upping the frequency of sexual intercourse from once a month to at least once a week provided the equivalent of $50,000 worth of happiness. And they give two thumbs up for matrimony: A lasting marriage offers about $100,000 worth of happiness a year, while divorce imposes an emotional toll of about $66,000 a year, depending on individual circumstances.
Meanwhile, a study recently conducted by researchers at Emory University looked for the areas of the brain that play a role in sexual arousal. MRI scans of men's and women's brains while they're looking at sexually explicit material--or, in the case of the control group, nonsexual material--revealed that the explicit material stimulated much higher levels of activity in men's amygdala, a part of the brain associated with processing emotions and assessing threats.
"There is an advantage for males in quickly recognizing and responding to receptive females through visual cues," explains Dr. Stephan Hamann, one of the Emory scientists. "This allows them to maximize their mating opportunities, which increases their chances for passing on their genes."
Laumann, whose approach is less lab-coat, came somewhat late to the study of sex. His early work, including "Chicago Lawyers: The Structure of the Bar" (1982), examined the sociology of elites.
Then in the second half of the 1980s, just as the AIDS epidemic was starting to surge, Laumann and some associates decided that something like a "Manhattan Project" was needed to understand sexual practices in the U.S. and essentially "do Kinsey right," Laumann says. The absence of reliable data "completely hamstrung people" trying to understand the spread of STDs and the attitudes Americans have toward sex in general.
"I feel strongly that sexual health is very important in society," says Laumann. "It's very important in maintaining relationships."
Despite the vociferous grumbling of Jesse Helms and other conservative senators, the Laumann group's groundbreaking study, the "National Health and Social Life Survey," was one of the largest overviews of sexual attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. since the Kinsey Reports emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The survey looked at more than 3,400 Americans aged 18 to 59 and the results were shocking in their orthodoxy.
More than half the people polled said they'd had three or fewer sex partners over the course of a lifetime, married couples reported the highest levels of sexual satisfaction, and survey results showed that homosexuals did not represent 10 percent of the population, as Kinsey had suggested, but more like 2.7 percent of males and 1.3 percent of females.