Ten or 15 years ago this full-page ad and banner headline in the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle might have seemed ludicrous:
“IN DEFENSE OF A LITTLE VIRGINITY,” read the banner headline over a lengthy plea for abstinence among teen-agers.
Not surprisingly, the ad last October was paid for by the Kansas Family Research Institute, a conservative think tank in America’s heartland.
But just two months later, another plea for teaching youths abstinence appeared in The New York Times. This time it was in the form of an article written by a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine.
Under the headline “Sex Is for Adults,” Ellen Hopkins, 35, wrote, “I once thought I’d tell my young son that anything goes--so long as he used condoms. Now I’m not so sure. Not only do I want my son to live, I don’t want him to miss out on longing--longing for what he isn’t yet ready to have.”
As the AIDS plague spreads across the American landscape, there are signs that more and more teen-agers and adults are choosing a new kind of chastity.
That’s not to say sex is on the way out. But in an era where a magazine like Going Bonkers features a cover story titled “The Joy of No Sex,” experts say abstinence, or at least caution, is no longer looked at as solely the province of priests, nuns and spinsters.
More than 500,000 people responded to a booklet offered by the Kansas Family Research Institute in its newspaper ad, executive director David Payne said.
“I think it’s just pretty good common sense,” Payne said. “I grew up in an era of sexual revolution. But the reasonable person can evaluate the whole gamut of health risks involved in a promiscuous lifestyle. It’s just not worth the risk.”
In the decade since AIDS has transmogrified from a fringe gay epidemic into a potential heterosexual plague, the nation’s sexual attitudes have slowly shifted.
Family and sex therapists around the country report that a growing number of men and women are choosing to remain celibate in between serious relationships rather than engage in recreational sex.
“We used to think the most intense sex was between two strangers,” said Dr. David Schnarch, a New Orleans marriage and sex therapist.
“Remember when Erica Jong published ‘Fear of Flying’? That was the epitome of ‘60s sex. Now people see good sex as a function of personal development instead of technique. The novelty of sex with a stranger wears off quickly.”
Even virginity, that relic from the days when Lucy and Ricky and Laura and Rob slept in twin beds on television, is being dusted off.
A program in health classes in Atlanta public schools promoting abstinence among teen-agers appears to be paying off, despite all odds. Popular upperclassmen counsel eighth-graders, telling them sex is best left to grown-ups.
“What makes children realize the dangers of having sex is not just listening to the news,” said Myrtice M. Taylor, associate superintendent for instructional services in Atlanta. “Human nature is thinking ‘it won’t happen to me.’ Students listen more to their peers than adults.”
By the end of the eighth grade, girls who weren’t in the program were at least 15 times more likely to have begun having sex than those who were in the program, Taylor said.
David Dismore, 46, a video archivist for feminist groups in Los Angeles, said: “I’m still a virgin and it’s still a wonderful thing to be.” Sex, he said, “is only special when you share it in a loving committed relationship.”
Dismore has been a member of the National Chastity Assn., a group that at one time claimed at least 400 members.
Arecent study culled from data gathered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that about 31% of unmarried women in a survey of 8,450 women have made one or more changes in their sexual behavior since hearing of AIDS.
Sixteen percent of the unmarried women reported reducing their number of sexual partners to one, 6% said they had stopped having intercourse entirely, 9% reduced their frequency of intercourse and 12% stopped having intercourse with men they did not know well.
But there are still a lot of sexually promiscuous people out there.
The percentage of sexually active teen-age girls who have had just one sexual partner has dropped by more than a third since 1971, while the figure for those having four or more partners has doubled, according to a study released in December by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research group concerned with reproductive health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported in late January that people involved in one AIDS risk study cut down on one-night stands and multiple sex partners after some celebrities announced that they had the AIDS virus.
The CDC questioned 283 people at a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases in Montgomery County, Md., from July 29, 1991, through Feb. 14, 1992. The agency asked how often in the previous three months each person had a one-time sexual encounter or had three or more sexual partners.
On Nov. 7, 1991, Earvin (Magic) Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers announced that he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That event occurred at the midpoint of the study.
Of the 185 people surveyed before Johnson’s announcement, 31% reported having one-night stands in the previous three months and 32% reported three or more sexual partners, the CDC said.
After the announcement, 20% of the 97 people surveyed reported one-night stands and 21% reported three or more partners, the CDC said.
Experts say that people now have more choices about when, if and how they have sex.
Syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers reported in 1990 that a letter she printed from a couple in their late 50s who happily did without sex prompted 35,000 letters in response.
More than 65% of the couples older than 60 who wrote, and 75% of the couples over 70, said they had little or no sex and didn’t miss it.
Experts said the fallout from AIDS has accompanied the aftershocks of the sexual revolution.
Fifteen years after the “Summer of Love,” talk about keeping your virginity longer or choosing periods of celibacy are not just becoming more common. They’re becoming more cool.
Cult rock singer Morrissey is almost as well-known for his brooding ballads as his decision to abstain from sex. In interviews, Morrissey usually refers to sex as if it were as exciting as a root canal.
Celebrities such as Kirk Cameron and Chelsea Noble, both of TV’s “Growing Pains,” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, professional basketball star Kevin Johnson and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent all participated in a video called “Sex, Lies and the Truth,” urging children to abstain from sex.
Masturbation, like condoms, is enjoying such a revival that researchers at the Masters & Johnson Institute in St. Louis have given it a new, ‘90s name: “self-stimulation.”
Some of the impetus for the new name came from the growing number of single people going to Masters & Johnson who are opting for celibacy, said Bill Young, director of the institute.
“Some people get freaked out over the big M word, masturbation,” Young said. “So we now call it self-stimulation for perception’s sake.”
Doctors, therapists and sociologists claim that it’s too easy to point to AIDS as the only reason people are curtailing their sex lives or teen-agers are choosing abstinence.
Many say that AIDS has given people a chance to rethink their choices in life. Some of the changes forced on society by AIDS--less promiscuity, for example--are beginning to be viewed as sensible, even desirable.
They also say that the post-feminist age has caused a sea change between the sexes. Women, for whom marrying well was once considered a major career move, no longer look at men as meal tickets.
“Don’t forget that old line about women being told to marry a doctor,” Young said. “Now they’re being told to be a doctor and marry whoever the hell they want. People are finally looking at what they want out of their lives instead of going into a relationship based on economic or emotional dependence.”
Being a little pickier may also mean going without for a while.
“There are many people choosing celibacy,” said Schnarch, the New Orleans therapist and author of “Constructing the Sexual Crucible.” “When you’re celibate, it doesn’t mean you’re asexual. It means you find out what you think of yourself.”
But Schnarch said there may be a silver lining to self-denial.
“AIDS is pushing people to grow in a way that allows them to have the sex everyone thinks they should have but few do.”
Deborah, 42, a film director in California, said she was fairly promiscuous in the 1970s and early 1980s before becoming disillusioned.
Since then, she has chosen to remain celibate between serious relationships.
“You’d see someone you liked, get sexual with them right away and then it would never work,” said Deborah, who asked that her last name and city not be identified.
“Sexually transmitted diseases gave women a way to say no that we didn’t have before. Men pushed so hard that it was hard to say no. I’ve had so many women friends say this gives me a legitimate excuse to say, ‘No, I’m not ready to be sexual.’ ”