The End of Sex : What’s a survey of our bedroom habits worth if it isn’t any fun? : SEX IN AMERICA: A Definitive Survey, <i> By Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael and Gina Kolata (Little, Brown: $22.95; 300 pp.)</i>
MEMO TO: Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann and Gina Kolata (hereinafter referred to as MGLK).
RE: Your book, “Sex in America,” subtitled “A Definitive Survey.”
COMMENT: No such thing as a definitive survey exists in logic. You either define or you don’t. There can only be the definitive survey. And this is not it.
Even in 1987, when they first began shaping this sex questionnaire, the four authors of “Sex in America” were obsessed with randomness. They meant to achieve what great Kinsey himself thought impossible: an exact model of socioeconomic and demographic America in miniature drawn by computer dice-throw. 9,004 addresses were pulled. Of these, 4,369 had suitable folk in residence, age 18 to 59. Of these, 3,432 (almost 80%, MGLK proudly note) went on to complete the 90-minute, one-on-one interrogation. And, of that 3,432, a certain portion were harassed--there is no more polite word for it--into taking part.
Here you have the academic elitist as bully: “Interviewers used all their powers of persuasion, returning again and again to the homes of people who declined, in some cases even paying the most recalcitrant to encourage them to agree to be interviewed.” (Paid as much as $100.) Professionally written “conversion” letters were sent. Some local college professor might be enlisted to call and advocate cooperation. The University of Chicago--which sponsored this canvass to its shame (Edward O. Laumann and Robert T. Michael teach there)--threw institutional weight around and set up a hot-line. All this cost $450 per interview. Mind you, the most accommodating respondent will lie now and then on an intimate sex survey. But these miserable, hen-pecked men and women probably lied even more than usual.
The prose style of “Sex in America” (Gina Kolata’s handiwork) manages to be both condescending and as insipid as a barium cocktail--when it doesn’t just insult your intelligence. “Our method is neither unusual nor remarkable. But our method is right. There is universal agreement among all social scientists: this is the way you do it.” (Actually “Sex in America” was condensed for mass-market hype by Kolata from an even more pretentious 600-page textbook version, “The Social Organization of Sexuality"--which contains the complete survey data to absolute bar graph and pie chart numbness.) If, then, “this is the way you do it,” one might with good reason ask, “Why do it at all?” Certainly “Sex in America” has extruded “insights” that (when they’re not flat-out wrong) are plain obvious, trite and pathetic. Take for instance, these lame platitudes of sexuality.
1--That what “seems to produce the highest rates of partnered sex is an easily accessible partner.”
2--That people who get venereal disease “share one key characteristic: They have many sex partners.”
3--That “those who met in a bar are a lot more likely to have sex quickly.”
4--That “divorced people as a group have more sexual partners than people who remain married.”
5--That older women have great difficulty finding appropriate partners.
6--That sex life is influenced by social life because, “we simply cannot associate with some people because we do not live near them.”
“Sex in America” should be subtitled: “All You Already Knew About Sex and Wish Now That You’d Never Asked"--though I do mark one significant exception. MGLK address the ticklish issue of a heterosexual AIDS epidemic with firmness. “It is extremely rare for a heterosexual who is not a prostitute to have 1,100 lifetime sex partners, as the average gay man infected with HIV had in the beginning of the epidemic. . . . We are convinced that there is not and very unlikely ever will be a heterosexual AIDS epidemic in this country.”
Statistical evidence supporting that proposition has been available since at least 1985, when David Black brought out his landmark book, “The Plague Years.” But friction and high feeling--gay and straight--hamstrung objective research. With “Sex in America,” however, some sort of threshold seems to have been crossed. Gay spokespeople, so far, have not much dispute MGLK on this subject. Here the authors’ dull but untendentious literal-mindedness has been disarming: “Our public education campaigns focused on the general population, the ‘everybody at risk’ warnings, are unlikely to be effective. . . . (Instead we) should focus our efforts on the people who are suffering and dying with this disease and on those who are most at risk of getting it.”
Otherwise MGLK seem to have a stone ear for those exquisite (and not so exquisite) nuances that modulate human sexual desire. They’re in the orgasm-counting game. And from this dismal inventory they conclude that American sex is a) rather dull and b) that Americans prefer it that way by a large margin. MGLK may be right in general. Few men or women can live up to MTV’s version of American promiscuity. But their inorganic, census-taker approach has led MGLK to perpetuate troubling distortions both of scientific method and of data interpretation.
Just for instance: “Only one man in 100 and one woman in 200 said they had ever used drugs in the past year before having sex with their partners.” Sure. Most government agencies estimate that 12 million American men and women have smoked pot. NORML, a national organization to legalize marijuana, has a 40 million upside figure. Halve that difference and you get maybe 25 million, or one American out of 10. Given the safe yet voluptuous aphrodisiac element in marijuana, I’d guess that at least one American in 20 used pot not only with sex, but especially for sex--five times higher than what MGLK adduce from their survey. And that is without counting cocaine, heroin, speed, angel dust, Valium or aspirin. Some very considerable portion of the test sample must have lied. And would you disclose criminal activity to enrich social science? Neither would I.
Just for instance again. We are told that “41 percent of men but only 16 percent of women” purchased “autoerotic” material in the past year. First, graphic porn and dildos are not necessarily auto erotic: either can be used as a marital aid. Second, MGLK do not take into account the social stigma that women who shop for sexual equipment are confronted with. Third--and here I began thinking MGLK were androids--they report that 22% of men but only 4% of women went to a topless bar in the last year. Topless is simply not autoerotic (often it is not even erotic). In one full decade spent researching my novel, “Topless,” I never once saw or heard about an act of customer self-abuse.
It cannot be autoerotic because a) women are involved in a social transaction and b) men often attend in a group or join some regular clientele, just like in “Cheers.” Women also seldom patronize the rare Chippendale’s-type club alone. Whereas women who try to enter a male-oriented go-go bar will usually get the boot (they could be looking to solicit sex). But when you remove, as you must, the topless category from MGLK’s autoerotic graph, their 41% men, 16% women ratio is made meaningless. And for this you get the cover of Time.
Sex is not a thing. It can’t be numbered. Sex slithers: It is fluid, aerial, protean and wholly fantastic. To use a humble simile, sex is like ground water surrounding a leaky basement. Stop it here, it will sublimate and come out there--to produce a good husband, a gay man, a celibate monk, a rapist, a voyeur, a great poet or all of the above at once.