The value of promiscuous sex

Life-Now-no-one-is-safe-from-AIDSThe Los Angeles Times has a daily front page feature under the name "Column One." The column is for "interesting" news and is designed to give people surprising or provocative information. There have been some great pieces there in the past, but recently there have been some real doozies. There was the Hemlock Society press release for euthanasia and the hagiography of Colorado abortion doctor Warren Hern.

Saturday's Column One is a similarly one-sided and shallow puff piece on married sociology professors who teach a class about sex at UC Santa Barbara. I'm all for putting more stories about sex in newspapers and as a puff piece, it's certainly enjoyable reading. But talk about imbalance:

How well should people know each other before they have sex?

In the biggest classroom at UC Santa Barbara, sociology professors John and Janice Baldwin are reeling off survey results showing that male and female students are almost equally willing to sleep with someone they love. But the hall erupts in knowing laughter as a gender gap emerges: Men, the long-married couple reports, remain eager for sex through descending categories of friendship and casual acquaintance. Women don't.

By the time Janice Baldwin gets to the statistic on sex between strangers, the din from the 600 students is so loud, they can hardly hear her announce that 37% of men would have sex with a person they had just met, compared with only 7% of women.

"So you can see, males are a little more likely to go to bed with somebody they don't know very well," Baldwin says dryly.

"Or at all," she adds, to guffaws.

By turns humorous and deadly serious, "Sociology of Human Sexuality" has been an institution at the beach-side campus for more than two decades. So have the Baldwins, unflappable sixtysomethings who are trusted voices on love and lovemaking for thousands of current and former UC Santa Barbara students.

With a lede like that, you'd think the article might feature some discussion about competing moral claims regarding sex. Maybe we could learn a bit more about how well people should know each other before they have sex. Or even get into some interesting territory about same-sex relationships. Instead it's just the most gauzy look at no-judgment sex education. There's no need for a story like this to be negative but neither should it be completely uncritical, either.

The article is also just wrong in parts. Take this, for instance:

The survey also found that promiscuity on the campus peaked in the late '80s, before awareness of AIDS. In 1988, 38% of the school's sexually active undergraduates said they had had at least one sexual encounter with a person they had known one day or less; by 2007, that figure had dropped to 26%.

Okay, everyone knows that President Ronald Reagan personally spread AIDS dominated the entire 1980s. To say that "awareness of AIDS" came some time after 1988 is just ignorant.

Anyway, here are a few other selected sections from the story: aids1

"We don't feel we are the sex king and queen of the world," Janice Baldwin, 63, said recently in the cramped office the couple share, their desks touching. "So this is not about us. It's about the students, and we are privileged to get to teach a class that can help them avoid the downsides of sex and increase the positives." . . .

The couple's aura of nonjudgmental experience helps. . . .

After marrying, they traveled for several years in the jungles of Latin America while he researched the behavior of squirrel monkeys. There, they witnessed the human suffering caused by overpopulation and lack of birth control. The experience influenced Janice to volunteer for Planned Parenthood when they returned to Santa Barbara in the early '70s. . . .

The Baldwins are tight-lipped about their own lives, except to say that they have no children, were never married to anyone else and spend their free time hiking. They say it is fine for students to abstain from sex, but they also give off the vibe of supportive parents who think it's all right for young people to be sexually active as long as they keep it safe. . . .

I love how people who oppose birth control or think Planned Parenthood is not a humanitarian institution are frequently portrayed as judgmental by the media. They certainly couldn't get a puffy piece like this in their favor. But having a competing moral vision makes you nonjudgmental. It's also very generous of the professors to say it's "fine" for their unmarried students to abstain from sex.

There's also a vignette about discussing when it is right to out closeted gay politicians and celebrities and when it's an invasion of privacy. I thought this was one of the most interesting sections:

The topic that seems to upset students most, the Baldwins say, is parental sex. Year after year, the class breaks into groans at images of mature couples in nude embraces.

"They . . don't like to think about their parents having sex," Janice Baldwin said.

And you know the one thing that the article never mentions? Children. There's discussion of birth control, abortion and infertility. But either the professors themselves or the reporter never mention children as the natural product of sex. It's so bizarre to read a lengthy discussion of sex -- which is something humans do for pleasure, sure, but also the means by which billions of humans have been conceived -- and never discuss children. Does this "la-la-la" approach to sexuality, where everything is less important than pleasure and where children are "punishment" for sex turn everyone into idiots? THAT is the topic that most upsets the students? Not, say, herpes? Or the prevalence of other STDs? Or the abortion rate? Or people having sex with strangers?

The story also repeatedly refers to the couple as role models because they're a long-time married couple. It's just an interesting acknowledgment of the ideal of marital commitment. The biggest ghost in the whole story is any discussion of the Baldwins' religious background. It's the number one question I had while reading the story -- particularly while learning about the dismal sex education the duo had growing up. Religion, of course, is one of the biggest shapers of people's views on sex. But the reporter never asked the question or didn't include the answer in the story. It's just an odd thing to leave out.

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