Sex & the Ghost: Searching for values in a numbers game

One of the things I love the most about being back in Washington, D.C., once a year is the joy of reading a great newspaper -- on dead tree pulp. There is nothing like reading an old-fashioned analog newspaper to help you see the ghosts drifting through the lines of inky type. Which brings us to a ghost I have been thinking about all week. The excellent Style section of the Washington Post recently ran a haunting article about the state of sexual ethics among some young women on university campuses and in the jobs that come right afterwards. Clearly, this was some kind of post-Sex & the City meditation.

The main focus is on "The Number." What is that? This refers to a debate among young women about the meaning -- the moral significance even -- of the number of men with whom they have had sexual intercourse. What is too few? What is too many? Should one be able to remember all their names?

Perhaps it is best to keep a diary or even a computerized, annotated list. And, in the end, what does this "numbers game" say about love and life? Are there limits of any kind? At some point, is the soul damaged? Actually, the Post did not ask that last one. I did.

It is interesting to note that this article was written by Laura Sessions Stepp, a reporter with experience at religion coverage. But tricky issues of faith, the Bible and centuries of Judeo-Christian values never appear, even if traces of the past seem to haunt some of the voices who tell their stories. Listen to this:

Jennifer Broussard, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania a year ago, used to tally up her companions on a sheet in her organizer, attaching dates and footnotes. She'd dial up a girlfriend to ask things like, "What counts? What doesn't? I'm about to pass my benchmark. Is this guy worth it?" ...

These women analyze their numbers as if they were comparison shopping for the right size and color of shoes. They tell each other that sex is separate from love. And few adults tell them any different. Sex education teachers lecture on body parts and disease, and we know that parents would rather throw themselves in front of a truck than talk in depth about sex and romance.

Is sex the same as "hooking up"? Does it add a new number to the list to double up and sleep with an old, discarded boyfriend? What if a young women sleeps with a few too many men and then meets Mr. Right and, gasp, he is the kind of man who might care if his fiance has, well, worked her way past a certain number? Who can see into the future and see if any particular moral standard will be required? Does using the right "protection" for your body also protect your heart?

So maybe 10 is a good number and number 11 needs to be the husband, the real thing. How does that sound? Or is 10 too high? Who can tell? And, oh, is honesty a requirement? Back to the Post story:

By the time the third or fourth year of college rolls around, a little creative accounting may be required.

Julia Baugher, who graduated this month from Georgetown, wrote about numbers in her sex column for the student newspaper. "If x = Number [that women] say they've slept with," she wrote, "then the Actual Number is x + Number she wishes she hadn't slept with."

"I used to be really [picky] about my number," says Baugher, who keeps a running total on a computerized spreadsheet with side comments such as "weird teeth" and "future med student."

"I said everything counted," she continues. "I was approaching double digits and I didn't like it, but I didn't think there was anything I could do about it."

Then she read "The Catholic Girl's Guide to Sex," which offered advice on clever accounting tricks. It doesn't count if you are drunk. You were on vacation. It was an accident.

It seems that this is the only kind of advice that is available these days, even at on a modern Catholic campus. The wisdom of the past remains safely out of sight, even if it is not totally out of the minds of these young women. This story did leave me curious about one thing. Are there any priests at Georgetown?

A personal note: Doug is traveling and I am on the road, as well. So we are both away from computers much more than normal. This will affect our ability to post every day, which is our goal. I am reading your comments and doing what I can to respond. And I keep reading the God-beat news. I simply takes me longer to get from the reading to the blogging.

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