A friend in Washington has sent me an article from the Washington Post, in which feminist writer Katie Roiphe describes the success of Aids advertising in discouraging promiscuity on the liberal dinner party circuit. Americans, she suggests, have gone all coy and conservative about sex. Young people (well, some of them) are celebrating virginity and older people are keener to minimise their experience than maximise it. Sex is, once again, a big deal. It implies commitment and responsibility.
The new sexual conservatism that Roiphe describes in the USA seems to be girding the loins of the Brits too. The latest General Household Survey found that rather than revelling in a commitment-free life, four out of 10 single women were not having a sexual relationship with anybody.
The statistics are supported by anecdotal evidence from family planning organisations, who claim that an increasing number of callers to their helplines are people who are not 'sexually active'. It is hard to imagine what the content of these calls might be: 'Do I need to use a condom on my vibrator? How long do I have to take the pill before it is safe not to have sex?' But the Family Planning Association seriously insist that they are hearing from more women who are keen not to have sex. Press officer Michelle Misgalla was reported in the Daily Tele-graph as saying: 'We are now often asked on our counselling line what to do if their boyfriend wants to make the relationship sexual. I think it's the case that women are becoming much more thoughtful about a sexual relationship....Women are saying - "do I know this person well enough to want to take this further".'
Roiphe concludes that the dampening of carnal desires is due to worries about Aids and a yearning for purity in corrupt times. Fears about Aids may well play some part in it. Aids awareness has restored penetrative sex to its pre-1960s status as something very different from other things people do with each other. It has also allowed moral puritanism to assume a language of 'health awareness' - one that dinner party liberals will swallow much more readily. Nobody needs to pass judgement on whether 'sleeping around' is right or wrong, cool or uncool, moral or immoral, because there is a consensus that it's hazardous.
But Roiphe is also right, I think, to suggest that there is something more to all this. You have to question why people have become so hung up about Aids. Yes, it is deadly, but it is also extremely rare. The large-scale heterosexual epidemic has not happened. Contrary to the predictions made in the 1980s, most of us do not know somebody who is HIV positive. Outside of those who engage in the much discussed high risk activities, worries about HIV infection are completely disproportionate to the real risks. And we have to ask, why? In my wilder student days everybody fretted about herpes - but they still fucked. Granted, herpes does not kill, but it is a lot more common than HIV and a condom does not protect against it, either.
Aids awareness may be one of the main means by which a new puritanism has permeated public opinion. But the new celibacy - in so far as it exists - stems more broadly from people's lack of confidence in themselves and the world around them today.
So many people now seem to have such low expectations about what the future holds: fears of commitment, fears of being let down, lack of confidence about themselves and what they can achieve etc. People talk endlessly about being 'used' and 'abused', the need to 'distrust' others (and even yourself), of being 'at risk' from relationships in general and especially from sex.
In this atmosphere it seems understandable that more people should shy away from intimacy. If you come to see your work colleagues as potential sexual harassers, the guy you go out with as a potential (date) rapist, your neighbour as a possible stalker or child abuser, it is hardly surprising you might look back at your more liberated sexual past and think - 'how could I have been so naive and how did I survive it?'. Against a background where many feel insecure about everything, it seems safer to keep yourself to yourself and do nothing that exposes your vulnerability - which (let's face it) sex and relationships do. As 'Jo' interviewed in the Guardian put it, 'Life is complicated enough. The last thing you want these days is trouble'. She says she would rather just go home and read a book.
There was some amazing article in a woman's magazine recently that advocated masturbation (the kind you do on your own) as the best sex a woman can ever have. You cannot get pregnant, you cannot catch anything and - best of all - you know your body well enough to give yourself an orgasm (or several) every time. Well, perhaps. But it rather misses the point that sex with yourself is like talking to yourself. You might refine your own private view of the world, but you won't benefit from anybody else's experience.
Celibate sex might be safe sex - but it is also sad sex. Taking a chance with somebody might feel scary, but sometimes the chance pays off and if you never take it, you will never know how good it might have been.
Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997