[Paleopsych] NYT: Brooks: Public Hedonism and Private Restraint
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Sun Apr 17 15:44:47 UTC 2005
Public Hedonism and Private Restraint
Opinion column by David Brooks, The New York Times, 5.4.17
By DAVID BROOKS
You see the febrile young teens in their skintight spaghetti strap
tank tops with their acres of exposed pelvic skin. You hear 50 Cent's
ode to oral sex, "Candy Shop," throbbing from their iPods. You open
the college newspapers and see the bawdy sex columns; at William and
Mary last week I read a playful discussion of how to fondle testicles
and find G spots.
You could get the impression that America's young people are leading
lives of Caligulan hedonism. You could give credence to all those
parental scare stories about oral sex parties at bar mitzvahs and
junior high school dances. You could worry about hookups, friends with
benefits, and the rampant spread of casual, transactional sexuality.
But it turns out you'd be wrong.
The fact is, sex is more explicit everywhere - on "Desperate
Housewives," on booty-quaking music videos, on the Internet - except
in real life. As the entertainment media have become more
sex-saturated, American teenagers have become more sexually
Teenage pregnancy rates have declined by about a third over the past
15 years. Teenage birth and abortion rates have dropped just as much.
Young people are waiting longer to have sex. The percentage of
15-year-olds who have had sex has dropped significantly. Among
13-year-olds, the percentage has dropped even more.
They are also having fewer partners. The number of high schoolers who
even report having four or more sexual partners during their lives has
declined by about a quarter. Half of all high school boys now say they
are virgins, up from 39 percent in 1990.
Reports of an epidemic of teenage oral sex are also greatly
exaggerated. There's very little evidence to suggest it is really
happening. Meanwhile, teenagers' own attitudes about sex are turning
more conservative. There's been a distinct rise in the number of
teenagers who think casual sex is wrong. There's been an increase in
the share of kids who think teenagers should wait until adulthood
before getting skin to skin.
When you actually look at the intimate life of America's youth, you
find this heterodoxical pattern: people can seem raunchy on the
surface but are wholesome within. There are Ivy League sex columnists
who don't want anybody to think they are loose. There are foul-mouthed
Maxim readers terrified they will someday divorce, like their parents.
Eminem hardly seems like a paragon of traditional morality, but what
he's really angry about is that he comes from a broken home, and what
he longs for is enough suburban bliss to raise his daughter.
In other words, American pop culture may look trashy, but America's
social fabric is in the middle of an amazing moment of improvement and
The first lesson in all this is we shouldn't overestimate the
importance of the media. People like 50 Cent may produce hit after
pornographic hit, but that doesn't mean his fans want to lead the
lives he raps about. It's make-believe.
What matters is reality. The reality is that we have a generation of
kids who have seen the ravages of divorce, who are more likely to
respect and listen to their parents and their ministers, who are
worried about sexually transmitted diseases and who don't want to mess
up their careers.
Second, it's becoming clear that we are seeing the denouement of one
of the longest and increasingly boring plays on Broadway, the culture
Since the 1830's, we've witnessed the same struggle. One camp poses as
the party of responsibility, lamenting the decadence of culture and
the loss of traditional morality. The other side poses as the army of
liberation, lamenting Puritanism, repression and the menace of the
No doubt some people will continue these stale kabuki battles on into
their graves: the 50's against the 60's, the same trumped-up outrage,
the same self-congratulatory righteousness, the same
fund-raising-friendly arguments again and again.
But today's young people appear not to have taken a side in this war;
they've just left it behind. For them, the personal is not political.
Sex isn't a battleground in a clash of moralities.
They seem happy with the frankness of the left and the wholesomeness
of the right. You may not like the growing influence of religion in
public life, but the lives of young people have improved. You may not
like the growing acceptance of homosexuality, but as it has happened
heterosexual families have grown healthier.
Just lie back and enjoy the optimism.
E-mail: dabrooks at nytimes.com
2. mailto:dabrooks at nytimes.com
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