Are our sexual attitudes different from our parents'?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Vintage: Sexy lady and a phonograph

Photographer: Justin Wu, Assistant Photographer: Shaun Ding, Make up Artist: Veronica Valdes

With our generation’s acceptance of pornography, sex shops and strip clubs, we have ostensibly broken the sexual taboos of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

But are sexual attitudes and practices really more racy than in generations past? The answer may not be so clear.

A 2006 poll of 1,790 adults by the UK newspaper The Observer found that while most believed in better sex education in schools and in the legalization of prostitution, the age at which they lost their virginity had decreased compared to previous polls.

Over a period of four years, the number of those who lost their virginity before the average age of 16 had fallen from 32 per cent to 20 per cent.

In light of our alleged hypersexualized culture, the fact teenagers are putting off having sex may come as a surprise. The results seem to indicate that while our sexual attitudes may be more liberal, the same cannot be said for our sexual practices. Sexual differences between our generation and our parents and grandparents’ may not be as different as stereotypes suggest.

“There are some misconceptions,” Tony Bogaert, professor of community health sciences and psychology at Brock University, said. “Certainly it’s the case that people are always engaging in sex. If you have a prudish view of what certain eras were like, that there was no sex going on, that’s not true. It was probably confined for many people, but not all, to perhaps marital sex.

“But there were extramarital relationships and premarital sex. People were engaging in different types of sex, oral sex, different positions, masturbation. All of those were occurring in the 1950s … it’s just that certain aspects of sexual attitudes and behaviours have changed " at least to some degree.”

Toni Serafini, an assistant professor who teaches courses on sexuality for St. Jerome’s University’s psychology and sexuality, marriage, and family studies program, agrees.

“Things may not have changed quite as dramatically as we think,” Serafini said. “It’s not a 360 degree turnaround. A lot of stuff has still stayed the same. We get caught up thinking, ‘Oh, things are so different now.’ Some things are different, but not everything. The sexual double standard, for example. We like to think we’ve come so far. It’s not so polarized now, but it certainly still exists.”

Even in cases where sexual attitudes are more progressive than sexual habits, the guilt associated with these habits may be more reminiscent of the sexual rigidity of the 1950s than the free love of the 1960s.

A Jan. 2008 study about pornography use and acceptance among 18 to 25 year olds by Brigham Young University’s Jason Caroll et al. found “Roughly two thirds of young men and one half of young women agree that viewing pornography is acceptable, whereas nearly nine out of 10 of young men and nearly one third of young women reported using porn.”

While pornography is clearly a popular form of sexual entertainment for young adults, why do 20 per cent of porn users still feel it is not acceptable? And what accounts for the nearly 20 per cent of young women who feel that porn is acceptable, but do not actually watch it?

“I think there are probably some basic differences between men and women and their arousal and interest in pornography,” Bogaert said. “Even if women have more sexually liberal attitudes about pornography [than in the past] ... women may be very liberal about pornography, but they just don’t get as turned on by it and therefore they’re less likely to use it.”

Meanwhile, guilt, ambivalence, and societal negative attitudes towards pornography may all account for men’s hesitance to accept pornography despite their use of it, Bogaert said.

Regardless of gender, Bogaert agrees sexual attitudes have changed more drastically than sexual behaviours.

“Sexual behaviours have changed to some degree, but the biggest change is in attitudes,” he said.

“The original [Alfred Kinsey sexual behaviour data from the 1940s and 1950s], showed pretty strongly that men and women differed in terms of sexual behaviour in some regards ... In more recent studies, even though there’s still a gender difference, women are now more frequent in terms of masturbation and it’s a fair bit higher than it used to be.”

The current push towards more conservative sexual behaviours may simply be for practical reasons.

“In the ’80s and ’90s there was a conservative shift, at least in some segments of society. And that makes some sense, in the context of safer sex practices. [Safe sex] is less likely to lead to STIs, AIDS and other health problems.”

Although sexual behaviours are growing more conservative, Washington State University psychologist Herbert Cross argued in The Impact of the 1960s on Adolescence that we shouldn’t expect to see a return to the ultra-conservative sexuality of the 1950s.

“Even though a clearly conservative trend has begun,” Cross wrote, “it is now impossible to return to the conservativism of the ’50s. Too much has happened, and too many people remember it.

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