Sunday, July 18, 2010

Small signs of a big change.

I went out for some salad for lunch today and passed the corner gas station. It is a rather busy intersection of two well-traveled streets and some of the young people from the local high school were doing a fund-raising car wash there.

What made me think was how it was being promoted. Three high school boys in very skimpy Speedo-style swim suits, and nothing else, were waving signs at passing cars. This is actually the second time I've seen that taking place here.

Consider some other facts, this is a very conservative area. There are a huge number of Mormons in the area and most the non-Mormon churches are made up of evangelicals and fundamentalists. The elected officials are all pretty much Republicans. But there, on the street corner was the prime of their young males flashing bulging and brief swimsuits at passing drivers to entice them to get their car washed. It isn't like there is even much of a gay presence here. The city has one of the highest percentages in the country of households made up of male-female couples with children/

And I doubt the young men were consciously flouting their family jewels in order to attract gay drivers. They were just doing for the attention and really thought nothing of the display of flesh—which, perhaps, is how it should be.

I believe that we are in the midst of a new sexual revolution, one that is almost as radical as what we witnessed in the 60s and one I suspect will be more permanent. To a degree this is exhibited by body image.

Let me describe the 60s, at least in regards to body image. Jeans were tight, very tight, displaying every curve and bulge. Shirts were tight. Come summer there were cut-off jeans, cut off only centimeters below illegality, meaning that even a slight breeze could set things a swinging. Skirts were short as well, very short.

Women starting wearing bikinis that were barely sufficient to keep them from being arrested. Of course, as topless sunbathing became somewhat popular many of them were arrested. For the men Speedos became popular—just remember the famous Mark Spitz photo from the Olympics, gold medals dangling on a bare chested Spitz clad only in a Speedo. At my single-sex school they didn't even bother with swimsuits at all. There was a more relaxed attitude toward sexuality and nudity across the board.

Then came the backlash, the return to conservatism. Those scanty cut-off jeans disappeared and shorts barely qualified as shorts at all, often going from the waist to a a few inches above the ankle. And the fashion became loose, baggy clothes that destroyed any view of bodily shapes. Swim suits went from Speedos to something more akin to what Buster Keaton wore in the silent films. And I dare say that if a school had nude swimming the officials would have been arrested as sex offenders and a lynch mob would have been awaiting them at the trial.

While there were aspects of the sexual revolution of the 60s that were wrong much of it was actually good, in my opinion. My complaint wasn't the change in attitudes but the almost recklessness that seemed to accompany it. Had all the basic values changed, but individuals had a more realistic attitude toward risks and responsibility and it would clearly have entirely postive.

Interestingly these fashion indicators of inner sexual values seemed worldwide. The shift took place everywhere though not to the same degree as in the US. I was reading reports that indicated kids in school gym classes refused to disrobe at all to change into gym gear. They would wear it under their street clothes and then put their clothes on over the sweaty gear at the end. The few who did shower tended to do so with the gym gear still on. In some ways the 50s were more sexually liberated. Oddly there was a certain hypocrisy. Attitudes about the body became negative but teen pregnancy, VD rates, etc., were up. The conservative backlash was only in appearance and not so much in behaviour.

Then the new sexual revolution comes along. Values start to shift back toward a positive body image while behaviour became more conservative—or to be precise, more risk aversive.

I first started wondering if this was happening on a visit to Zagreb. For the first time, in a very long time, I saw young people in tight jeans and tight shirts, proud to show off their bodies. I wondered if this was some time-wrap anomoly with Croatia just leaping into the 60s before joing the rest of the world. But apparently it was the first crest of a series of waves that changed fashion.

So-called skinny jeans made a come back. Now I regularly see teens in tight jeans and tight shirts once again. Teenage fashion became rather explicitly sexual. The more adrogenous look of the 60s also reappeared with the rise of "emo" youth culture.

Sex positive attitudes were rampant but not flaunted. It was a quiet revolution, one barely noticed by the conservatie older generations. These were kids who saw nothing wrong with nudity, nothing wrong with sex, were perfectly fine with gay friends. Even as the number of teenage pregnancies declined, usually an indication of conservative trends, attitudes toward premarital sex and homosexuality liberalized considerably.

Then we started learning about teen sexual subcultures. Raised in the era of the internet many teens were postponing sexual intimacy but not sexuality. Social networking sites became sexual meeting places where young people would show their budding sexuality to one another in very explicit ways without ever meeting. Sexting suddenly was in the news and what was horrifying to conservatives was that sexting was relatively common among the young. CBS said it "is not unusual" for teens to sext and that "20 percent admit to participating in sexting." One report I read said that among younger teens 30 percent did this and close to 40 percent of all teens say they posted sexually explicit messages.

Apparently the shift in teen sexual values was toward liberal attitudes but risk-aversive behaviour. The paranoid conservative backlash of the 80s, however, created a minefield for these young people. Much of their sexual activity has been criminalized and most young people don't know it. So teens are now routinely caught up in the inconsistent, often irrational web of sex offender laws. It isn't quite right to say teens were acting conservative. While they would avoid risky sex they many were putting sex shows on over the internet for other teens to watch and enjoy.

So what happened? I can only give a theory: the internet happened. And I'm not at all convinced that what happened wasn't mostly good. Previous generations attempted to control teenage sexuality by denying them access to information and to one another. But the internet gives access to anything anyone wants at the push of a button.

Teens today consume sexual explicit material at higher rates than anytime in history and mostly without spending a dime on it. They don't even have economic restraints. As the Trekkie Monster puppet in the hit show Avenue Q sings: the internet is for porn. And many young people think so.

The easy of on-line sexuality is precisely one reason so many teens feel comfortable sexting. Many know that these images are not easily constrained once set free in the winds of the world wide web—but they don't parrticularly care either. For them the main negative results are those inflicted on them by horrified adults not by the actions themselves.

So we have young people performing masturbatory shows, for free or for pay, on the internet who are bragging about being virgins. It all seems so normal for them, rampant sexual liberalization mixed with certain rather conservative values: relishing their new found sexuality while admiting they are virgins. None of this seems out of place to young people today.

They have come to enjoy their own sexuality, whatever it is. We are witnessing gay teens coming out of the closet at increasingly younger ages. It is not even unheard of for grade school students to be dating students of the same sex. In the high schools there are thousands of gay/straight culbs for students. And numerous reports have been published of the higher percentage of young straight men who see nothing wrong with having gay sex on film to earn cash. One woman went to an adult video award show for gay erotica where she found herself being hit on by one performer from gay porn. She lamented:

I found myself shocked at a gay-porn event—no minor thing, that—by being on the receiving end of classic, aggressive, straight-male predatory behavior. "A womanizer at the GayVN's!" I thought. How crass, how inappropriate—how interesting for my first encounter with a gay-for-pay performer.

The performer not only had a girlfriend who was perfectly fine with his occupation but was a father as well. This is not considered uncommon these days. It may be only my imagination but more and more I see teens describing themselves as bisexual than gay or straight.

Teens today are sexualy liberal and sexually conservative all at the same time—that is the sort of supposed paradox that sets my heart atwitter. One study found that today's teens are quite casual about oral sex, while older generations thought it more intimate. So for many teens there is a technical virginity. They have not had vaginal sex, they may have oral sex, they may have sex with both genders, they may masturbate over the internet for public viewing and send sexual photos of themselves around but they are holding off on vaginal sex, avoiding the risk of pregnancy. One-fourth of teens, who have not had intercourse, have had oral sex. And they consider themselves virgins. They are saving intercourse for serious relationships but they are far from abstaining along the way.

I am fairly confident that the Internet caused this trend. Teens simply could find information about sex quite easily and they went looking for it. I am sure the number of teens who look for porn online is much greater than the percentage who admit it. Many will pretend they accidentally stumbled on it. But in truth, many axiously looked for it and were thrilled to find.

They have fewer questions about their sexual orientation because they know precisely what turns them on, even if they are still virgins. Boys who regularly masturbate to all-male erotica may not be sexual experienced but they know their own orientation fairly well. And many teens, who are predominantly straight still find gay porn erotic enough to call themselves "bicurious." At one time you could ask: How do you know you are gay if you never had sex? Today the kids can answer. No, they never had actual sex, but they have beein in video chats exploring their bodies with other males. Similarly many straight teens are doing the same, having plenty of sexual experience yet never actually losing their virginity. And many of the straight boys doing this announce they don't mind if other males watch, but they only want to verbally interact with females. Surely these are attitudes that would baffle most their elders.

And, since they have seen all of this online, fairly regularly, for just about as long as they can remember, none of it particuarly bothers them. The result is a sexually liberal attitude. Yet, they have also learned about risk and the result is a more sexual conservative behaviour when it comes to high risk intercourse. But lower risk oral sex and online sex is perfectly fine with them. If you think about it dispassionately you will see it is really a rather sensible position. I suspect there is a lot of sexual laissez faire among teens but with an emphasis on responsibility and risk aversion.

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