by Barry Edelson


The Sexual Revolution is Here to Stay

And It Bridges the Great Social and Religious Divide

Buried in the back pages of The New York Times last week was a little-noticed story that sheds an interesting light on sexuality in America. The Centers for Disease Control says that 45 percent of all adults in the United States have been tested for HIV, the highest percentage to date. The CDC has been pushing for years to make HIV testing a routine part of medical practice, and while it is pleased that the number of adults being tested has risen in recent years, the story is equally one of concern about the 55 percent who have never been tested. This includes an estimated 28 percent of those with HIV who don't know they are infected.

The CDC's well-intentioned emphasis on the 55 percent who haven't yet been tested obscured the most extraordinary part of this story, which was not mentioned by the CDC or the Times: that vast numbers of Americans are obviously engaged in sexual behavior that warrants submitting themselves to an HIV test. Undoubtedly there are many among the 45 percent who might otherwise not have bothered getting tested if their doctor hadn't suggested it. On the other hand, who would consent to an HIV test unless they believed they could have been exposed to the virus? Think about it: if you are a married person who has had no other sexual partners, and you are confident that your spouse has also had no other sexual partners, and neither of you has ever been an intravenous drug user, had a blood transfusion or a freak accident with a used syringe, then you would have no reason to consent to an HIV test. But how many people, even among the most conservative and religious, actually fit into this category? If, however, you are like the vast majority of American adults, and have had more than one sexual partner in your life, then you will admit to yourself (hopefully) that HIV infection is at least a hypothetical possibility. Even if you are now in a committed, long-term relationship, you are highly unlikely to know every detail about the past life of your current partner, let alone the lives of the sexual partners in your own past. This naturally leads to a vague suspicion that, however unlikely, infection cannot be ruled out entirely.

If the CDC is right, and more than a quarter of those who have HIV haven't even been tested, and 45 percent have consented to an HIV test, then a large majority of American adults can be presumed to have have had multiple sexual partners. Given that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that a large majority of the divorced marry again, and that two large demographics — heterosexual couples who live together without marrying, and those who are unable to marry in most of the United States because of their sexual orientation — cannot even be counted in marriage statistics, then the notion of a virgin bride and groom who have only one sexual partner in their lives seems more and more a figment of the puritanical imagination. There may indeed be such couples, but they have clearly become part of a vanishingly small minority.

All of this would be less than extraordinary except for the fact that a large segment of the theological and political classes regularly trot out an idealized image of human relations, primarily for reasons of religious and political domination. While the vast majority of the population has long since made peace with the idea that there is nothing inherently virtuous about sexual abstinence, others will simply not let go of sexual relations as a wedge social issue. We can understand why those with genuine religious conviction might consider virginity a matter of grave importance for the soul, but most of the divisiveness in the social and political sphere is caused by multiply married, questionably heterosexual hype-addicts who unabashedly beat the drum of monogamous union. This cultural divide is most often caricatured as one between liberal, bi-coastal elites who jump in and out of bed with strangers so often that they barely have time to notice the "real" America of the hinterland where God-fearing, gun-toting patriots have one mate for life and home-school their platoons of tow-headed toddlers around the kitchen table in a Christian version of the madrassa.

These stereotypes are obviously not the sum total of the American social and political divide, but they nonetheless symbolize a very real dichotomy. Divergent views on sexuality largely parallel our views on many other issues. But the divide is not, as is simplistically portrayed, between those who strictly adhere to the ten commandments, who think that premarital sex, contraception and homosexuality lead directly to hell, and those who don't. If that were true, how could we account for the fact that 70 percent of men and women in uniform are unconcerned about homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces, according to a survey just released by the Defense Department? How remarkable, given that military volunteers are generally more conservative and more Christian than the population at large. There are undoubtedly many service members who are deeply religious and do not approve of homosexuality, but many, if not most, of them have grown up in diverse social environments in which moral condemnation and personal tolerance are not mutually exclusive.

Secular liberals frequently make the mistake of believing that when conservative Christians are slow to condemn moral lassitude on the part of their own leaders, they are simply guilty of garden-variety hypocrisy. They ask, how can evangelicals simply look the other way at the youthful alcohol abuse of George W. Bush, the pill-popping of Rush Limbaugh, the gambling addiction of William Bennett, or the un-wed teenage pregnancy of Bristol Palin? But the images that many Christians see are of individuals who have tragically strayed from the moral ideal, but, because they believe in the ideal, still have a chance at redemption. On the other hand, when liberals commit acts of moral weakness — Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick, Gary Hart aboard the yacht Monkey Business, Bill Clinton with Monica in the Oval Office — they are condemned by conservatives not as examples of children of God who have sadly gone astray, but as emblematic of how social norms have been eroded at the hands of liberal permissiveness.

The idea that many conservatives cannot get their heads around is not that people sin, because they obviously and often publicly do, but that some people do not even recognize sin as such. When a Christian sins, it is because he is human and the flesh is weak. When the secularist sins, it is because he has no moral grounding, and no path to salvation. In the first instance, forgiveness is possible because the sin represents nothing more than the act of a person who recognizes in himself the need of moral direction (or at least professes to). In the second instance, the apparent absence of moral conviction demonstrates an inability to acknowledge one's mortal weakness. Even worse, many religious people tend to suspect the secularist of harboring disrespect for religious belief in general. By the same token, secularists take exception to the idea that it isn't possible to be a moral person without religion, which is demonstrably untrue. Each is unwilling to allow the other his illusions, which, short of violence, is one of the worst things a person can to do another. Straying from the path of righteousness can be forgiven, but not rejecting the path itself.

According to recent studies, in particular the Pew Center's exhaustive surveys about religious belief in America, we have come some distance in this country in the degree of tolerance that religious people express towards people of other religions (with the noted exceptions of Islam, obviously from the fallout of recent history, and Mormonism, for a host of historical reasons). Even though people of faith are more or less required to believe that theirs is the one true faith, the members of most Christian and Jewish sects appear to be less hostile towards members of other sects than at any time in the past. Somehow, an evangelical Christian, a Hasidic Jew and a devout Catholic recognize in one another a spark of the divine, and, though this ecumenical feeling may not travel all the way to the gates of heaven, in the realm of human affairs it is sufficient to grant everyone their own reasons for their beliefs. Where all of this tolerance falls apart, however, is when nonbelievers are added to the equation. What the faithful cannot abide is their own unveiling. The phony "War on Christmas", the unfounded insistence on placing the commandments in public places, the pigheaded resistance to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" — these and numerous other lines in the sand are overreactions to perceived threats to belief itself.

If both the CDC and Pew studies are credible, then a great many people who profess to worship every week are also having more sex than they will admit to, increasingly view people of other faiths as viable life partners, and couldn't care less if the person in the next bunk is gay or straight. The persistent images of urban elites as anti-religious and of religious persons as hopelessly ignorant may have little basis in reality, but they still form much of the so-called debate that drives government and social policy. Within a generation, most of the remaining sexual prejudice may very well disappear. In the meantime, if we could manage to understand that behind the public mask of someone with whom we disagree is a person much like ourselves, then we would find little reason to go to the trouble of unmasking them.

December 11, 2010


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.