Washington Post

Daughters Of the Revolution

By Patricia Dalton
Washington Post
Sunday, May 21, 2000; Page B01

If popular culture both shapes and reflects the way women's lives have changed over the past few decades, it provides a sobering image. While the television programs of 30 years ago like "That Girl" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" depicted fairly sanitized versions of the travails of being young, single and female, is there anyone who would rather have the neurotic, date-desperate life of their contemporary counterpart, Ally McBeal? Or, worse still, those of the hardened sexual sophisticates Carrie and friends in HBO's "Sex and the City"?

I ask myself that question whenever I see an Ally McBeal in my office, trying to come to grips with the reality of her life. And, like other therapists I know, I have seen too many. An attractive, intelligent woman of 32 came in a few years ago, troubled about the lack of direction in her love life and concerned that she was running out of time. She told me that she had "hooked up" with a lot of guys since she was in high school, even lived with two of them, but nothing had worked out. She had tried everything--new clothes, new haircut, regular trips to the gym. She was convinced that something was wrong--or not quite right--with her.

She would be mistaken to think that she has some undiagnosed psychological illness; but she is a fine example of someone who has picked up all the wrong messages from our culture. The sexual revolution of four decades ago was meant to liberate women. Instead, it has left too many of them flailing around with a faulty blueprint for life. I remember an unhappy teenager who told me in all seriousness that her New Year's resolution was not to sleep with anyone until she had known them at least three months. Her definition of restraint reminded me of a letter to the editor I'd seen in Glamour magazine, commenting on an article titled, "Men You've Slept With." "At 21," the letter writer said, "I have had 17 partners--too many, I think." Her uncertainty gave me as much pause as the number.

On television and in women's magazines, in restaurants and after happy hours, women's lamentations about sex and cynical complaints that men are jerks leave out the other side of the equation: Women today are being led willingly and blindly down the garden path--and some are doing the leading.

Many of the women who come to me for therapy have an almost breathtaking lack of awareness of the price they stand to pay for casual sex. And the price they pay can be high indeed. It's as if they need a detailed informed consent form about the risks attached to sexual decision making, just like the ones medical patients sign before agreeing to treatment.

Therapists can help a woman examine her upbringing, her relationships with her parents, siblings and peers, and her sense of self. We can help her make decisions about how to handle her problems. But we can't magically restore the hope, optimism and innocence that these world-weary women have lost.

It is not by chance that both the sexual revolution and the feminist movement were launched in the '60s, with the development of an effective birth control pill. Women no longer felt they needed to act as sexual gatekeepers. Pregnancy could be prevented, and antibiotics could cure most of the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) known at the time, which were predominantly bacterial, not viral. Sex was suddenly thought to be free of adverse consequences. "Whatever turns you on" was the vernacular of the day. Women went on to challenge and change many constraints that the fact of being female had imposed on their work and personal lives.

I feel very fortunate to have grown up during the '50s and '60s, in time to reap the benefits of many of these developments. I have a family and a career, and both mean a great deal to me. But some of the wholesale changes in behavior that accompanied both the sexual revolution and women's movement have had largely unacknowledged drawbacks.

For example, in reaction to the notion that sexual differences can be used to discriminate against women, a countervailing idea was put forth: that the sexual natures of men and women are basically identical. The folly of that way of thinking has been dawning on behavioral experts, as well as the rest of us.

Take the two basic realities that shape women's sexual lives in very different ways from men's. First, a woman's child-bearing years are finite, while men have the luxury of time. As women age, their chances of becoming pregnant drop steadily, while the possibility of multiple births, congenital defects and complications rises. While male sperm counts drop with advancing age, men can and do father children well into advanced age. (Whether this is desirable is another question.)

Second, there is the social convention, found all over the world, that men seek mates the same age or younger, while women mate with men close to their age or older. (There are exceptions to this pattern--Bill and Ernestine Bradley, and Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, for example--but they're a minority.) What this means is that the pool of potential partners increases for men as they age, and shrinks for women.

Young women ignore these realities at their peril. Those women who have embraced both word and deed of the sexual revolution can find that the years of fertility pass pretty quickly. There are women who have sex with no thought to commitment; others entertain a hope of commitment that may or may not pan out. I would be hard-pressed to say which one costs more.

One 31-year-old female patient, who is having trouble extricating herself from a relationship, recently came to this clear-eyed conclusion: "I figured it out. I've been acting like a wife, and he's been acting like a boyfriend." A women in her late thirties whom I once saw in therapy was involved in a 10-year affair with a married man with children who ultimately decided to stay with his wife. He was vaguely, and I do mean vaguely, apologetic; she was distraught--and childless. Then she had to face the terrible truth that she had not just him but also herself to blame.

Most young adults know that casual sex is associated with STDs, the list of which keeps growing, and includes AIDS. But their ignorance about the specific risks is alarming. I've seen female patients who do not know that male-to-female transmission of HIV is far more common than female-to-male transmission; that hepatitis B and C have been linked to liver cancer; or that certain strains of human papilloma virus, which causes genital warts, have recently been associated with cervical cancer in women as young as their early twenties.

Some years ago, when I described the deleterious effects STDs can have on women's fertility to a group of seniors at an all-girls' high school, you could have heard a pin drop. They did not know about chlamydia, a symptomless disease that has been found so frequently in inner-city adolescent girls that the Centers for Disease Control now recommends yearly testing of this population. They did not know that, like gonorrhea, it can cause scarring of the fallopian tubes, which can seriously jeopardize fertility.

If one of the consequences of casual sex is cohabitation, recent research on that custom is not encouraging, either. Cohabitation is associated with more cheating and physical abuse than marriages, and couples who have cohabited appear to have a higher divorce rate when they do marry. A large, methodologically sound survey detailed in the 1994 book "Sex in America" reported that couples who knew each other longer before having sex were more likely to get married than those who reported short intervals.

Then there are the emotional costs of breaking up over and over, which are hard to calculate. If "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" by the Righteous Brothers is the classic male lament, then "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt is the female counterpart. I am convinced that break-ups are much harder when unmarried couples have had sex to bring them closer. That's what sex is supposed to do, after all, in evolutionary terms: promote pair bonding and thereby provide a secure environment for raising offspring.

And if there is a disease of our time, it's got to be loneliness. According to the late social historian Christopher Lasch, the '80s version was narcissism, and maybe the sex-as-sport I've described has been its natural consequence. Psychiatrist Frank Pittman describes the curious phenomenon of adults who behave like juveniles in his book "Grow Up!" If marriage has always been one rite of passage to adulthood, sex without commitment makes it possible to put off that step. (I've heard countless patients comment with apparent amazement that when their parents were their age, they had two or three kids and a mortgage.) People are marrying considerably later than in previous generations, and they are also having fewer children. In addition, the divorce rate, which doubled between 1966 and 1978 and then leveled off to something over 50 percent, leaves more women alone, since men are much more likely to remarry after divorce. A higher percentage of adults live alone today than ever before in the history of the United States.

Finally, there is the emotional price that many children of these divorced adults pay. That was brought home to me once again while watching the film "Reality Bites," about a group of so-called Generation Xers who are avoiding commitment in a variety of creative, unsatisfying ways. There is a segment in which each main character flashes on the screen and says, "My parents divorced when I was __" (he or she fills in the age). I've often seen the aimlessness and the inability to take hold of life that the film was depicting. Some of my patients have real difficulty trusting the people they date. They are afraid of the future, having seen so much go wrong in their own families.

I don't want to imply that the sexual revolution has had only unfortunate results. It was fueled by understandably serious discontent with the sexual strait-jacketing of previous times. Many who filtered these ideas through some common sense and moderation have benefited from a more relaxed feeling about sex. There are probably more marriages today in which sex is an important part of the communication between partners than in more repressive times. Sex therapists do report fewer cases of severe sexual inhibition than they used to, and that is good news. On the other hand, they see more cases of problems of sexual desire, in both men and women, gay and straight, which have coincided with the sex-saturation of our culture.

On particularly bad days at the office when the human toll of the sexual revolution is especially apparent, I've thought of it as a sexual devolution. Yes, it has made us more familiar and comfortable with our animal nature, but have we put too much faith in our hormones and not enough on our frontal cortex? After all, our higher brain functions are what distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom. As Katharine Hepburn said dryly to Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen": "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above."

Patricia Dalton, a clinical psychologist, practices in the District.

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