Local experts weigh in on the hook-up culture of 2016
By Kit Stolz
The phrase “sex, drugs and rock and roll” once stood for a kind of rebellion back in the l960s, but two-thirds of that phrase has been commercialized and largely deneutered of political meaning in our time.
Rock and roll now is as likely to be heard in television advertisements as it is in student dorm rooms.
The use of drugs no longer means “standing up to the man.” The California Medical Association this month endorsed a proposition on the fall ballot that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Yet the sexual revolution — and its counterpart in gender transformation — continues to challenge and surprise people of all ages in Ventura County.
This was underscored last month with the release to the public of a poll by Ventura’s Barna Group, a national polling and research organization that specializes in spiritual issues, on sexual mores and “traditional Christian ethics.” According to the pollsters, traditional Christian ethics teach “that sex should only be within a marriage between a man and a woman.”
The poll found that both Gen-Xers (born before 1984) and the next generation, the Millennials (born before 2002), disagree with that. The purpose of sex is not marriage, they say. It’s not about traditional marriage, and it’s not about same-sex marriage.
Only about a third of Gen-Xers and Millennials think that the place for sex is marriage between a man and a woman; about one-quarter think that place is marriage between two adults of any gender, according to the pollster.
“I think the data confirms what a lot of us already are seeing, both in popular culture and anecdotally, that generational differences show a trend towards what is known as ‘the hook-up culture,’ ” said Roxanne Stone, who oversaw the group’s What Americans Think About Sex poll. “We are seeing a delinking of sex from marriage and seeing it more as self-fulfillment instead of something that happens in marriage for procreation.”
As an example, Stone mentioned the lead character in the nonfiction book Eat, Pray, Love, later made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. The heroine of the story recalled a number of sexual relationships in her life. Most were passing, but she did not consider them wrong in retrospect.
The poll focused on a random sample of 1,000 Americans. The respondents were sorted into various categories, including one for those of “practicing Christians,” one for those of other faiths, and one for those of no faith.
Even among “practicing Christians” who had attended services within a month, only a slight majority (53 percent) held that “traditional Christian ethics” calling for chastity until marriage were “moral”; and among Millennials as a whole that number fell by more than half (to 26 percent). Almost as many Millennials thought that “traditional Christian ethics” calling for chastity before marriage were “unrealistic” (20 percent) or “anti-gay” (19 percent) as considered them “moral.”
What does the hook-up culture mean?
To pollster Roxanne Stone, the trend toward sex outside of marriage is nothing new. She points out that the trend toward marrying later in life has been rising for decades, and with that has come a trend toward cohabitation and children born out of wedlock.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for first marriages among men in this country was 29 years old last year — as opposed to 20 years old in 1950 — and nearly 27 years old for women.
As a Christian, this challenge to tradition troubles Stone; but as a young woman, she understands why people of her age are choosing to have sex outside of wedlock.
“It’s one thing to ask teenagers to abstain from sex when they’re getting married at age 20 or so,” she said. “It’s another thing to ask people to wait until they are 25 or later, when they may or may not get married in the next few years, when they have much more experience in the world, and when they are at the height of their sex drive. It’s a much more complicated ask. If you’re 25 and you’re not having sex, a lot of your friends may be asking why and making remarks about what a ridiculous thing that is to expect.”
Personal expression in sexuality: a transgender experience
Sexuality as an arena for personal expression — but not marriage — makes sense to Julian Foley, a high school senior and an advocate for the acceptance of sexual diversity from Newbury Park.
Foley “identifies” as queer and will discuss his status as a transgender person, but at the same time points out that it’s his own personal life and he doesn’t need to apologize for it or explain it.
“At some point I realized I was on this journey,” he said. “Where it all began and where it will end — who knows; but I don’t feel that I should have to explain myself. I shouldn’t have to say anything if I don’t want to.”
The good news, he said, is that he has found surprising acceptance and little overt prejudice or hostility among his peers and in his family, even while helping to lead a support group in the county called Trans Alliance Ventura.
“I would say about 98 percent of the people I have come into contact with have been accepting of me [as a transgender person],” he said. “I have had some adults and teachers that had some issues, but I never had a student give me much grief.”
At the same time, Foley dismisses the idea that sex should be reserved for marriage.
“My grandparents are fundamentalist Christians, so I understand that viewpoint,” he said. “But for the LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer) community, I think that idea is irrelevant.”
Doug Pollock, who advised numerous LBGT youth and parent support groups while teaching for over 30 years in local public schools, said that in his experience about 6 percent of students in surveys taken at his schools identified as other than heterosexual but that they very often disliked being forced to choose between gay and straight.
“What parents tend to do is say, ‘She’s going through a phase,’ ” he said. “This pisses kids off. They don’t want to be told that they have to be gay or straight and, by the way, hurry up and choose.”
Pollock’s research still shows homophobic taunting in county schools, but he also sees reason to hope that it’s becoming less prevalent and less violent. He’s also sure that the new generation of students will surprise us.
“I know a person who has dreadlocks, breasts, a very shapely figure, who dresses in a feminine way and has a scraggly red beard,” he said. “I don’t know if they would call themselves trans or genderqueer or genderfluid, but I can tell you this — they’re not androgynous.”
Why do we lump all LGBTQ people together?
Adina Nack, a sociologist at California Lutheran University specializing in the study of sexual health, points out that 2015 was the year in which transgender is said to have had a cultural moment. That moment included the coming out of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner in a slinky dress on a magazine cover, a first mention of the word by a U.S. president in a speech, and the success of the television series Transparent. But she wonders if we do a disservice to the transgender community and the gay community by viewing the struggle for LGBTQ rights as one movement.
“Transgender people often align themselves with the gay and lesbian community because historically they have been welcomed there, but that has led the public to confuse sexual orientation with gender identity,” she said.
Nack notes that transgenderism is not mentioned in the Bible, which has led some activists to think that religious fundamentalists might be more open to accepting transgender people than homosexuality. Although Nack thinks that Christians in the U.S. are more diverse than those polled by the Barna Group, she does agree with the pollsters’ conclusion that sexuality in today’s younger generations has much less to do with marriage, family and children than it did in the past.
“Decades of effective birth control have led to more Americans viewing sexual activity as being separate from reproduction,” she said. Sex increasingly is viewed as being separate from reproduction,” she said. “Today we have much more acceptance of the idea that there is deep and enduring social value to be found in an adult life that does not necessarily include marriage or children.”
Nack believes that the generational shift has also opened the door to a broader discussion of sexual issues. One public-health risk that she thinks has been badly communicated and dangerously misunderstood is the need for inoculation against viruses that can be transmitted by sexual contact and can lead to cancer later in life.
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most commonly transmitted sexual infection, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but Nack points out that it can be transmitted by oral as well as genital contact.
“There has not been a real public-health campaign to help people understand that the soft tissue cancers that can result from HPV exposure include throat cancer as well as cervical cancer,” she said. “Kids old enough to be vaccinated should be vaccinated, whether they are girls or boys.”
Nack thinks that drug company campaigns to market the vaccine against HPV misleadingly targeted girls and cervical cancer, out of fear that if parents connected the vaccine for children to sex, they would reject it.
“If parents understood that their kids could ultimately be at risk from a potentially fatal cancer from French kissing, I think they might be more concerned,” she said. “You have to be fairly naive to think that your son or daughter will not deeply kiss someone before they graduate from high school.”
At the beginning of February, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicized the fact that about 62 percent of girls and only about 40 percent of boys had received the vaccine. The agency recommended the vaccine for all children beginning at age 10, and noted that it is less effective if administered later in life.
Ventura County turns the tide against STDs
Dr. Robert Levin, who has been the public health officer of Ventura County Public Health for 18 years, fully agrees with Nack that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are a major and serious public health risk.
“The trend towards what I will call casual sex has been going on seemingly forever, at least since the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “We are responding to what was an unforeseen rise in the incidence of sexually transmitted disease.”
Three years ago the department launched a major campaign to turn the tide, focusing on the often-overlooked chlamydia.
Chlamydia is the most common of STDs in Ventura County. It’s not deadly, and often does not present symptoms, especially in men, and so it often goes undiagnosed, but it can cause infertility if not treated.
After seeing the incidence rate rise by over 60 percent from 2005 to 2013, Levin and his staff decided to launch a full-scale effort to corral the disease.
“We saw year after year of relentless climb of chlamydia and gonorrhea and I said, ‘We’ve got to address this, we can’t wait until we have 3,000 or 4,000 cases a year,’ ” Levin said. “The state doesn’t mandate that we do anything about chlamydia, but one of the things that we do now is follow up and contact or treat every single case.”
In what is called “expedited partner therapy,” the public health department allows people who have contracted the disease but do not wish to reveal their sexual partners to be given an antibiotic medication to counteract the infection. The patient can give it to any partners without requiring the partners to see a doctor, have an examination or identify themselves.
Levin said the department has designated two public health workers to follow up on every reported case of sexually transmitted diseases in the county.
“We got a grant from the state that allows us to give patients the medicine,” he said. “If they aren’t willing to give us the names of their partners, we can give them the medication. If they don’t want to go to their partners, they can give us the names and we will follow up for them.”
The numbers show the program is working: The incidence rate of chlamydia peaked in 2012 and has fallen steadily since, from over 2,500 cases in the county in 2012, to less than 2,200 last year.
This is just one of many efforts launched by the department to control the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, Levin said, including public education efforts focused on STDs, a clinic focused on transgender health issues open on Monday mornings in Santa Paula, and now a walk-in clinic for STDs at the public health clinic at 2040 Gonzales Road in Oxnard.
“We haven’t publicized it extensively since we started this in the summer, but the STD drop-in clinic is now open as part of our travel medicine clinic,” Levin said.
The sexual revolution and marriage in Ventura County
The sexual revolution — and the Supreme Court’s ruling last June that marriage between two people of the same gender is legal in all 50 states — has brought change but not controversy to the government center bureau that records marriages, said manager David Valenzuela.
“The day the ruling came down was a very busy day down here,” Valenzuela said. “We had the press, and we had a lot of happy people coming through to get married without appointments, but there was no issue.”
Valenzeula said that since the Supreme Court’s ruling, his department has adapted smoothly. He said that the number of marriages recorded by the county has risen by about 10 percent, averaged over the year, since June.
“We have all sorts of marriages here now,” he said, “heterosexual, gay, trans to trans. I think we treat all our people well.”
Sex continues to bring change to Ventura County, but at least in our government’s response, perhaps it’s a change for the better.