Love the One You're With

Tim the Condom Man remembers the time well, remembers the hundred-thousand or so condoms he handed out over the years from the Blue Bus Clinic, a free service started up in Madison in 1970 to help “ailing hippies,” but which soon came to focus on the unfortunate side effects of the sexual revolution, something for which there was a sudden and huge demand. “There was usually your normal run of venereal warts and crabs and gonorrhea. The occasional syphilis,” Tim Tillotson recalls of his average night at the Blue Bus. “When I first started doing gonorrhea testing in the early seventies, ten percent of our cultures were coming back positive. That’s a high percentage.” Yes, there was a downside to loving the one you were with, since it meant you were also loving the one they’d been with, and the one they’d been with, and so on. But that was the small price the Baby Boomers paid for redefining the meaning of sex and sexuality—the joy of it, the fear of it—and to release it from an eon of repression. For Boomers of a certain age and a certain time, many things were being swept aside. “It was huge change in values,” says Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at UW–Madison and author of Understanding Human Sexuality. “By the end of the seventies, premarital sex rates were up to about eighty percent for both males and females. Previous generations thought it was wrong, though plenty of people still did it. But there was a real change in questioning whether it was wrong.” Right or wrong, it gave a whole new meaning to scratching the itch. “We kind of didn’t know about STDs then,” says Hyde. Several factors were driving this change, some unique to the 1960s, others not. “All the data shows that there had been a gradual change in sexuality beginning in the 1920s in the U.S.,” says Hyde, “and nobody had really noticed it. But it was happening. And it kind of reached a peak in the late 1960s.” By then, the old order was crumbling, and the old notions that women didn’t like sex, or that sex was mainly for furthering the species, or that sex before marriage was wrong—all these things were being challenged. “One major factor was the Vietnam War,” says Hyde, “which led to a massive questioning of authority including retractions on sexuality. If the older people were wrong about the Vietnam War and we should be resisting it, then maybe they’re wrong about all these rules about sexuality.” And maybe, the Silent Generation had been wrong about a woman’s place, and questions about their role started being taken up and debated on campuses across the county. “Betty Friedan really kicked it off with The Feminine Mystique,” says Madison social worker and sex shop owner Ellen Barnard of the 1963 book written by a stifled homemaker who broke the silence over “a problem without a name,” and modern feminism was born. “She said, ‘You know, there’s a lot more women can do than just be pretty house decorations.’ And that’s really what spurred women to start talking about their role in society, and how they can get more of what they want, and how they can be in charge of their own destiny and their own pleasure and be more active participants in the culture.” But perhaps the biggest factor leading to the entire shift in attitude was something that came in small packets. “The introduction of the birth control pill was a huge factor,” says UW’s Hyde. “It was one of those cases where a technological advance has a huge impact on behavior.” Barnard, who owns the successful A Woman’s Touch, a sexuality resource shop and resource center, agrees that the pill had a huge impact on the sex lives of Americans. “Before the sixties, women were using diaphragms, and condoms were pretty bad. So contraception was much more challenging. I think advances in contraception are what led to women seeking their own pleasure.” So from about 1960 to 1980, the place of sex in America forever altered—a revolutionary change in attitude, where we began to see sex as something more than a biological imperative. It became more of an end in itself for both sexes, rather than just a means of reproduction. And following this shift in attitude came a change in behavior which, according to most data, attitudes and behavior didn’t change much from the early eighties … until recently. Late in the 1990s, some researchers (and college students) started to notice a trend toward even more casual, extra-relational affair, sometimes called hooking up, or friends with benefits. A 2001 survey found that forty percent of college women had hooked up with a friend, with no further expectations, and a 2003 study found that thirty-three percent of high schoolers who’d had intercourse had done so with someone “whose attachment went no further than friendship.” “What we’ve seen in the last few years among college students is a phenomenon which wasn’t present earlier,” says Hyde, “which is this whole hook-up culture, and one night stands and thinking that’s just fine. People used to do that, but it was much less widespread and pretty much disapproved of.” How this recent shift relates to Boomer’s sexual revolution is unclear, though it may be part of why nearly half of the nineteen million new STD infections in the U.S. were among people aged 15 to 24, which means plenty of new business for the Blue Bus (now part of the UW Health system). What is crystal clear, however, is that times may be a’changin, but there’s no denying that Boomers changed the way we think about sex forever. “Today women are expecting sexual pleasure as much as men,” says Barnard, “all the way through their lives, and it’s not going to end at menopause just because they’re not reproductively functioning any more. Because that’s not what sex is about for them any more.”

Frank Bures

Madison Magazine - March 2007
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