What if everything your parents, teachers and preachers told you is wrong? What if being a hedonist who loves sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is actually good for you?
This is the question explored by a recent study from the University of Hawaii called "Positive Implications for Sexual Sensation Seeking: An Exploratory Study." Another recent study found that people who take more drugs and have more sex tend to be smarter, but the idea that they might be happier as well raises all kinds of knee-jerk objections—even from me. As a parent, I have to admit, despite my philosophical belief in the connection between "liberty" and "libertine," some of the risk-taking-behavior my own kids have gotten into scares me. But does such a reaction inhibit their chances for a good life?
According to the authors of "Positive Implications," "Published research on human sexuality has been and continues to focus predominantly on negatively valenced aspects of human sexuality." As evidence, they offer an analysis of 606 research articles published over a 50-year span in academic journals like the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the New England Journal of Medicine. "The majority (58%) of these articles focused on the problems associated with sexual behavior, including mental health problems, sexual dysfunction associated with sex, the dangers of sex, sexual stigma or shame, risky sexual behaviors, sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS, teen pregnancy, homophobia, sexual harassment, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, bi-phobia, trans-phobia, negative attitudes and sexual violence/abuse. In contrast, a mere seven percent of articles in the content analysis investigated the delights of love, sex and intimacy."
I want to repeat that last line: "In contrast, a mere seven percent of articles in the content analysis investigated the delights of love, sex and intimacy." It makes sense for medical journals to focus on fixing problems instead of celebrating health. But seven percent?
To determine why that number is so low, I caught up with Corey Flanders, a co-author of the study, while she was attending the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality in San Diego. She told me that the very concept of "sexual sensation seeking" (or SSS, as researchers call it) was developed in response to the AIDS crisis. "Originally, the impetus behind developing the sexual sensation seeking scale was to help identify people who were at higher risks for contracting HIV, so historically people have used the SSS scale for studying things like sexual compulsivity or willingness to engage in extra marital sexual experience, and framing that in a negative way."
But Flanders and her colleagues noticed something odd in the SSS research. Many of the studies also showed that people who have the SSS trait—and it does seem to be hard-wired, she said—were also "independent, active and curious" and rated high on related traits like openness to experience and extraversion, though these qualities were "rarely portrayed positively" in the academic literature.
This made me feel better, since it's hard to be a libertine in journalism and not feel a little bit like a freak—always mindful of the aphorism "if it bleeds, it leads." (My colleagues in the news business are always coming up with "negatively valenced" horror stories about the dangers of anything that might seem a little bit too much fun.) Remember the utterly preposterous stories about "rainbow parties," where teen girls were supposedly giving serial blow jobs to boys while wearing different color lipsticks? The more recent meme is "hookup culture," where young women are supposedly ruining their lives by having meaningless sex just like boys supposedly do. The Times ran a big story about it a few months ago, and Salon, usually a sex-positive media outlet, did the same more recently, managing to be skeptical and pro-pleasure but still, somehow, negative.
Let's face it, America is a nation of scolds. Blame it on our Puritan heritage or reach back to Calvinism and its influence on the American work ethic. But there's something in our culture that has always believed that pleasure is the work of the devil and that people who seek pleasure will end up homeless, shiftless and godless. I guarantee you that there will be comments below that rush to the old "there are higher pleasures" argument and point out with great concern that a person can get addicted to one pleasure or another, as if everyone who enjoys apple pie risks turning into a glutton. That's why we always see the term "drug abuse" and rarely the more neutral term "drug use" even when there's no abuse involved.
And, of course, it's no accident that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll—the devil's music—have long been linked. They are things general risk-taking young people enjoy, and like so many other things associated with youth, they are tinged with danger—and, therefore, prohibited with the vast architecture of pleasure-punishing laws that have left our prisons bursting at the seams.
(Speaking of which, I still remember the first committed Christian I met—a deacon in her church—who loved to smoke pot. "I'm of a mind that God gave us all this bounty to enjoy," she explained. I was so surprised. I didn't know there were Christians who thought like that.)
Flanders approached her study, it must be said, with personal reasons to be suspicious of all the scolding. She grew up in northern Kansas, a part of the country so conservative she was taught abstinence in elementary school. She also remembers what she describes as a "terroristic stance on abortion providers." As a result, she became determined to engage in what her particular community seemed to regard as high-risk behavior—i.e., learning the scientific facts about sex. In high school, she became the go-to advisor on sexuality for all her friends. And when she got to college and took her first sexuality course, her friends back home had so many more questions that she decided to make it her career.
And so, Flanders and her colleagues launched their study to explore the positive side of bad behavior. They conducted the study by asking a total of 177 undergrads at the University of Hawaii—119 women and 58 men—a series of questions about their level of curiosity and eagerness to explore life. These included "I would describe myself as someone who actively seeks out as much info as I can in a new situation" and "I'm always out looking for new things or experiences" followed by 10 items from the standard SSS scale, statements like "I like wild uninhibited sexual encounters," "The physicality or sensation of sex is most important to me" and "I enjoy intercourse without a condom." The other questions focused on past sexual experiences and the sex positions they would like to try.
What Flanders found was:
1. SSS was, in fact, positively associated with curiosity and exploration ratings.
2. Similarly, SSS was positively associated with happiness as measured on a standard "satisfaction with life scale."
3. Less surprising, SSS ratings were very strongly associated with both experience with, and willingness to try, unusual sexual positions.
As young female academics, Flanders et al also were curious about how the supposed "hookup culture" had changed the historic tendency of men to be more adventurous than women. They found that:
1. Men still show significantly higher higher levels of SSS than women.
2. Men are more willing to try exotic sexual positions.
And there we have it; science punctures yet another anhedonic American assumption and its associated alarmist media narrative. But to be truly scientific, as Flanders was the first to point out, we should bear in mind that all studies based in sexual self-reporting come with certain caveats and cautions. For example, men might just be more willing to say they like "wild uninhibited sexual encounters," and college students might still be in the first blush of exploratory excitement before darker life consequences set in. While we wait for scientific consensus, Flanders is gathering more unexpected evidence—her latest study shows that both men and women see the people who appear in porn as both "moderately powerful and moderately positive," quite a contrast to the usual assumption that porn degrades women. "It turns out this view that porn is bad for the image of women is not true," Flanders says. "It's more multifaceted than people usually admit."
So parents of wild and horny teenagers, take hope. Get through a few stressful years and you may discover that William Blake was right after all—the road of excess really does lead to the palace of wisdom.
Photo by dk/Alamy