An Academic Look at Sex

The title of this book, Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century’s End (1997), is enough to make anybody want to read it.  However, it is more academic than titillating.  Yet, once I began reading, I could not stop.  Katie Roiphe begins with the story of her sister Emily, the black sheep of the family.  Of course, every family has one, and some are more rebellious than others, but the story of Roiphe’s sister has a sinister edge to it.  Her sister has AIDS.  The narrative then goes back and recounts all of the activity that led up to that moment, when Emily would find out that she was infected.  The moment when her parents were shocked.  The moment when Roiphe realized the difference between herself and her sister.  Roiphe wanted to both emulate and reject Emily’s cool, rebellious lifestyle.

I don’t know what happened to Roiphe’s sister Emily.  It has been sixteen years since the book was published, and the rest of the essays in the book reflect that time.  Roiphe interviewed high-school students about sex and their attitudes toward it in the late 90s.  She attended sex education classes and made observations about how the AIDS epidemic transformed U.S. society.

roiphe cover
It is an interesting transformation really, and one that is always morphing and responding to the newest fad, craze, or technology.  Roiphe goes back to the technology of reliable, safe contraception.  Although not so simple, the pill seems to have been the catalyst for the sexual revolution in the 60s.  There seemed to finally be sex without consequences.  But wait a minute.  Another essay explores the deflation of this attitude with the AIDS virus.  For those of you alive in the 80s, you’ll remember Magic Johnson sharing his news, that he had been infected with AIDS.  You’ll likely remember the panic, the endless news reports, and the changes in school rules.  I was young then, but I remember learning all about how to avoid contracting AIDS, not just from sex, but from blood.  Bloody noses and cuts were treated like an anthrax attack at our schools.  Fear permeated almost every aspect of human contact in those days.

That panic seems to have calmed, but Roiphe’s exploration of it and of Magic Johnson’s lifestyle is fascinating.  It took me back to those days, and it reminded me that we don’t seem to worry about it as much anymore.  At least, I don’t.  I asked my eight-year-old if she knew what AIDS was, and she shrugged her shoulders and said no.  The urgency of the epidemic seems to have faded.

I also remember that AIDS was mostly associated with homosexuality, an issue Roiphe mentions.  Of course, we know that any orientation, race, class, or gender can catch the disease, as Roiphe explains through her essay on Allison Gertz, a rich girl from Park Avenue who became one of the faces of AIDS because it seemed impossible that the epidemic could affect her.  Apparently, one can’t buy their way out of AIDS.

Anyway, this association with homosexuality once caused an awkward moment for me.  As many of you know, my dad is gay, and once, on a trip with him when I was about thirteen, I decided to share the latest joke I had heard going around the junior high.  I said, “Dad, do you have AIDS?”

He immediately bent down to my level (he’s very tall) and seriously said, “No honey.”

I suddenly realized what I had asked, and I could see that he was prepared to have an intense talk with me about his orientation (which we had never ever discussed up to then).  I got nervous and quickly said, “No, Dad.  It’s just a joke.  Just say no.”

He straightened back up, reverted to the less-serious dad about to have a heart-to-heart, and said, “No.”

I said, lacking the enthusiasm “jokes” usually require, “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Are you positive?”


Then, it was my cue, as the joke goes, to say, “Ha ha!  You have AIDS.  You’re positive! Get it?”

But the joke fell flat.  It just didn’t have the same impact it did on idiotic young teens.  And it really is a stupid, insensitive joke.

Roiphe’s study is not insensitive, but insightful.  She does not take a side, but explores how AIDS is a compelling argument for a return to old-fashioned morality.  Because of my religious background, I have always subscribed to the unpopular notion of abstinence and of waiting until marriage for sex.  It is safe, and as Roiphe points out, the biggest issue of the 90s was safe sex and perhaps the impossibility of it.

Although I subscribe to these morally founded ideas, I do believe in sex education for our children.  Many of them will do it anyway, and we need to prepare them and educate them.  I am all about education, and what you know can empower you, while what you don’t know can come back to hurt you.  Last year in my state, a sex education bill almost passed reversing and limiting much of the sex education that takes place in our schools.  Many of my friends and I wrote to our governor, as religious observers and mothers, asking him to veto the bill.  He did, much to my relief.

However, Roiphe also asserts that there is something strange about “the peculiarly American belief that a moment of pleasure is likely to lead to a lifetime of remorse” (p. 35).  I agree that this is an unfair notion, and this also stems from my religious beliefs. What about repentance or change?  What about second chances?  We all make mistakes, and we all deserve the ability to right those wrongs or to rise from the ashes.

Yet, the book points out the oscillations our society experiences because of extremes.  We seem to go back and forth between more liberal revolutionary times and more conservative and rule-following times.  Is there a middle?  Roiphe ends with this idea: “We are caught in the paradoxes of our own excesses.  We live with both the sexual revolution and the reaction against the sexual revolution.  We struggle with the desire to be wild and not wild, to be careful and not careful, to be free and not free, to do whatever we feel like after two drinks on a Saturday night, and to be bound by the rules; and it’s in the uneasiness and confusion of this struggle that most of us love and are loved” (p. 193, emphasis in original).

I like her writing style, and her subject matter is interesting, too.  I plan to read more Katie Roiphe.

19 thoughts on “An Academic Look at Sex

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    1. This makes me laugh, although I think you may be very serious about it! 🙂 I’m glad I sort of missed it, too, but I’m glad that during that time, many good changes happened for women, even if they happened in a way that some disapprove of.

  1. Another thought provoking post Emily. I think as long as rules are made by some, there will always be those who feel those rules oppress them and they must rebel. I agree that sex education continues to be important for all teens, whether they be rule followers or rule breakers. In my own background, I was perhaps the most naive of all because of the lack of conversation in my religious upbringing about sex and real life consequences. (I was made very well aware of the after-life consequences.) Sex ed was crucial to my passage to adulthood.

    I also think that while the panic may have died down in America, AIDS in other nations continues to be a very high concern. We Americans are lucky enough to afford the education and the treatments to relegate the virus to something manageable, even livable. Others are still not so lucky.

    Great post! Thanks for bringing this topic up.

    1. Denise, I love that you add other countries to the conversation. You are absolutely right that they continue to worry and need our help. I’m so glad you reminded me of that.

  2. I will have to read this. As a doctor in a small town, I deal with the effects of sex and its moral and physical results on a daily basis. Should be an enlightening look back in time.

    1. How interesting! Since you are in a small town, maybe the book won’t be too far back. I say that because I spent part of my childhood in a small, rural area, and it seemed like it was always twenty years behind. 🙂

      1. Yes, it’s one of the things that I love most about my hometown. We are small but a bit delayed in many ways and not so much in others. I see many people now struggling to fit alternative lifestyles into rural faith based small town southern lifestyles. I have to get moved first but then I will be reading up on this.

  3. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, it sounds really interesting.
    As a teenager (freshman in college right now), though, I have to respectfully disagree about sex ed. We were given sex ed during health classes at my public high school, just like we were supposed to, and let me tell you, we were not mature enough to be learning about that stuff and consequently we treated it as a big joke. I also subscribe to waiting until marriage, and it therefore upset me to hear classmates joking about something that is actually a very big deal. Contrast that with the sex ed at the private elementary/middle school I went to, which emphasized abstinence, respect for life, and most of all respect for others. Nobody dared joke about it then, and we all enjoyed learning about how our sexuality is something to be treasured rather than flaunted for entertainment the way the media and yes, sex ed at the high school, portrayed it.
    I think where the sexual revolution was most damaging was that instead of liberating women, it actually enslaved them. It allowed men to look at women as conquests rather than fellow humans, mere objects from which to “get some” and then be on their merry way. While sex ed is meant as a precaution – because, as you said, people are going to do it anyway – it really just paves the way for this behavior and way of thinking to continue by telling us that it’s ok to do it, as long as we’re safe about it.
    This culture of permissiveness is reflected in the words and actions of young people today. I have friends in contests to see how many different girls they can hook up with, and of course that terrible saying, “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free,” has practically become their mantra. When we were taught sex ed, it was almost like they said, “Your body is a temple, but since you can’t control yourselves we know you’re going to do it anyway and we want you to be safe, so have some condoms.” That’s not what our children should be taught, but it’s the message sex ed is sending.

    1. You raise some really valid issues that highlight exactly why this is still debated and such a hot topic. I think for me, the “rule” I try to follow with my children is that they need to learn information about five years before they will actually use it. I guess I don’t know exactly what that information should be, but certainly I wouldn’t want the message sent, like you said, that it’s okay. It so complicated and I am glad you raised these issues with your experience and added a layer of complexity that I hadn’t really thought about, at least not for this post. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I am curious. Does she only use AIDS? Magic Johnson doesn’t have AIDS, he has HIV. There is such a misconception about that. I hope she discusses that. Uncontrolled HIV can lead to AIDS, AIDS is a result, not the disease itself. She has no business writing about sex if she doesn’t know that.

    I am happy that you brought up that you believe in waiting until marriage but you see the importance of sex education. I think it would be awesome if we all could get our kids, not that I have any, to wait, but the bottom line is, we cannot control what other people are going to do so informing people about safety is the best way to get safety. Even with information people make stupid and sad decisions. But the only way to reduce unwanted pregnancies (which in turn would reduce abortions) and diseases, and hell, even heartbreak, is to teach people the facts. I am so tired of people saying that abstinence is the only way. It may be the best way, but we have to be realistic.

    I thought (and planned to be) I would be a virgin until marriage all the way up to the day I lost it to my high school boyfriend at 15. I feel lucky that I was only ever with him and my now husband, but things could have been very different for me if I hadn’t known to go to Planned Parenthood and get birth control and condoms.

    1. I like that you bring up that things could have been different for you. I think we all learn by making mistakes, and all of us make them, but some mistakes are harder to recover from. That education could have helped you. Great point! And my mistake on the AIDS/HIV distinction. Roiphe treats it perfectly and with nuanced research.

  5. Thanks Emily for sharing the book and your story with your dad. There is a poweful movie and book called “And the Band Played On” by Randy Shilts about how the scientific and epidemiologist community were trying to figure out what was going on. Mathew Modine, Alan Alda and others play key roles in the movie. It also shows how President Reagan did not care much about the unnamed disease until he was shamed into caring and it started showing up in heterosexuals. If you were single in the early 1980s as I was, it was very scary as you did noy know how it could be spread and there was much fear-mongering and incorrect information out there. BTG

    1. Times certainly have changed! I will look into that movie. It sounds fascinating. Thanks for the comment! (And the more I learn about Reagan, the less I like him.)

      1. We could have a long conversation about Reagan the Myth versus Reagan the Actual. He was a pretty good president who did some good things, but he also did some not so good things like the above and Iran/ Contra affair which almost got him impeached. He certainly is not the paragon some hold him up to be.

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