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.