Moral can be defined loosely as “of good character”. Values are “a belief, or standard”. The question at hand is, has sex eroded moral values? Sex is everywhere. It is not limited to the bedroom anymore, but to the television, movies, billboards, office buildings and the White House. The open discussion and study of sex dates back only about a century, to the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that sexuality was innate, present in humans at birth. Freud lived at a time when sexuality was considered unsavory, and was avoided in all polite conversation and social interaction.
His breakthrough thinking affected social practices as well as therapeutic ones. In Freud’s own era, the “moral fog that had enshrouded sexuality for most of the nineteenth century did not begin to lift until after the First World War” (Janus, 11).
Where do we get our morals and values? Character education was what took place in school and society in the past. It was sometimes heavy-handed and always liable to abuse, but it seemed to serve our culture well over a long period of time.
But what we have now, for the most part, is the “decision-making approach” (Kilpatrick, 16). In one form or another, sometimes as a course in itself, sometimes as a strategy in sex education classes, sometimes as a unit in civics or social sciences, it has set the tone for moral education in public and even private schools. “The shift from character education to the decision-making model was begun with the best of intentions. The new approach was meant to help students to think more independently and critically about values” (Kilpatric,16). Proponents claimed that a young person would be more committed to self-discovered values than to ones that were simply handed down by adults. That was the hope, but the actual consequences of the shift have been quite different. For students, it has meant wholesale confusion about moral values: learning to question values they have scarcely acquired, unlearning values taught at home, and concluding that questions of right and wrong are always merely subjective.
We live in a sexual world, but Americans have been slow to fully acknowledge its enormous impact. Among those interviewed in the Janus Report who were 18 to 26 years old, 21% of the men and 15% of the women had had sexual intercourse by age 14; a small percentage of them had had their first intercourse before age 10. “It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people,” said G. K. Chesterton in 1910. If that guarded approach applies anywhere, moral education would seem to be the place. “The Day America Told the Truth,” a 1990 survey of American beliefs and values, contains this scene from a California high school: “It’s Friday afternoon and the students are leaving a class in ‘social living.’ The teacher’s parting words are, ‘have a great weekend. Be safe. Buckle up. Just say ‘No’… and if you can’t say ‘No,’ then use a condom! (Kilpatrick, 53) Although the teacher in this example gives a nod in the direction of abstinence, her approach is basically of the “responsible sex” variety.
Sex is an image that we as Americans have grown accustomed too. Sex is everything. If you’re good looking, then you’re having sex. If you’re sexy, then you’re having sex. If you’re having sex, you’re popular, and people are more likely to buy stuff from your company if you show people having sex. Sex sells. Sex sells cigarettes. Sex sells cars. Sex sells clothes, alcohol and vacuum cleaners. One way that a breakdown of sexual restraint hurts society is the educational sphere. There is abundant evidence that the more sexually active students do poorly in school and tend to drop out more frequently. Almost half of the teenage girls who drop out of school do so because of pregnancy. But that figure only suggests one dimension of the problem. The constant distraction caused by worries about sex and about relationships takes a tool on schoolwork.
Dieting has become an unfortunate cultural phenomenon, especially for women and girls, whose self image is often closely linked with their body image. Eating disorders are more common in girls because they believe it’s their role in society to be sexy. Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the prevalence of a history of sexual abuse in eating disorders patients, and the findings have been controversial. “The figures range from 7% to 74%, with most studies showing that between 20-69% of anorexics and bulimics have been abused” (Hall, 41). It is important to note, however that not everyone who has been sexually abused develops anorexia and not all anorexics have been sexually abused. For many survivors, anorexia can also serve as a way to make their bodies less desirable to potential perpetrators. In one sense, mature adolescents deny their sexuality by returning to a prepubescent state, and in fact amenorrhea is one of the criteria for diagnosing anorexia.
Unfortunately, until recently, teachers have been reluctant to discuss sex in absolute moral terms, leaving students with the impression that it’s purely as subjective matter. It turns out that when teens are confronted by adults over sexual misbehaviors, a frequent response is simply, “I didn’t know it was wrong.” We are all, to a great extent, creatures of our culture. By and large, we tend to conform to cultural expectations, even if not perfectly. Our present culture sends out confused and misleading messages about sex-messages that, in the long run, threaten our survival. But it’s not inevitable that we remain in this state. As William Bennett observed at the time he was secretary of education, “I have never had a parent tell me that he or she would be offended boy a teacher telling a class that it is better to postpone sex. Or that marriage is the best setting for sex, and in which to have and raise children. On the contrary, my impression is that the overwhelming majority of parents would gratefully welcome help in transmitting such values.” (Kilpatrick, 76)
The long history of sexually transmitted diseases has made caution in sex one of the facts of life. In the late 1980s, the AIDS epidemic made caution in sex a fact of life or death. It was no longer a moral issue. When AIDS surfaced as a national problem , the sexually active momentarily panicked. The enormous tensions and backlash generated by these devastating sexually transmitted diseases made practice of casual sex pause. “The new social and sexual changes in lifestyles have been adopted by many other participants. Divorced or separated men and women, newly single, are dating again and searching for sex partners and new love. Parents in their 40’s and 50’s and 60’s are enjoying a new sexual style at the same time their teenage or young adult children are also experimenting with sex, and seeking loving relationships. There are few guidelines now, except for cautions about sexually transmitted diseases. The old rules governing sex no longer apply, and many individuals and couples now ad lib moral and lifestyle decisions, or make them within the morality of their own small, peer reference groups” (Janus, 16).
In the Janus report, 45% of women and 19% of men claimed to have been sexually harassed on their jobs. In the interviews, the men attributed the harassment they experienced to both heterosexual and homosexual individuals; the women ascribed their harassment almost entirely to men. “As 1991 drew to a close, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the candidacy of Clarence Thomas for an appointment to the Supreme Court swore in a surprise witness. Anita Hill, a law professor, brought unprecedented attention to the candidate, the committee members (all male), and the advise-and-consent process, when she accused Judge Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace” (Janus, 101). In an age of liberation, it is interesting that an issue so broad gained national attention so accidentally. Was there an underlying awareness of widespread sexual harassment, on the part of women, who had been loath to complain about harassment or found no receptive audience when they did? That assumption is readily supported by the intensity and speed of reaction to the charges. Sexual Harassment has become a household topic across America, dispite the Anita Hill’s failed efforts to prevent Judge Thomas from becoming Justice Thomas.
Today, men and women are freer than ever to explore their sexual beings in or out of marriage. Their transformed sex roles, born of the women’s movement and the sexual revolutions, facilitate heightened communicating outside the home. Today, medicine and psychology advise that people should keep on having loving sex as long as they wish. Sexuality becomes adapted to the context of the sexual experience, at all ages. While early adolescence are experimenting with full sexual activities of diverse varieties and young couples are seeking sex for reproduction, older couples are enjoying the comfort and excitement of sex without reproductive pressures. “A new, vital, and active sexuality has been identified among mature, and post mature Americans. While society frets about preteens’ frolicking and college students’ antics on Spring break in Florida, the graying segment of Americans may be leading the way in superior sexual experience” (Janus, 22).
Other issues relating to sexuality have also made headlines over the past two decades. Divorce rates leaped in the 1970’s, absent or self-involved parents and permissive child-rearing practices were blamed for creating misbehaving, out-of-control kids; the family as an institution was believed to be in big trouble. Very young adults are living together without the benefit of marriage. Meanwhile, kids are experimenting with their own sexuality at earlier and earlier ages. Barely out of their own childhood, teenagers are producing babies at ever-growing rates. By the 1980’s, nearly a million mothers under 18 were giving birth every year. Of these young women, 70% were unmarried, up from 30% only a decade earlier. Some estimates indicate that as many as 10,000 extremely young women age 12 or younger, become pregnant every year. The younger these children are when they have their first child, the more likely they are to have at least one more child before their teen years end. These children who have children are particularly at risk of dropping out of school and becoming social throwaways who face a bleak future and are wanted only on the streets. Later, unable to get and hold jobs, they will drop out of the labor market as well, creating or perpetuating cycles of deep, depressing, unrelenting poverty as their children and grandchildren in turn become teenage, single, unemployable parents. Is sex eroding moral values? Absolutely.
1. Cosmopolitan. June 1999
2. “Hunger Point”. Jillian Medoff, Harper paperbacks. 1997
3. The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. Samual S. Janus, Ph.D, Cynthia L. Janus, M.D. 1993
4. Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. William Kilpatrick. 1992
5. Waste Makers. Vance Packard. 1960
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