The Myth of Promiscuity

Sarah Bynoe was a sassy seven-year-old when Madonna's video for “Like a Virgin” hit the airwaves. She loved it. On the TV in her parent's living room, Madonna, all hooched up in black eyeliner and teased blond hair, danced on the prow of a boat on a Venice canal. She writhed in a wedding gown on a silky white bed. Bynoe, a gymnastics ribbon in her small hand, danced and sang along as her parents laughed and snapped photos. “Like a virgin. Touched for the very first time. Like a virgin. Ooh, ooh. Like a virgin, feels so good inside.”

The image smells of shag carpets, wood panelling, and 1980s innocence. But it was the beginning of the supersexual deluge that was about to soak her generation. Bynoe, now a 25-year-old Vancouver performance artist, said Madonna, Hole, and the Spice Girls helped shape her kiddie ideas of what sexy looks like, what's fun about sex. She remembers the 1999 launch of CosmoGIRL, Cosmopolitan magazine's flirty boy-charged glossy aimed at selling Helen Gurley Brown's “liberated” vision to youth.

But the late-'90s cultural mouthful, including free-flowing condoms, contraception pills, abortions, and penicillin, doesn't appear to have bred a generation of Heidi Fleiss wannabes, despite titillating rumours of oral-sex parties.

“It seems like everyone is having a lot more sex than they actually are,” Bynoe flatly told the Georgia Straight. “People are more aware of what the risks are now. I have a lot of fear [about STDs], which is a good thing. It's my biggest holdback from being a slut.”

The B.C.–based McCreary Centre Society found that teens in 1998 and 2003—those who are in their early 20s today—had significantly less sex than teens a generation previous. According to the 30,000-youth survey, released in 2003, just one in four high-school girls had lost her virginity, compared to one in three in 1992. Furthermore, decade-long trends discovered by both McCreary and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include young women starting sex later, with fewer partners, with better protection, and mixing sex and drugs less than a generation ago.

There's no local empirical evidence showing how much sex today's 18- to 25-year-olds are having. The idea, though, that young women are awash in wanton fervour sells. Oprah Winfrey “broke” the oral-sex-party story in her much- discussed 2003 show “Do you know what your teen is really doing?” American nurse Meg Meeker has a bestseller in Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids (Lifeline, 2002). You won't find a sexually reserved young woman in Maxim, of course. An ad in June's edition warns: “The makers of Tag body spray advise that wearing new Wild Card [spray] and playing strip poker can lead to severe nudity.” It shows three skinny women happily removing their shirts. Evidently, the spray produces the same results in 2006 that 50 years ago would have required a marriage proposal.

Bynoe said her generation advertises itself as kooky, but the reality is much more reserved.

“We have our Internet lives now, not real lives,” she said. “On MySpace, you'll get to know someone who sounds so crazy. But when you actually meet them in person, you'll think, ‘Wow, you're quite subdued.' Then, you still need to take the time to get to know one another.”

The director of research for the McCreary Centre, Elizabeth Saewyc, told the Straight there are five main reasons for reduced sex.

First, young women reported about one-third less sexual abuse in 2003 than in 1992. For young men, it was halved. Sexual abuse, she said, is a key factor in the likeliness that a teen will have sex early. Second, youth are reporting a stronger connection to their parents, schools, and other adults in their lives. “These are all protective factors which help teens make healthy decisions around sex, which may mean waiting until later,” she said. Third, many Vancouver immigrants bring values that conflict with premarital sex. Fourth, the sex education that's taught in public schools here focuses on good decision-making rather than abstinence only.

“Also, as a community, we expect youth to go on to university or college. If they start a family, getting there and doing well is much harder,” she said. “So youth delay long-term relationships, and they generally don't want unintended pregnancies.”

As for oral-sex parties, Saewyc doesn't really believe they exist. They may happen, she said, but she has yet to speak with anyone who has actually attended one. They're in the category of urban myth, she said. Similarly, the Canadian Association for Adolescent Health found in its 2006 survey that 54 percent of youth said they think “oral sex is something everyone talks about but that few actually do.”

Saewyc added: “They're not all engaging in wild, scary sex orgies.”

According to the McCreary survey, Vancouver's culturally diverse teens had the least amount of sex of anywhere in B.C. Just one in five had ever “done it”. Local sex therapist Faizal Sahukhan noted that readers shouldn't underestimate the impact of immigration on changing sexual attitudes. His Web site and practice ( aims to help 18- to 30-year-olds connect eastern and western values in relationships. Though today's ethnic community is more promiscuous than it was 10 years ago, he told the Straight it can take at least three generations for a person to integrate Canadian sexual values. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, he said, abhor the idea of premarital sex, as it can lead to pregnancy, which in turn can ostracize a family from its cultural community. “The inclination is to assimilate,” he said. “But we cannot ask youth to refrain from one culture or another. It just does not work.”

More than a third of Greater Vancouver residents are foreign-born, according to Statistics Canada, and most come from east and south Asia. Plus, Sahukhan noted that 21 percent of unmarried Vancouverites are in a cross-cultural relationship. His observation that eastern values erode in the face of western sexual culture jibes with the bigger picture.

Globally, according to the largest sex survey in the world, everyone is having more sex. The condom manufacturer Durex annually surveys more than 300,000 people in as many as 41 countries for its data. Though the participants self-select and consequently the survey is by no means scientific, the results do show more sex, earlier, with more partners as an international trend.

Worldwide, those who are over 45 lost their virginity at an average of 18.7 years, according to the survey ( In contrast, today's 16- to 20-year-olds were 16.3 when they lost it. China and India reported the fewest number of sexual partners of the 41 countries, at 3.1 and 3.0 respectively. Canada was mid-range at 10.7. The greatest number of partners was in Turkey, with 14.5, followed by the traditionally liberal Scandinavian countries, plus South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. With a broad sweep, the survey shows the profound difference between sexual behaviour throughout the world or, at least, what respondents will admit to on-line.

Sahukhan, too, noted that Vancouver's sexual culture clash probably means less sexual promiscuity overall. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

“The West has desensitized women about sex,” he said. “They're told it's something to be experimented with, with no psychological repercussions. But the reality is, it can come back to haunt women at any time.”

It is confusing, said second-generation Canadian Mia Chung, 20. She grew up in Mount Pleasant during a time of possibly the most sexually trumped-up culture in modern history. Britney Spears transformed from bouncy Lolita to sweaty vixen when Chung was 15. The next year, Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink, and Lil' Kim shook their tatas for five weeks at the top of the billboards, chanting, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”

Meanwhile, Chung's Catholic school–based sex ed consisted of boring lectures on menstruation and biology; later, at Eric Hamber secondary school, it covered STDs and preventing pregnancy. As a teen, she remembers being part of a “prude” group. Stuck between a traditional Chinese-Canadian home and Seventeen magazine's boyfriend-frenzied pages but with a keen sense of her own questions about sexuality, Chung navigated her growing values alone, through writing. Aside from TV shows That's So Raven and Friends, she told the Straight her world was short on sexual role models.

“Sex is way more confusing now,” said Chung, who volunteers for the YouthCo AIDS Society and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority's youth sex-health Web site ( “There's so many messages. Workshops say, ‘Have safe sex!' Pop culture says, ‘Have sex whenever!' Fashion says, ‘Look like you're having sex!' And parents, grandparents, and religion say, ‘Wait till you're older or married!'?”

But is all this enough to keep hormones at bay?

New research by York University professor Trevor Hart suggests that it's not ethnicity or MuchMusic that turns girls on or off. It's religion. Hart presented his work on the relationship between religion and sexual behaviour to Toronto's 16th International AIDS Conference in August. Among the 17- to 25-year-olds (who were mostly heterosexual women) surveyed, it didn't seem to matter as much which religion they identified with as a predictor of whether they would have sex; rather, it was how much they believed in that religion.

“The more religious you believe you are, the less likely you are to have had sex,” Hart told the Straight. Interestingly, those who were more religious were less likely to use protection than those who reported no religion. Catholics were 4.57 times more likely to have had unprotected sex than Muslims. “Religion['s impact on sexual behaviour] has not been adequately explained in the literature,” Hart said.

His survey, incidentally, found that just 47 percent of the respondents had had vaginal sex in the past six months.

However, UBC epidemiology professor Jean Shoveller found that religion links only weakly to behaviour. In a 2004 study published in Social Science and Medicine, her team found that 18- to 24-year-olds from religious families “described how they had developed sophisticated rationales and justifications for their engagement in sexual activity” and that “their guilt had not been strong enough to inhibit their sexual behaviour.” These authors, too, suggested that religion should be studied further in terms of youth and sexual development.

Shoveller's team deduced that young adults depend most on their families for their sexual ideas—above religion, their peers, and popular culture. Both Bynoe and Chung agreed. But the crux of the question of promiscuity—just how much sex makes a girl “promiscuous”—is something that young women are still answering on their own. It's not something they talk to their parents about.

Counselling psychology Master's student Andrea Wardrop, 26, wouldn't tell the Straight how many partners she has slept with. It's not that she's embarrassed, or coy, or even particularly modest. She was happy to share that the average number among her group is about 10 partners each. Also, she confided that she lost her virginity at 18, roughly one year after the B.C. average for girls. It's just that she knows how judgmental Vancouverites can be.

“I wish I could tell you and it wouldn't be a problem, because it's not a problem for me,” she said. “We need to stop seeing a number of sex partners as a basis of judgment about someone's character or their moral value.”

Wardrop recounted that even in her liberal, educated peer group, there are still seemingly random standards. Eyebrows raise, for example, if a woman says she's had more than a dozen partners—especially if that number includes one-night stands. Her group expects men, however, to experience between 20 and 40 sexual partners.

Wardrop, who grew up near Vancouver City Hall, recalled that she and her friends were deluged with state-sponsored information about STDs and safe sex. However, she didn't find out that sex is emotional—and that casual sex can be emotionally affecting—until she tried it all out in her early 20s. She also noted that in mapping its sexual norms, her group had little help from official sources.

“I read Cosmo for all the sex stuff,” she admitted, pointing out that popular culture fills in the gaps in her learning. “It's [pop culture] one of the only open forums for talking about sex and making it acceptable for talking about sex.”

Shoveller's study also found that young adults complained that sex ed “focused on protection against pregnancy and STIs [sexually- transmitted infections], rather than on exploring issues related to sexual relationships. Sex was described as a cause of disease, a symptom of emotional distress, or a manifestation of a personality weakness such as low self-esteem.”

Sex therapist Sahukhan said that for today's 18- to 30-year-old women, the popular culture they grew up with could have been worse as a sexual teaching tool. A Madonna fan himself, he noted that she represented a positive sexual revolution.

“Madonna stood for women gaining control of themselves,” he said, “of thinking independently, of a self-driven sexuality, not giving your sexual power away as artists do today.”

Today's girls, those currently in their teens and who are the primary audience for Spears's and Aguilera's gyrations, don't have it as good, he said. They are sexualized in a way that today's 20-year-olds were not. Bynoe also noted that Spears's “chair-straddling, humping dancing” is different from what she used to admire about Madonna. Chung said that today's images might induce young teens to experiment more. “When you see rap videos, all the girls are humping away.”

Bynoe sorted through Vancouver's sexual flotsom with theatre and poetry; Chung through her journals. Wardrop has found another way: pole dancing.

“I know of nowhere else I can go where I can publicly express my sexuality in a fun, supported way,” said the Goh Ballet–trained instructor. If pole dancing endures, it'll be one more tool for young women to help navigate the complicated world of sexual decision-making.

Saewyc said she believes that today's teen girls are more media-savvy than ever. They know when someone is trying to sell them something—in this case, sex. With the new deluge of slutty role models comes a new, sharpened awareness that might further restrict the amount of sex young women engage in.

“I think kids are really smart,” she said. “We don't give teens enough credit.…Despite being inundated, most are still not being sexually active, and of those who are, most are playing it safe. They're not having kids or abortions left and right.”

In 2008, the McCreary Centre will survey another 30,000 B.C. teens. Will they report more or less sex? That depends perhaps less on Britney, Christina, Lil' Kim, and Paris and more on Allah, God, Krishna, the mighty manitou, and even Canada's immigration patterns.