• U.S.

Sexes: Finding Trouble in Paradise

5 minute read
Natalie Angier

Women have had access to the Pill for nearly 30 years, and many now unabashedly woo reluctant dates with phone calls and American Express gold cards. But they are still not sure what to make of sex. On the one hand, they want the freedom to express their sexual needs; on the other hand, they resent the idea that they should “express themselves” after every dutch treat at the Steak ‘n’ Ale. Calls for the Sensitive Man alternate with pleas for a few good neo-Neanderthals.

Now Ann Landers, 66, guru to the lovelorn, has concluded that despite all the talk of liberation, women have not changed much at all. According to a massive survey published in her daily column last week, almost three-quarters of the women in America would happily give up sexual intercourse for a little tenderness. That may sound like 1953, or maybe 1853, but Landers is convinced. Concludes the nation’s most widely syndicated columnist (more than 1,000 papers): “Clearly, there’s trouble in Paradise.”

Because sex is one subject on which everybody is an expert, Landers’ findings sparked cheers and sneers among sexologists, sex therapists, television commentators, newspaper columnists, and just about every red-blooded man and woman above the age of consent. Some called her survey biased, unscientific and even dangerous; others insisted it is right on target.

The impromptu poll was instigated six months ago when a male reader from Indiana wrote in extolling the virtues of his penile implant and how it changed his life. One irate female reader from Oregon shot back, “This man is totally ignorant of the workings of the female mind and heart. If you were to ask 100 women how they feel about sexual intercourse, I’ll bet 98% would say, ‘Just hold me close and tender. Forget about the act.’ ” Taking up the challenge, Landers posed the query to her female fans: “Would you be content to be held close and treated tenderly, and forget about ‘the act?’ ” She requested a simple yes or no response on a postcard, together with an indication whether the woman was over or under 40.

Almost immediately women began barraging Landers’ office, and not just with postcards. Many sent four- and five-page letters discussing the most intimate details of their sex lives. Not since more than 100,000 readers sent antinuclear letters to President Reagan in response to a Landers column had the reaction been so fierce and voluminous. Says she: “Apparently I had touched a hot button.”

Even after 30 years in the advice business, Landers was surprised by the verdict: of the more than 90,000 women who answered, 64,000 cried yes; one reader marked her yes on a 6-ft.-wide poster. More surprising still, 40% of the yea-sayers were under 40. “I’d expect that some women 50 to 70 had had enough sex,” Landers observed. “But in this so-called enlightened age, with liberated womanhood–that’s pretty startling.”

By and large, the yes respondents combined disgruntlement over the mechanics of their mates’ lovemaking with a desire for more human contact. A woman from Columbus wrote, “I am under 40 and would be delighted to settle for tender words and warm caresses. The rest of it is a bore. I am sure sex was designed for the pleasure of males.” From Washington came the outburst: “Yes, yes, a million times yes! I would love to be spoken to tenderly. My boyfriend never says a word. If I say anything he says, ‘Be quiet. You’re spoiling things.’ “

The 28% who answered no were equally impassioned in their replies. Among Landers’ favorite responses was one from Eureka, Calif.: “I’m 62 and voting NO. As long as my old man is able to shake the walls and wake up the neighbors downstairs, I want to get in on the action. And I’ll take an encore any time I can get it.”

In analyzing her results, Landers gave her usual cross between philosophy and sermon. “This says something very unflattering about men in this country,” she said. “It says men are selfish. They want theirs.” Yet she was quick to distribute the blame. “Some women need the message: loosen up, be sexier.” Above all, Landers cited the so-called sexual revolution as the root of many of the problems. “Women are anxious,” she said. “They’re reading in Cosmopolitan that if they don’t have five orgasms a night they’re undersexed or freaks.”

The Landers survey appeared to have touched a hot button among sex therapists, who argued that the columnist’s pile of letters should not be taken as definitive statements about sex in America. For one thing, argued the authorities, the groups tend to be self-selective, not the random respondents found in more scientifically conducted polls. Said San Francisco Psychologist Lonnie Barbach, author of For Each Other, Sharing Sexual Intimacy and several other books on human sexuality: “If you’ve got a problem you have more impetus to write in and share it.”

No one was more miffed by what Landers had to say about the American male than the American man. Three male columnists hammered away at the survey in a single issue of the Washington Post last week. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Columnist Mike Royko parodied the Landers poll by posing a question to the nation’s newest oppressed class: “Given a choice, men, would you rather be having sex with your wife or out bowling with your buddies?” Royko continued with a more pointed observation: “Nobody ever asks us about our needs, our frustrations . . . It’s always, ‘Madam, do you have your quota of orgasms?’ ” One putative expert on that subject, Cosmopolitan Editor Helen Gurley Brown, had her own reaction to the hubbub. Hurried, “lackluster” sex is rotten for everybody, she concluded, while good sex is “pretty terrific”– second only, in her experienced opinion, to good food.

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