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AskTog, November, 2001

On Sex & Violence

   People have been a little freaked out since the events of September 11th. For many, however, rational prudence has given way to unreasoning paralysis. Folks are canceling flights from St. Louis to Kansas City, apparently feeling that Kansas City is the next logical target for Middle Eastern extremists. People are even electing to stay home and eat turkey TV dinners, instead of spending their holidays in the bosom of their families.

Are we a nation gone so soft that we will cower in fear forever, now that “everything's changed”? No. We’re just getting used to a slightly new world.

We’ve come to the end of a golden era in US life, a brief interlude where immortality seemed assured. The Cold War was over, with its minute-by-minute threat of assured nuclear destruction hanging over our heads. Under the Democrats, the economy boomed, with all of us coming to assume the stock market would always head up and we would forever receive annual raises and bonuses. Breakthroughs in health continued to abound, and even street crime was on the wane. Life was so good the only important news for months was that Gary Condit was getting a little on the side. Oh, yeah, and there was a girl missing, too. Then, September 11th happened, and the world suddenly seemed a dark and cold place. The Golden Age of immortality and nonviolence was over.

This is not the first time such a golden age has occurred, with a similar, terrifying dénouement. Let’s talk about sex.

Sex has historically been a pretty scary business. The twin specters of life (unwanted pregnancy) and death (unwanted death) pretty well kept people in line. Marriage was a popular institution, and even people who strayed (known as “men”) did so in a committed way, taking on mistresses, rather than serial one-night-stands. Those who went beyond these conventions, died.

In the 1960s, everything changed with the arrival of antibiotics and the contraceptive pill. Suddenly, people had the freedom to exchange bodily fluids with anything on the hoof. The era of Free Love was launched, with women free to have sex with anyone they wanted, with guys free to stand around hoping that they would be chosen.

Everybody was having a good time for around ten years, when doom suddenly descended. The new disease at first received little press, but the street was soon filled with whispers. “Bill’s got it. He doesn’t know who gave it to him. It’s terrible. The docs have got nothing to treat it. I hear Mary’s got it, too. They’re doomed. No one will go near them. People are afraid they’ll get it just by touching them. It’s so awful!”

Support groups quickly formed, with victims clinging together, passing along any shred of information they might get as to treatments, however far out they might be. Newspapers and magazines were soon filled with accounts of the untreatable disease and its ravaging attack on people’s lives and happiness.

Happy-go-lucky recreation sex dried up among all but the most immortal teenagers, as a generation of young adults who had grown up with sexual freedom learned for the first time how dangerous promiscuous sex could be. Lives were destroyed overnight, leaving victims hopeless and alone.

This overreaction was identical to the post-September 11th reaction, and for the very same reason: People who had come of age in a remarkably safe era suddenly had the rules changed on them. That old stuff about incurable disease was supposed to be over. They promised!

You might be thinking that AIDS is a pretty serious disease, and what happened was not exactly an overreaction, but then, I’m not talking about AIDS. I’m talking about herpes. Herpes was the dread disease that caused robust young adults to give up sex and form support groups.

Herpes was totally eclipsed by AIDS, because AIDS is a really serious illness. Herpes is a bother, not a life-threatening illness. However, when you haven’t even had a bother standing between you and your lust, a bother can seem like a really big deal.

September 11th was far more than a bother to those who were killed and to the thousands of loved ones left behind. It was a sudden, violent, and unprovoked attack against our fellow Americans that must be—and is being—addressed. Nonetheless, your personal odds of being killed by either a terrorist or a random air crash remain slight indeed.

We tend to pick out certain ways of dying for special paranoid treatment. Less than 1000 people will likely die in air crashes in the USA this year, even including the September 11th incidents. That’s how many are killed every two weeks on the highways in this country, and yet, for the moment, we’d rather drive than fly. One out of 50,000 Americans will die as the result of terrorism this year, making it a trailing form of death, yet people are avoiding entire cities, afraid for their skins. (By contrast, one in 714 will die from cigarettes, many of those nonsmokers subjected to someone else's smoke.)

My personal opinion is that the terrorists have taken their best shot, at least until they get their hands on a nuclear bomb (one good reason to get serious about rooting the terrorists out). September 11th took years of planning and depended on our commitment to negotiate with, rather than overcome, hijackers. It took only minutes until the rules changed. Once the people aboard the Pennsylvania flight found out, via cell phone, what was going on, the hijackers were out of business. A couple weeks later, when a passenger on a plane coming out of Chicago tried storming the cockpit, he was taken down before he posed a threat to anyone. No one will be pulling this trick for a second time.

Anthrax arriving through the mail will also be dealt with fairly quickly, with the installation of equipment that will sterilize everything passing through.

Even with these positive responses, it could be that our brief, golden era, with its freedom from fear of violent death, may be over. We may have to learn to live with a certain level of terrorism in this country, in spite of our best efforts to thwart it. We will be OK. The British have lived with IRA terrorism for a couple decades, and life goes on in England. The Israelis have lived with terrorism for decades, and life goes on in Israel.

In World War Two, London was struck almost nightly by bombs and missiles, compliments of the Germans. Whole blocks of buildings disappeared every day. People adjusted and continued to live their lives. They got used to it. They didn’t come to love it, but they got used to it. We'll get used to it, too.

It’s time to live life again. If you missed Thanksgiving with your family, start making plans for Christmas.

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