Sex Now A Social, Psychological
And Political Minefield -
And It Can Kill


PARIS (AFP) - This century's social and medical advances have made possible a high degree of individual mastery over man's most powerful instinct, at the cost of breaking down moral patterns and traditions that had been built up over generations.
Far from becoming simpler, sex has become a social, psychological and political minefield.
This is the century that definitively separated sexual pleasure from procreation, brought sex out from under the shadow of religion and the state, allowed sexual activity to continue into old age and strengthened sexual choice.
It has also introduced a new disease, AIDS, every bit as deadly as the syphilis that had been the scourge of the 19th century.
The first steps towards a more permissive society began with the industrial revolution: women began working, children were encouraged to pursue education and there was a massive shift from the close-knit rural communities to the anonymity of city life.
World War II accelerated the process, freeing women from traditional roles and allowing them a greater say in sexual matters.
The uncertainty of the war and the departure and arrival of men from other regions and other countries, encouraged extramarital liaisons and hurried marriages. And when the conflict was over, there were the homecomings and the Baby Boom.
This was a time that also saw great leaps in medical knowledge.
Advances in the treatment of trauma patients permitted Danish specialists after the war to succeed where pre-war surgeons had failed in turning a man into a woman.
In 1952, a US soldier named George Jorgensen became Christine Jorgensen. An overnight world celebrity, Jorgensen even appeared in some Hollywood films.
Then, in the 1960s, the scientific advances and the upheavals in post-industrial society collided to create the sexual revolution.
From its roots in Britain and the United States, this rebellious wave swept around the world and greatly undermined the ability of governments or the church to dictate sexual behaviour.
"Sex without love is an empty gesture. But as empty gestures go, it is one of the best," cracked film director Woody Allen, summarising one of the trends of the new movement.
The symbol of this new permissiveness and focus on sex for the sake of pleasure rather than making children was the oral contraceptive.
An early version of the pill went on sale in the United States in 1961. While effective, the product contained high levels of oestrogen that resulted in serious side effects. It was withdrawn from the market in 1988, by which time safer "low dose" abortifacient pills were available.
The introduction of the pill (and, to a lesser extent, intra-uterine devices) brought with it a sea change in the approach to sex in the modern world. Children became a choice, not a consequence -- as the steady or declining population growth rates in the industrialised countries confirm.
But not all countries could afford this form of contraception, and in 1979 China introduced its "One Child Population Control Policy" in a bid to stem the growth rate of the world's most populated country.
Under the policy, each Chinese couple is only allowed one child, all pregnancies must be authorised, and women who have met their "quota" have to have an IUD inserted.
Because daughters traditionally leave their families to become part of the family of their husband, boys are preferred, and abortions of female foetuses have flourished.
In the developed world, the outbreak of AIDS in 1981 took the glow off the sexual revolution. While no cure has been found, effective prevention techniques and, more recently, triple-therapy for HIV carriers have pushed down the casualty count in richer countries.
But in poorer countries the toll has kept mounting. This year, the World Health Organisation put it at the top of the list of causes of death in Africa with one five deaths attributable to the pandemic.
Homosexuals, initially ostracised because of the public hysteria provoked by the first reports of AIDS, soon found themselves politically stronger because of the media attention and the attempts of governments to once again regulate sex lives and choices.
The gay lifestyle came out of the shadows and has been legalised in many countries, with homosexual "marriages" possible in some.
Feminism, with its insistence on rethinking the relations between the sexes, has also caused negotiations between men and women in sexual matters to become, in many cases, a comedy of misunderstandings.
The closing years of the century brought two developments that spoke volumes about our confused attitudes to sex.
One was the advent of the male anti-impotence drug Viagra, which raised the prospect of elderly men continuing their sexual activities up to their death -- and in a few rare cases, combining the two.
The other was the story of Bill and Monica, a president and his intern trapped in an imbroglio of cigar abuse, stained dresses, bugged conversations and political chicanery.
The affair ballooned uncontrollably and for a moment it appeared quite possible that the leader of the world's most powerful nation might be brought down by a dalliance that he couldn't quite bring himself to describe as sex.