Love During Wartime
As George W. Bush declared war on Iraq and deployed troops, and the cool glow of CNN filled many homes over the past few months, was there another warmer gettin’-it-on glow glimmering in American bedrooms and front lines? If so, how does one find out?
It’s not like there’s a Nielsen reporting system for Americans’ sex habits (one pictures a post-coital couple relaxing in bed as one partner clicks in their log for the night — “Foreplay, oral, strap-on and then on the floor — did I get it all, honey?”). At least until Senator Santorum has his way, what happens in the bedroom is private and not easily documented and analyzed.
Which isn’t to say many journalists haven’t tried, particularly from September 11 on, to draw some sort of conclusion or sociological trend in American sex spawned by the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks and subsequent wars.
Immediately after September 11, a few articles noted the “terror sex” trend — as a Baltimore Citypaper article by Liz Langley reported in the weeks following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Langley’s impetus for the story was a Salon.com article noting that New Yorkers were having much more sex in the week after 9/11 than usual, feeding off the fear that there were no guarantees, there may not be a tomorrow, etc. Where the Salon article got its data, other than from a few academics quoted in the article, isn’t clear — while the writer may have had access to a range of acquaintances and strangers willing to share their exploits, it seems difficult to draw a trend from stories (many of them likely secondhand).
Langley herself tried to find a New Yorker who could confirm the Salon article’s assertation. Although she didn’t disclose how many she queried, she noted that not one New Yorker she talked to had heard of the terror sex craze that was apparently sweeping the city. It’s certainly a romantic notion, isn’t it? In the midst of the rubble, frightened survivors clinging to each other, having life-affirming sex, generating hope, happiness and maybe even something more — babies. In the Salon article, sociologist Pepper Schwartz predicted that a new baby boom would arise as a result of the September 11 attacks.
And sure enough, come May and June 2002, stories of hospitals gearing up for busy maternity wards abounded in major newspapers and major on-line news sites such as CBSNews. Even though some doctors noted that birth rates typically go up in the summer and expressed skepticism that the increase was connected to September 11, the articles used headlines such as “Post-Sept 11 Baby Boom” and “Are Tiny Miracles Born Out of Tragedy?,” clinging to the assumption that the fear generated by the terrorist attacks prompted a whole new generation of Americans, despite a lack of evidence and historical trends that suggest the economy has way more effect on the birthrate than single events. War in Iraq and September 11 are obviously major events, but the urban legends abound about baby booms occurring during blackouts, hurricanes, strikes by professional sports teams and just about any other disruption to daily life.
Ironically, a Salon article in September 2002 focused on how Americans conjure baby booms from tragedy. Writer Damien Cave observes that for “every couple who decided to have children in the wake of the disaster, there seems to be one or more who decided not to bring new life into an uncertain post-9/11 world, or, even more likely, simply did not see the attacks as an impetus for parenthood.” And although some individual hospitals reported a spike in births in May, June and July of 2002, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that overall births in 2002 were at an all-time low, and according to the Cave article, demographers are predicting a similarly flat, if not lower rate for 2003, as the economy worsened.
Which again brings us back to the original question — how does one find out how sex practices have changed in relation to an event? Obviously simply asking friends, acquaintances and academics won’t do it. Tracking birth rates is one way, but doesn’t account for the non-babymaking variety of sex — i.e., the majority of sex — that’s being had out there.
That’s when journalists turn to sex toy purveyors — present company included — and ask for glimpses of our sales figures for a picture of who’s having what sex and where. So maybe looking at Good Vibrations’ sales is a good indication, though even that leads to the same wild guess speculation that surround the post 9-11 terror sex trend. For example, if there was indeed a terror sex trend after September 11, it wasn’t terror sex with sex toys, books or videos, as our sales slumped just like most every other company’s did. And the war in Iraq? In the two weeks leading to war, sales dropped by 16% from the two weeks prior; once war was declared, sales rebounded back to original levels. Though it seems the time of greatest anticipation and uncertainty translated to a fairly sizeable dip in our sales, we could speculate on the dip happening for many reasons: taxes would be due soon, Good Vibrations was coming off of a brisk Valentine’s season and most likely, the economy was continuing to tank.
For those in the line of fire, however, we did notice a remarkable trend — in the two weeks after war began, sales to military APO addresses tripled, and continued to ascend once war was declared. Condom sales went up tenfold while porn videos (our current cultural answer to the Rita Hayworth pinup in GI barracks) sold nearly six times more, trends that suggest that the proximity of real risk and danger increases the need for sex and companionship, whether with another person or with oneself. Or maybe the Armed Forces just doesn’t provide a lot of safer sex supplies to GIs.
There is some truth to the notion that real war situations do beget the need for human contact. According to author James R. Petersen in the History Channel program “The XY Factor,” “War changes sex. Nothing about war assumes the long run. You don’t have a tomorrow, so you say what you want your body to say today.” Good Vibes’ data certainly supports that statement. But sales figures aside, even Good Vibrations still won’t have a good idea of who was affected by September 11 and the war in Iraq in that he or she is having the most meaningful and constant sex ever, or who realized that life was too short and their relationship too long, or who engaged in an affair, or not.
And come to think it, that’s okay. Do we really need to know what Americans are doing behind closed doors and what makes them do what they do? Maybe, if we’re Kinsey researchers (or Sen. Santorum, natch), but otherwise, perhaps it’s best we never really hear the truth about how tragedies do or don’t affect sexual practices. Think about it: How could the hard facts ever live up to our fantasies, romantic speculations and vicarious, voyeuristic scenarios about what our friends and neighbors are doing and how often?