We may be headed for a celibacy epidemic according to a new book, "The New Celibacy," which reports on debriefings of shell-shocked survivors of the so-called sexual revolution. They've had enough, says the author, Gabrielle Brown, a California psychologist, and so have many others, she concludes.
Given the publishing industry's spinoff tactics, due dates must be near for a confession, "My Week as a Celibate," and a retrospective, "Whatever Happened to the New Celibacy?" Pending their arrival, my estimate is that the boom in surveys and conclusions on mass sexual behavior merely reflects that, in general, the subject is fascinating, but inscrutable. Oh, of course, volunteers have been wired up in the laboratory, videotaped and otherwise recorded. But I'm thinking about macro-sex rather than laboratory acrobatics and the chart-busting zig-zags they sometimes produce on scientific graphs. The real question is: What do we knw about the millions?
The sexologists would have us believe that wholesale revolutions are constantly occurring -- whether toward more (the usual report) or toward less (the claim of the new celibates). But it's doubtful they really know, regardless of the wizardry claimed for survey techniques. A reasonable hypothesis is that, contrary to reports of thunderous changes in sexual frequencies, combinations and adventurism, it's just as likely that mass behavior today is pretty much as it's been for at least several decades, and that the big change is in what respondents tell surveyors.
The survey industry will snap back with the contention that sophisticated sampling and analytical techniques enable statisticians to perceive the behavior of millions is the responses of thousands, and if the answere have changed, then it's a fair inference that the behavior has too.
Now, many kinds of polling and surveying are easy to measure for their linkage to reality. In voting behavior, for example, there's the eventual check of the official court. But on sex surverys, for which there is no equivalent of the board of elections, skepticism can't be resisted, especially in view of the veracity factor that so frequently contaminates self-reporting on sexual activity.
The veracity factor derives from the inverse relationship that often exists between actual activity and claimed or presumed acitivity. Specifically, there are discreet, but heavy, indulgers who, like the military, follow a need-to-know policy in revealing their activities. And then there are those who vigorously project a sporting image, but who, in fact, are closet celibates, as the supermarket tabloids now and then reveal about self-styled sexual Olympians in the throes of legal proceedings with angry ex-mates.
But doesn't the privacy of the anonymous questionaire encouarage candor? Not likely, with survey after survery finding many respondents skeptical of promises of confidentiality. Furthermore , the survery industry is experiencing a door-slamming crisis so threatening to its work that it has convened scholarly meetings to examine the problem. Surveys are to the social sciences what telescopes are to astronomy, and the surveyors are mutering among themselves that the boom in non-cooperaters is muddling their sampling techniques.
Then too, there's the mischief factor, something the susrveyors prefer not to discuss, since it mocks their claims of scientific precision. Mischievous respondents appear to answer in good faith, but don't, which makes them all the more troublesome because of the statistical fallacy that each respondent is a window on millions of fellow citizens. The surveyors assure their gullible clients that they can sift out most spurious replies, but that's not so.
I've never had a sex surveyor accost me, but not long ago, a dinner hour was interrupted by a telephone caller who wanted to discuss my beer-drinking habits. I drink little beer, but in retribution for the telephonic invasion, identified myself as a six-pack-a-day man, preferring cans to bottles, and disdainful, indifferent or enthusiastic in response to a long list of brand names. If the caller had inquired about fleshly preferences, he would have received some shake-'em-up items for the computer bank.
The funny little secret of sex surveys may be that they're heavily fudged by boasting, concealment, wishfulness and mischief. And behind it all are some long-running epidemics -- of celibacy, promiscuity and moderation.