Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

A Conversation With Pepper Schwartz, A Sociologist of Sex, for the Benefit of the Masses

April 10, 2007; New York Times; A Conversation With Pepper Schwartz, A Sociologist of Sex, for the Benefit of the Masses; By Claudia Dreifus.

Pepper Schwartz leads two lives.

In one, she’s a respected sociologist, a professor at the University of Washington. In the other, she’s a sex columnist for magazines and the author of more than a dozen popular books about love and relationships.

This June, Harper Collins will publish her latest work, a personal meditation about sex and aging, “Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love and the Sensual Years.”

If Dr. Schwartz, 61, is able to bridge the chasm between academe and the airport newsstand, that is because she specializes in a subject the entire world cares about. (Think Carrie Bradshaw with a doctorate.)

“I always wanted to study matters that were important to people in their everyday lives,” she said one recent morning, “and frankly, what’s more basic than sexuality?”

Q. How did you become a sociologist of sex?

A. I was a graduate student at Yale in the late 1960s, studying the sociology of law. At the time, women were not accepted as undergraduates. But in 1969, a decision was made to finally admit them. With such huge changes happening all around me, I found myself more drawn to the sociology of gender than law.

So I signed up to be a teaching assistant in a class on sexuality — one of the first offered to undergraduates since Kinsey’s time. Some of the reading assigned to the students made me nuts. There was all this double-standard stuff about “bad girls” and “good girls.”

When I scanned the professional literature for alternatives, I couldn’t find much. I thought: “I have to deal with this. This is an area I need to contribute to.”

Q. At the time, was the sociology of sex considered a serious area for study?

A. Not really. Many of the earlier sex researchers had been medical doctors. For the most part, they looked at sex from a biological standpoint. The other stream was the Kinsey thing, which was more an enumeration of sexual acts, but not necessarily meanings — as if all acts were the same as one another.

Two researchers I found inspiring were William Simon and John H. Gagnon. They were sociologists. And they believed that to understand sexuality you had to look at how institutions impacted it, that you couldn’t separate behavior from a cultural context. People now accept that. But those were new ideas then.

Q. How has your field changed over the decades?

A. For one thing, studying sexuality has become more acceptable. Back then, it was like if you studied sexuality, it meant you had a sexual problem. Everyone thought there’d have to be some bizarre reason why you’d studied it.

Another thing: there’s more money for research now. Research into sexuality had been poorly funded. But in the 1980s with H.I.V./AIDS, there was, suddenly, money. Epidemiologists understood that you couldn’t contain AIDS without understanding why people engaged in certain practices, why they took risks.

What didn’t change much was the difficulty of finding governmental money to study pleasure. If you wanted to discover why some women didn’t have orgasms, for instance, you were likely to have a tough time finding funding.

Q. Is that still true?

A. Yes and no. There’s a lot of pharmaceutical money now in sex research. Viagra. Once Viagra earned millions of dollars, the pharmaceutical companies saw how sexual pleasure could be monetized. I think the industry discovered there was a longing for sexual performance throughout the culture.

Viagra could work for some men because, for them, the ability to have performance created desire. The companies wanted to find something similar for women. For most women, however, sex wasn’t a performance issue. Female sexuality is more complicated. So the drug companies funded many large studies into desire in both men and women. They’ve created much new literature and new professional societies to meet and discuss it.

And there’s a big debate right now in the research professions. Should we take pharmaceutical money? A lot of the companies will not let you publish negative findings. It’s not ideal research conditions to take money from someone who has a stake in the outcome.

Q. What’s your view?

A. That the drug companies have pumped a huge amount of money into questions not funded by the government. I can understand why a researcher might accept it.

Q. You are a co-author of the 1983 study “American Couples: Money, Work, Sex.” Why do proponents of same-sex marriage frequently cite it?

A. The late Philip Blumstein and I sampled 12,000 people. We compared intimacy in four types of couples: heterosexual marrieds, cohabitating heterosexuals, same-sex males and lesbians. The surprising thing we found was that the straight married couples and the gay and lesbian couples had far more in common with each other than the straight cohabitators.

We saw that the institutional power of marriage makes a big difference. From that, we recommended that gay people ought to have the right to be married.

Q. Today you teach a course for 700 undergraduates at the University of Washington — the sociology of sex. Are your students different from your college peers in the 1960s?

A. So different. They are sexually active and they are not as moralistic. To be a nonvirgin when I was starting out was suspect and usually stigmatized. To be a virgin now is suspect and stigmatized.

What I find telling is that about half my students had abstinence education in high school, and yet they are active. In class, they seem hungry for good information. They want to know about technique, about being good partners. The girls are out there as much as the boys. They ask forthright questions that would have embarrassed my peers. This openness is pleasing. It’s also something I couldn’t have imagined 40 years ago.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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