October 19, 2009

Sex: It's Not What it Used to be

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

As Sally Raskoff recently blogged about, the news of Roman Polanski’s arrest has sparked a conversation about how we think about rape and sexual assault of children. If Polanski loses his extradition fight and returns to the United States, he will return to a very different country than the one he fled. In 1978, the year he became a fugitive, the Rams still played in Los Angeles, Jimmy Carter was president, and the average price of a gallon of gas was 61 cents.

And as the New York Times recently noted, Polanski would also return to an America that has decidedly different mores about sex than we did during the 1970s. While in some ways we might have more liberal attitudes about sex, we are much more likely to condemn sexual assault today than we were in the 1970s, especially if children are involved.

Much of the sexual openness we attribute to the 1960s actually took place in the following decade, after birth control became more widely available. Oral contraceptives only became legal for unmarried women in all 50 states after the 1972 Supreme Court decision Eisenstadt v. Baird, which effectively legalized sex between unmarried men and women. Sex outside of marriage was technically illegal in many states, although these laws were not enforced often, but they remained on the books in some states until the Supreme Court ruling struck them down.

By the 1980s, sex was no longer viewed as an expression of freedom—with the discovery of AIDS, it was potentially dangerous. Ideas about recreational sex began to shift during the late 1980s and early 1990s as the disease spread and teen pregnancy rates rose.

Adults’ attitudes about teen sex are less lenient today too. In 1986 the General Social Survey, a nationally representative household survey, first asked respondents about their attitudes about teen sex (defined in the survey as sex between fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds). That year 67 percent of respondents answered that it was “always wrong,” compared with 73 percent in 2006, the most recent year for which we have data.

Just as concerns about consensual sex began to rise, legal responses to rape became more serious in the 1980s. For example, spousal rape was often considered an oxymoron, and it wasn’t until 1993 that all 50 states recognized it as a crime.

Acquaintance rape, or sexual assault committed by someone one knows, (and frequently called “date rape”) had barely entered everyday language in the 1970s, and states only began passing rape-shield laws – which made a victim’s sexual history and physical appearance inadmissible in court – in the 1970s. Michigan was the first state to pass a statute in 1974, with most states passing their own by the early 1980s.

Awareness about sexual violence had been increasing during the 1970s, thanks to small conscious raising groups and books published by feminist authors like Andrea Dworkin (Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, 1974) and Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, 1975). These books were influential in literary and academic circles, but with the explosion of confessional daytime talk shows on national television in the 1980s, such as Oprah (which debuted in 1986), a much larger swath of the population heard stories from survivors of rape and child sexual abuse further opened the eyes of the public to sexual violence and led to calls for tougher punishment for sexual offenders. Allegations of sexual abuse at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California made for scandalous headlines in the 1980s, though all involved were acquitted in 1990.

Also drawing media attention were celebrity accounts of abuse. Former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur spoke publically about being sexually abused by her father in 1991. That same year, 1960s teen star Sandra Dee spoke of similar victimization from her step father.

In response to the increasing awareness about sexual abuse, social workers, medical professionals, and educators were expected to be on the lookout for tell-tale signs in children they encountered. Dramatic headlines kept sexual abuse in the news: Ellie Nesler famously shot her son’s accused molester in court in 1993, the same year that Polly Klaas was abducted from her bedroom by a stranger, and later found dead, causing national outrage and later prompting the passage of California's Three Strikes law, which mandates life in prison for an individual’s third felony conviction.

Public contempt for those that harm children—especially if the harm is sexual—rose to a fever pitch in the 1990s. Celebrities such as Woody Allen and Michael Jackson were accused of sexual abuse. (Allen was never charged; Jackson was charged in 2003 and later acquitted). Widespread allegations of sexual abuse by priests rocked the Catholic Church. Reports of sexual abuse allegations against teachers, coaches, and others became regular news stories, and from the coverage it seemed that children were under constant sexual threat.

Perhaps because of our increased awareness and concern about sexual violence, rates of rape have declined significantly since 1977. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Justice, respondents in 1977 aged twelve and older were almost three times more likely to have been raped than those who completed the survey in 2008.


Child sexual abuse cases have been declining along with reductions in rape. A study conducted at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found a 50 percent reduction in national sexual abuse rates between 1992 and 2006. While accurate measures of all cases of sexual abuse are impossible, this decline is still important, particularly at a time when awareness about abuse might encourage more reporting.

But concern about sexual violence against children has not subsided. If anything, it has increased. The public is seldom aware of decreases in crime. Add to that fears about new media, like social networking sites on the Internet and anxiety about sexual imagery in pop culture, and concerns about young people and sex only increase.

Polanski would have been better off dealing with his case—and fighting alleged prosecutorial misconduct—in the 1970s. Not only would attitudes about sex and acquaintance rape have been more favorable to him in the 70s, it would have been the right thing to do, given his admission of guilt.


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It's interesting to know that rape rates are decreasing. I wasn't alive in the 1970s, but throughout my lifetime sexual imagery in the media has gotten more and more explicit. It seems to target younger and younger kids the older I get.

When I was in high school (1997-2001), approximately 10% of the students at our school reported being sexually active in a survey conducted by our school newspaper. My cousin who went to the same high school (2000-2004), said the same survey was conducted her senior year and that 40% of students reported being sexually active.


I agree it is great how rape victim rates are going down. It seems that the more publicity this subject gets, the more and more devient its behavior seems. This alone, not to mention various laws, are reducing the rates of this horrible crime.

I also agree that it is wonderful how rape rates have declined so much since the past. It is also interesting to think how the rates of teen pregnancy and the spread of AIDS have increases so much since sex outside of marriage was made 'legal'. It would be interesting to know how these rates would have been affected if that were never changed.

In high school (specifically my senior year), I started to notice the dramatic incline of rape awareness. This awareness even goes to the point of false accusations. My high school soccer coach was falsely accused of having sexual affairs with the female players. An anonymous called alerted the social workers and that day at school all of us had to be questioned. Something as simple as an over-concerned parent or prank phone call could have destroyed my coaches career and public life. It is important to have awareness or rape, but how far is too far? Sometimes fear shadows over common sense and reasonableness.

I think that the media has a lot to do with the decline in rape and especially child abduction. I think another reason for the decline in rape and sexual assault is technology. The way DNA can be drawn to determine who raped you is just amazing and very helpful with putting that person behind bars.

I think it is a great thing that the rape rates are on a decline. The media and the new information that is available for teens today this decline I feel is only appropriate. In today's years rape has become a serious issue in young teens and I am happy to see that something has been done about it. This decline is only appropriate and I am curious to see what the future holds.

Some says that when one is married that when one want's sex and takes it without permission that it's ok but in fact it's not it's considered RAPE rather if your married or not.

I can understand that the reason of the decrease of a rape cases are the spread of AIDS. However, why some people does sex abuse to children. I think parents have to watch their children more often on their children’s everyday activities. They also should limit the access of their children to the internet, games, and parties.

Even with the data right in front of me in this article its hard for me to believe that rape and other sex related crimes are on the decline. Everywhere you look sex is all over the place from movies to tv shows. It would seem to me that children would be having sex at a younger age every generation, if adults are doing it so openly, all its going to do is make children curious. Then if children are having sex at a younger age and birth control makes it ok to have sex with different people on a regular basis. Maybe our rates of rape and sexual assault have to do with people letting the new interested person have sex with them consensually instead of having to rape or sexually assault them. Kind of interesting.

It's great to see that the rates of rape is declining. Maybe the reason why it's been decreasing is because everyone has more knowledge on the subject so they are more aware of warning signs and all. Sex just in general is put out in media almost everywhere that now it's almost hard to even recognize it. I'm sad to report though that every generation children are having sex earlier and earlier. The media makes children aware of sex at too young of an age.


I, like many other people who posted comments in response to this post, am very relieved and glad to hear that rapes and sexual abuse and violence have decreased, and that parents are now not as accepting towards teen sex as they used to in the past. I personally am not against teenagers being sexually active, but I do think it is important for both teens and adults to understand that it should not go too far. Another thing I am thankful for (I leraned this in my psychology class) is how more parents (particularly fathers) are discussing sexual matters with their kids.

Depending on how you view statistics rape can be decreasing or not I think it is the way the survey is conducted and not the actual factual numbers Like in any survey you can make the numbers talk the way people want to hear them. Just my 2 cents.


It's good to know that it has declined or could it be that rape or sexual abuse disguised itself into something that is perceived good with regards to morality.

The media sure has played its role in sexual abuse toward children. I think that it's difficult for children to report cases because they have been told by the perpetrator not to do so; it is unfortunate for those children because law enforcement cannot do much at all. It would be a huge comfort and improvement in our society to have such a horrible offense like child sexual abuse to decrease.

I am glad to know that the rate of rape has decreased, but i think it depends on where you are getting your info about these rape cases. Some places are higher then other and we must try to get those rates to go down. The one thing that i found weird is that parents do not like their teenagers having sex now then they used to in the past. I would think that more paretns today would be more accepting since there are more teens exposed to this.

I think it is a huge step to have the rape rates down, however, it does not mean that rape is down. It just means that women do not report it. I know many women who had been raped, and never pressed charges. This is a huge problem, because it means that rapist get away with it, and can go and attack again. However, I am glad that the idea of rape has changed since the 1970s. By having this change, it means that people will become more interested in protecting themselves, and fighting back. This means progress, and will make possible rapists think twice before raping someone.

Sexual abuse or assault is wrong on every level. When I hear about a little kid be it a boy or a girl getting abused sexually, physically, or emotionally I get really upset. There are way too many stories of this out there and it needs to stop. Rape is another issue that need to cease as well, because nobody deserves to go through this ever in their life. AIDS is a problem that is ripping up lives everywhere, rape is something that spreads it. The community has to do something to solve this problem as best as it can.

It seems to be that the issue of sexual abuse and rape is a huge problem in our society today but this article states that the rates of child sexual abuse and child rape is declining. This statistic sounds very questionable to me. There isn't a week that goes by where I do not hear about some case of sexual abuse or rape over the news, wether it be minor or severe. It seems to have become such a problem in our society today that we now see people unimaginably committing this crime, such as school teachers and church persist. In any case, wether these rates are rising or declining, it is comforting to know that action towards preventing these types of crime is taken more seriously than ever and our society is at full force to preventing them. Exposure of sexually abused victims and rape victims on popular day time talk shows and strongly supported laws such as Chelsea's Law my be the type of action that needs to be taken place to help decease these rates. On the other hand, social networking and less parental control on internet and media exposure may be hindering these decreasing rates, making it easier for predators to gain access to younger children and set these children up for sexual abuse and rape.

I think that as women are more willing to come forward that they were raped, potential rapists have been scared of. The key is to prevent people from blaming the victim.

Thanks all for their nice, informative and really excellent comments. But today I want to say about religious faith. We some have strong religious faith on the other hand someone has no faith at all. Is there any way to measurement the depth of religious faith? I was always confused about the depth and power of my faith on my religion. But today it is clear to me some days ago I got a nice application which is able to measure the religious faith. It is really funny too. I like to share this with all to you. I think you all will also get a lot of fun and will be astonished too. http://lingkarmerah.blogspot.com/

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