Young, free, virginal and not a dork

What's sex got to do with it? Some students major in friendship and celibacy - and are cool about it; Shared beds were a rarity, his sexually active compeers a conspicuous minority
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I cannot say I noticed the young man at the opera workshop until he came up to ask me for a lift back to Cambridge which, having had the gumption to ask for, he got. He had been there with a dark-haired girl of his own age who, I assumed, was his girlfriend. I followed in my car while he returned his mother's car to the tiny village townhouse with a For Sale sign outside. He was out of the house in two shakes, threw his kit into the back, and we moved off into the nightmare of Sunday evening traffic.

At first we listened to a tape of Don Giovanni very loud, but then conversation took over. He had graduated in medicine, was doing his clinical year, finding it hard. He was a musician as well as a physician. I found myself asking about one of my pet worries, condom use among undergraduates. I wondered if condoms had improved at all, if condom use had become de rigueur, as it has on some American campuses. Or if people still believed that too many condoms broke. His answers were curiously evasive. Then he said, "I've never used a condom".

"Heav'ns troubetskoy!" I thought and may have said. If students of medicine will not use condoms, then who in heaven will? Responsibility, leadership! Then, perfectly reasonably, by way of explanation, he said, "I've never had sex."

Steady as you go, I thought, being the last person to scream in disbelief at such a pronouncement. Don't make him feel weird. As we crawled past the millionth cone, I studied his face in the red of the brake lights. He was tall, well-set-up, good features, not a nerd or a dork, that you could tell. He seemed to expect me to disapprove. I asked, "Have you ever been in love?"

"I don't think so," he answered, as simply as before. "I get obsessive sometimes."

By this time I was feeling like a dirty old woman in search of vicarious kicks, but I soldiered on. He did not find celibacy difficult, partly because his friends and colleagues were as celibate as he. Shared beds were a rarity. His sexually active compeers were a conspicuous minority, and rather tedious with it. What he was concerned about was commitment; recreational sex was not an option. "Do you think this might be a reaction to so much marital breakdown in your parents' generation?" In some cases, he thought; but not, he implied, in his own.

In the midst of a culture that relies on immediate gratification of every impulse, and that stimulates all kinds of pleasure-seeking with a riot of intrusive imagery, this young man and, I believe, a large proportion of his generation are pure. What a word! The unshockable are shocked at the very idea.

I asked him about sexual fantasies. Not bothered by them. I copped out of asking about masturbation. Did he go to movies? No. And he didn't watch television either. When he and his friends had time off from studying and vacation jobs, they had fun out of doors, all kinds of fun. Who were his friends? Men and women he had been at school with, grown up with. No sexual attachments within the group? None. Sexual feelings between the friends would be quite inappropriate. Gradually the picture emerged of a group of young people without siblings who had made of themselves a family, by building a relationship as enduring and committed as genetic kinship. One of the women had a boyfriend outside the group, and he reckoned they'd get married some day.

There is more than one sexual culture to be identified among today's young adults. Endless surveys giving percentages of people non-virgin at ages this, that and the other blur the contrasting options that confront people coming to biological maturity in our time. An important element in the choice of options is the peer-group pressure exercised at the school; there are schools where kids shag on the school bus, and schools where kids known to be sexually active are ostracised. There are youth cultures where a blow job is a simple courtesy offered to a guy who is getting het up; contrariwise, the rave culture is far less genitally oriented than anxious parents imagine.

Crackerbarrel psychologists might say that my young passenger had been irrevocably damaged by his childhood experiences, that he was carrying a huge psychic load of self-repression, that his circuits needed unblocking by the release of orgasm, that his sex-free lifestyle was unhealthy. Perhaps his mother worries about him and blames herself. Clearly my passenger was healthier than the teenage boys who attempt and often achieve suicide because they haven't managed to lose their virginity. He was more healthy than chain-smoking anorexic young women who have been sexually active since the age of 12. He seemed to me busy, focused and organised.

It would be too much to argue that he had made a rational choice based upon a risk-benefit calculation, because so much of the pattern had developed unconsciously in the way he and his friends of both sexes had built a relationship, but his way of life makes sense. What I thought I saw in him was another example of the way in which our children re-invent the world, finding new strategies to solve old problems, with a concentration of energy, optimism and commitment of which their elders are no longer capable.

I asked him if he thought our overheated culture of immediate gratification had run out of steam, because the appetites of younger generation were sickened by the reiteration of sexual imagery in every imaginable context. He was too modest to make so large a claim. I must say I hope that is what is happening, that, as austerity gains upon us, we will find a generation that values joy above pleasure.

I asked my passenger whether he was afraid that, when he found the woman he wanted to spend his life with, the years of deep reserve would be hard to roll back and intimacy hard to achieve. He said he didn't know, in a way that suggested he wouldn't worry about it, either. I reflected that here was one lover whose awakening to the riches of sexual love might proceed at the same pace as his partner's.

Years ago I wrote about the Dugum Dani of New Guinea, who have sexual intercourse one day a year and hardly think about it the rest of the time. Though my source was thoroughly reputable, I was derided as deluded. No such people could ever have existed. The Dugum Dani think of themselves as normal; men whose thoughts are invaded by sexual imagery three times a minute would also describe themselves as normal.

Nothing is more protean or more susceptible to cultural pressure than human sexuality. Sexual expression is another realm in which anatomy is not destiny. What was most interesting about my young passenger is that his lifestyle has nothing to do with self-denial. He sees himself and his friends as self-regulating and un-enslaved - which was what the sexual revolution was about, after all.