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True love waits... for revolting public kissing. The late-blooming adult stars of TLC's The Virgin Diaries aside, American teens are growing more sophisticated about sex. America's teen pregnancy rate is the lowest it's been in two decades. More kids are using condoms than ever before. And comprehensive sex ed programs like this one are helping out the cause. But the U.S. government isn't ready to grant full sexual autonomy to minors just yet: This month, it blocked an initiative to make Plan B available over the counter to women of all ages.
Tap that app. This year, tech entrepreneurs reversed the stigma against gay sex—they asked hetero singles to copulate more like the M4M set. Of course, they can't just come out and say that. Grindr, a massively popular location-based casual sex app for gay men, attempted to replicate its success in the straight population with a thinly-veiled hetero version, Blendr. Straight Grindr hoped to appeal to single women by marketing itself as a way to "find friends" instead of hook-ups. (When executive editor Ann Friedman tested the app, she met plenty of new "friends" comfortable opening a conversation with a dick pic.) Perhaps the Grindr model works better for a service like Bromance, which eliminates sex from the equation entirely in an attempt to hook up dudes with other dudes for strictly platonic hangouts. Women and gays are also invited to bro down on the app.
The new porn mashup. It's a well-worn cliche that women don't experience sex visually. What, then, to make of the popularity of James Deen, a boyish porn star with a growing online following of teenage girls? Deen is not supposed to be the star of his scenes—his sex partners are. But on Tumblr, a network of young bloggers has emerged to turn the focus on him. They trade Deen videos, post candid photographs, and pluck out all the minute details that turn them on: the way he looks at a woman, touches her, stares into her eyes, whispers in her ear. Clearly, some women do like porn. They just require a little bit more than a disembodied penis to get into it.
Photo by Scott Grover
The generation-defining STD. As AIDS marked its 30th anniversary this year, political attention focused on a much different STD crisis—that of the human papillomavirus. Today, about 20 million Americans are infected with one or more strains of HPV. Six million more are infected each year. And the virus' proliferation has complicated Americans' moral judgments concerning sexual activity. The ubiquity of HPV has democratized sexual stigma—the virus infects people of all races, classes, and sexual orientations. If contracting a virus from sex is the norm, it makes it more difficult to dismiss people with STIs as moral degenerates or irresponsible sluts. But that hasn't stopped the political right from trying. Though a vaccine that protects against the most harmful strains of the virus is now recommended for both girls and boys, many parents refuse to vaccinate their children for fear that it will encourage their kids to engage in sex too young. But if they don't do it now, they may be too late—40 percent of women will contract a strain of HPV within just 16 months of their first vaginal intercourse.
Understanding sexual harassment. Herman Cain's brief, strange bid for the American presidency rekindled a national debate over workplace sexual harassment—namely, whether it actually exists (seriously). Cain spent his short time on the national stage attempting to swat down accusations that he had harassed several women while heading up the National Restaurant Association. One woman claimed he "reached over and he put his hand on my leg under my skirt and reached for my genitals," then "grabbed my head and brought it toward his crotch" after she asked about a job. The accusations—four in all—compelled us to revisit America's strange relationship with sexual harassment. In 2011, Republican men were more likely than Republican women to believe that the charges against Cain were true, and commentators on both sides of the aisle weighed in on whether harassment was a true workplace hazard, or just the fantasies of a bunch of sensitive women. Ultimately, the harassment accusations were not enough to derail Cain's campaign—Cain benched himself after a consensual affair was revealed.
Rethinking rape. In 2011, a very powerful man faced rape charges on the international stage—just as a very powerful man did last year and the year before that. The story hit some familiar notes. In May, a New York City hotel maid accused then-IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her in the bathroom of his suite; in August, charges were dropped after prosecutors dredged up portions of the maid's history that compelled them to doubt her trustworthiness. In the interim, the accusations against DSK inspired their fair share of bizarre sexual assault excuses. Ben Stein stood up for his fellow economists: "In life, events tend to follow patterns. People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes?" Bernard-Henri Lévy also stood up for his friend: "The Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere. Charming, seductive, yes." Even American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner stood up, amazingly, for johns: "There’s a knock on the door, a young woman enters. Strauss-Kahn expecting his hooker du jour to emerge naked from his toilette, and despite her protests he doesn’t believe that she’s not there to service him. This could be the parsimonious explanation for otherwise almost inexplicable behavior."
Zygotes are people too. This year, the state of Mississippi came awfully close to reclassifying fertilized eggs as people. The ballot initiative to amend the state constitution was a clear swipe at Roe v. Wade, and an utterly unimplementable law—would embryos be issued Social Security cards? Would a miscarriage spark a criminal investigation?—that was destined for the courts. Clearer heads prevailed, and the initiative failed. But it serves as a valuable remainder that large swaths of the United States believe that women's bodies should be commandeered by the state at the moment of conception.