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COMMITMENTS : New Rules, New Attitudes? : Fear of AIDS and STDs may have changed the way we think and talk about sex. But we still have some bad habits.


Sex in the '90s is certainly not simple.

Not that sex has ever been simple. But combine the fear of AIDS with the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and the changing cultural roles of men and women, and you end up with a confused and weary society of singles.

What, exactly, are contemporary attitudes about sex and dating? One study reports that the AIDS epidemic has had a chilling effect on the sex lives of singles. But companion surveys report that promiscuity is as popular as ever.

One thing is certain, based on interviews with singles and relationship experts: Attitudes toward sex and relationships have become more conservative. Equally certain is that this change in mores doesn't always translate into a change in behavior.

"I was in my early 20s in the late '70s," said Rebecca, a 36-year-old single attorney in Ventura. "That was the time of disco and the Village People and one-night stands. That's what everyone did and they didn't think twice about it."

Rebecca said that for the last five years, she has thought much harder before getting involved with a man. "The last three years, the warnings about getting AIDS have been deafening," she said. "My friends and I all talk about needing to be careful."

Still, Rebecca admitted that within the last six months she had unprotected sex with someone she didn't know well and hasn't dated since. "I did it because I guess I just wanted an attachment, and I had sex, because that's what he wanted. Passion or need or loneliness motivate us to do stupid things in the face of all the facts."

Andy, a 38-year-old screenwriter, said he is more concerned about protecting himself against AIDS and STDs than he was in the past, but he also said that he has had unprotected sex within the last six months outside a monogamous relationship.

"I didn't see her as a promiscuous woman, so I didn't really worry about it," he said. But Andy, who lives in Los Angeles, said dating has changed a lot since the days of the "three-date rule."

"In the past, I would have expected to sleep with a woman by the third date, if not before," he said. "Now, I wouldn't expect it, and in fact, I would worry if she did sleep with me on the first date."

Andy said that although he's looking toward marriage, he would have sex with a woman he didn't know or like much, if he was attracted to her. But he would wear a condom. "Men are still men," he said. "They basically want to sleep with every woman they see."

Sound crass? Psychologists say that despite the conservative trend in sexual activity and warnings about the dangers of unprotected sex, people continue to operate emotionally in the same way they always have.

Which is why, psychologists say, many heterosexuals who are well-educated about AIDS still think they are immune to it. "In some ways, the heterosexual community doesn't believe it is affected by AIDS," said Wanda von Kleist, a Chicago psychologist who counsels many singles. "There is a lot of denial, because they have not had as many deaths as the gay men's community. In the heterosexual community, the majority of people do not use condoms or safer sex because they do not believe they will get it."

What has changed in the past few years, thanks to the AIDS epidemic, is women's ability to say no, Von Kleist said. "It's more socially acceptable for a woman to say upfront that she doesn't want to have sex," she said. "For a long time, women felt like if they said no, something was wrong with them. I think now women have an opportunity to say what they want."

Debra, a 33-year-old actress who lives in Hollywood, said she insists that a man wear a condom and get not one but two AIDS tests. She said she has sex less often now, partly out of fear and partly out of her own changing attitude.

"I do feel freer to say no now, and I'm more likely to than I would have in the past," she said. "And when it comes to AIDS, I take it very seriously--I've had a good friend die from it. Men tend to think I'm accusing them when I tell them to get an AIDS test--but most men are more careful with pregnancy than they are with AIDS. Because they're at less risk to getting AIDS."

The more conservative swing in sexual behavior has also affected the way men and women relate to one another. In the '60s and '70s, sex was used so freely and casually that many people never really got intimate, psychologists say--people substituted sex for intimacy. Men and women are now forced to deal with each other in a different way.

"Both sexes are definitely more cautious about having sex," said Stanley Teitelbaum, a New York psychologist who specializes in sex and relationships. "For a long time, many people used sex as a way to relate, instead of relating and then having sex. So people who had problems relating used sex to cover up those difficulties. They can't do that so freely and readily anymore."

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