The University Record, February 15, 1999

Reality of sex, not romance, intrigues MLK Symposium speaker Gail Wyatt

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

“ ‘Well, my goodness, honey. This isn’t what we expected of you. Why don’t you just tell people you teach?’ ”

That’s how Gail Wyatt’s mother reacted when her daughter disclosed her decision to specialize in research on human sexuality. A professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the first African American woman recognized for distinguished contributions in research on public policy by the American Psychological Association, Wyatt spoke Feb. 4 at an MLK symposium sponsored by the Department of Psychology, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Department of Psychiatry and the Black Student Psychological Association. The title of her talk was “Ten Things You Need to Know about Sex for the 21st Century.”

A founding fellow of the American Board of Sexologists, Wyatt is the author of more than 70 journal articles and book chapters on the subjects of sexual abuse and assault of children and adults, and on consensual sex. Her most recent book, Stolen Women, is about the sexual experiences of African American women. In her talk, she provided personal advice, as well as professional insights and research findings.

“Sex is always interesting,” Wyatt began, “and what is going on in Washington probably makes it more so.” Among the key facts highlighted by the impeachment of President Clinton are the first two things on Wyatt’s list: What you consider to be sex may not be sex to someone else, and most sexual practices with others are risky.

“People lie,” she noted. “And who’s more likely to lie, and about what, is sort of interesting. What are women most likely to lie about when it comes to sex? Yes, how many partners they’ve had. ‘I’m more of a virgin than you are.’

“What do men lie about? They’re most likely to lie about whether they’ve ever had a sexual experience with another man.”

Wyatt said we also need to know that marriage is a risk factor for STDs, including the transmission of HIV. “About 70 percent of the women infected with HIV were infected by their husbands or by committed partners. The specter of HIV is not just located in the promiscuous and in drug users. Most of the people at risk are just like you and me.” She told of a 62-year-old woman in one of her studies whose husband whispered four little words on his deathbed: “There were other men.” The widow tested positive for HIV.

But sexual orientation does not predict sexual behavior, Wyatt noted. The culture celebrates the advantages of both having and being an adventurous, experienced sexual partner, without accurately registering the increased risks. “You have to give religion credit,” Wyatt said. “No matter what you think of it otherwise, it does put a real damper on sex. It curbs appetites.”

What gives Wyatt hope for the 21st century is the growing realization—at least among women—that sex begins in your head. “To allow sex to remain solely emotional and romantic is a disaster,” she said. “Our best hope is to encourage the cognitive part. Encourage young people to study each other’s paperwork—their STD and HIV panels—first.”