Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: Rolling Stone Survey

By David Sheff

This generation has turned its back on once-favored pursuits and now advises, “Do as I say, not as I did’

BY DAVID SHEFF | May 5, 1988

For this generation, the new attitudes toward sex and drug use that developed in the Sixties marked the arrival of a new age unrestricted by old values. This generation endorsed sexual freedom and altered consciousness. And rock & roll was the pulse, the heartbeat of the new age. Elvis Presley’s music said, “Free your body.” The Beatles said, “Free your mind.” Their lyric “I’d love to turn you on” had a symbolic as well as a literal meaning. Turning on was a metaphor for becoming enlightened, but it also had a straightforward meaning: having sex and taking drugs.

This generation has been extremely active sexually. (When asked to rate their level of sexual activity 10 years ago on a scale of one to 10, 40 percent of those having sex at that time rated their activity at eight or higher.) Sixty-five percent said they have engaged in premarital sex. Fourteen percent experienced pregnancy before they were married. Five percent – 4.5 million of them – have had abortions. But very few of them greatly regret having done any of these things. Nonetheless, this generation – now petrified of AIDS – considers more permissive attitudes toward sex a change for the worse.

Forty-six percent said they have used drugs. Of those under age 35, the figure was 50 percent. Marijuana has been used by twice as many respondents as speed, cocaine and hash, which have each been tried by about 20 percent. More than one in 10 have used psychedelic drugs like LSD. Those figures mean 40 million people in this generation have used drugs at some time in their lives. Almost 20 million still do.

But they are very clear on what their children should be taught about drugs. Seventy-four percent would disapprove if their children experimented with drugs. (When only the parents were asked, the figure was 94 percent.) The generation that said yes to drugs now joins Nancy Reagan in telling its kids to just say no.

As for rock & roll, 54 percent said rock music had a positive influence on young people in the Sixties. Yet 48 percent said rock music is a bad influence on young people today. Both older and younger members of this generation feel the same way. And 48 percent said they favor a rating system for albums that is similar to the one for movies.

At first glance, this conservatism may seem hypocritical: “It was all right for us to try this, but you’d better not.” Yet in the end, it may be less despicable than that. It’s not so much that they want to deny the next generation the freedom to experiment. It’s more that they acknowledge the high toll exacted for the experimentation.

The cost of too much drug use is painfully obvious to this generation: death by overdose, wasted lives and a worsening in the quality of life due to drug-related crimes.

The price of casual sex is the risk of contracting AIDS. But it is probably also true that even without this new plague, the interest in sexual freedom probably would have waned. Permissive attitudes about sex are incompatible with the desire for family life that is expressed so strongly now by this generation. Forty-seven percent said that their sexual activity 10 years ago was with one person, while 19 percent had several partners. Eighty-two percent said that now they have sex with only one partner, and only 8 percent have several partners.

The fear of AIDS, though, has affected virtually the entire generation in some way. One-tenth of them – 9 million people – said they know someone who has tested positive for, contracted or died of the disease. Forty-four percent said they fear that they or someone they know will get AIDS. Those who said the disease has had an impact on their lifestyle were asked to describe in what specific ways their lifestyles had changed. Twenty-two percent said they are less active sexually, have casual sex less or are less promiscuous; 18 percent said they know a person better before having sex; 10 percent said they practice safe sex; 9 percent said they have become monogamous.

This generation is also incredibly homophobic. Seventy-five percent said that homosexuality is an unacceptable form of behavior. Fifty-three percent said more openness toward homosexuality has been a change for the worse. Their disapproval has only been heightened by their fear of AIDS. Forty percent said they are less sympathetic toward homosexuals because of AIDS; only 27 percent said the AIDS situation has made them more sympathetic; and 29 percent said it has made no difference in how they feel. Forty-seven percent said they have avoided contact with gay people because of AIDS.

If the members of this generation came to conclusions that seem suspiciously like those of the parents they rebelled against, the difference is the circuitous route they took in arriving at those conclusions. They have based their decisions on experience rather than prescription. And there remain some key differences.

Though they have pulled back from sexual licentiousness, they do not necessarily disapprove of premarital sex or cohabitation. Asked to pick which actions they most regretted, few said they regret either of these. They may not want their children to try drugs, but they aren’t going to tell them that sampling marijuana will turn them into lunatics. Not all drugs are equally harmful. And while they may feel that some rock music has a bad influence and therefore should be rated, they don’t think it’s the work of the devil, either.

Notwithstanding their views on homosexuality, the members of this generation believe they are more tolerant than their parents and still more willing to try new things. Despite their new conservatism, most don’t regret having let the good times roll. They have learned something from it. Now, when they speak to their children, the next generation, they will be talking from experience. And because of it, perhaps they’ll do a better job of communicating than their own parents did.