THEY are a professional couple in their 30s, happily married, with good jobs in the city and a mortgage in the suburbs. They long to have a family. But so far, the room they've decorated as a nursery remains empty. Inevitably, the wife wonders if she is responsible for her infertility: Could her carefree sexual activity during college and beyond have caused reproductive problems that are now making conception difficult?
As a baby boomer, the would-be mother came of age when the sexual revolution was in full bloom, promising women almost unlimited freedom. Don't worry about pregnancy, young women were told - the Pill and the intrauterine device (IUD) will provide near-total protection. And don't worry about social disapproval, they were reassured - more relaxed attitudes are erasing the stigma against unmarried sex and out-of-wedlock births.
But what no one told these women at the time was that using IUDs might produce infertility and having multiple sexual partners could result in often-undetected venereal diseases.
A study released last week by the Alan Guttmacher Institute claims that 1 of every 5 Americans - 56 million people - has a sexually transmitted disease. Among the 12 million new cases diagnosed each year, two-thirds occur in those under 25 and one-fourth in teenagers. Even adolescents with one sexual partner become vulnerable, the report states. These diseases are said to affect women disproportionately, the study continues. Yet federal and state programs to deal with them focus primarily on treating men .
Every revolution has its losing side. In the sexual revolution, evidence continues to mount that the supposed winners - "liberated" women - are in some cases turning out to be the losers. Instead of the freedom and equality they thought they had achieved, too many find themselves shackled by unplanned pregnancies, abortions, single motherhood, infections, or infertility.
The professional woman with the empty nursery puts it this way: "My generation is going through a really rude awakening. A lot of my friends have deep regrets about their past sexual relationships. I know women who are furious, either because they've developed problems from using IUDs or because nobody told them about the wide range of sexually transmitted diseases."
For teenagers, the picture is similarly sobering. A new report card on the condition of America's children, the annual Kids Count Data Book, documents the "deteriorating status" of adolescents. Among other findings, the report, published by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C., shows that almost 9 percent of babies born in 1990 - more than 360,000 - were born to single teenagers. The rate of births to single teens increased in 44 states and the District of Columbia between 1985 a nd 1990 - part of a 16 percent increase nationwide.
Add to those figures the statistics on teenage abortions, which account for one-quarter of all such procedures. Then factor in the anguished public debates about distributing condoms in high schools, about offering Norplant (a surgically implanted contraceptive) to teenage girls, and about requiring parental consent for teenage abortions.
The conclusion becomes clear: Early sexual activity can exact a terrible price from promising young lives, most directly for girls, but indirectly for boys as well.
Is abstinence the answer? At the moment even the word is cloaked in controversy. Last month a Louisiana judge ruled against a nationwide school program that encourages teenagers to abstain from premarital sex, on grounds that it violated state laws against teaching religion. About the same time, Planned Parenthood in York, Pa., held its first "Great Sex-Out Day" to encourage abstinence among unmarried teenagers.
No amount of stern moralizing will dissuade some adolescents from engaging in sexual activity. But if today's teenagers are to avoid repeating the history of these regretful teenagers of yesterday, adults must find new ways to make restraint acceptable. Fear of disease is not motive enough. Nor is it quite sufficient to bark out the order: "Just say no." Only an awareness of the preciousness of life and the true dignity of being human can preserve teenagers - and adults - from carelessly devaluing their lives and themselves.