Much as I hate to admit it, AIDS czarina Kristine Gebbie got it right. The message to youngsters these days does indeed give the impression that sex is ugly, dirty, and a more perverse than pleasurable experience. Ms. Gebbie bungled only when she took on the role of anti-Victorian-morality crusader.

In the space of a few months, I read about public school teachers who “have sex with” (not merely “seduce”) their students; priests who sexually abuse little bows; naval officers who apparently make orgies an annual, celebrated event; and movie stars who take on the names of solemn religious figures to promote videos and books portraying kinky sex. Then there was the ongoing debate over gays in the military, which meant that newspaper and magazine readers were ” treated to ever more graphic descriptions concerning the sexual gymnastics performed by homosexuals. Rap music lyricists got accolades for their latest achievement in moving the term ‘hos into the mainstream of American lexicon. The Whitney Museum of American Art launched its exhibit “Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire,” which managed to outdo even Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Sprinkle, and Madonna. And last August, South Florida installed a “public service” hotline for teenagers (377-TEEN) called “The Link,” which promotes sex as a means of getting rid of tension, abortion on demand without parental consent, and homosexuality as a lifestyle as opposed to a handicap.

All this doesn’t begin to include the multifarious accounts of rape-torture murders; the endless articles exploring the DNA analysis of semen found on some poor, dead girl’s panties; the demands of the Man-Boy Love Association; the aborted fetuses in our faces; and the new horrors on the sexually transmitted diseases front, such as cytomegalovirus (CMV), which is causing birth defects in pregnant women. At a subway station entrance, my husband and I were shocked by a billboard as stunningly tasteless as the sexual message it sought to rebut. The billboard was designed to appear spattered with blood. The caption read: “‘Virgin’ is not a dirty word.”

By last summer’s end, I was glad I wasn’t a kid anymore. Somehow such an introduction to the world of sexuality would have failed to inspire passion, raging hormones or no. Indeed, if we observe the recent admonitions of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders and deposed New York School Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, we shouldn’t wait until youngsters’ hormones are raging. We should assault their sensibilities in kindergarten with a panoply of condoms, sex toys (no kidding), and legitimized pornography. The National Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexual Education, produced two years ago by the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, recommend teaching kindergartners to feel comfortable with their genitals by having them shout “penis” and “vulva.” By fourth grade, the sex education curriculum has youngsters performing the now-familiar ritual of unrolling condoms on bananas and discussing the benefits of “mutual masturbation.” In seventh grade, children advance to discussing oral and anal sex, role-playing sexual situations, and learning the street names for a variety of sexual acts, hi high school, young students are awash in bisexuality, transvestitism, sadomasochism, and bestiality. Teachers are supposed to pass around “finger cots,” which arc condoms for the fingers, and “dental dams,” a kind of condom for oral sex, and discuss “brachiopractic penetration,” which the curious can look up. The idea, supposedly, is to make youngsters hygiene-conscious at dating time. This is sold in catchy phrases like “safe sex” and “no glove, no love!”

Love, indeed. What happened to it?

Somewhere between the bluegrass-country ballads that the Everly Brothers and the Kingston Trio interpreted for their teenage audiences—songs that expressed an amorous sentimentality, incorporated complex harmonies, evoked an entreating innocence, and connected sex with affection—and the heavy metal-rap era, music moved from seduction to sadism, from beautiful to brutal, from romantic to repulsive. Today it is difficult to find a station to wake up to in the morning that isn’t filled with squealing and shrieking and a what’s-love-got-to-do-with-it mentality. Talented new instrumental composers like John Nilsen, Danny Wright, Tom Barabas, Karunesh, Gary Sills, and Clifford White arc ignored by disc jockeys and can be located only through independent music distributors and heard about only by word of mouth, as increasing numbers of individuals seek to escape the cacophony of pulsating commercials and sexploitive song lyrics for more uplifting and romantic fields.

Meanwhile, television languishes in the language of abuse—nonstop sexual innuendos, putdowns, and lascivious catcalls from the audience. Youngsters cut their teeth on the putrid squalor of Beavis and Butt-head. Media moguls say these and other shows are successful because they attract a large share of the viewing audience.

But what about the nonviewing, nonlistening audience? How about those who rarely turn on the tube or radio anymore? Where are the statistics on us? More to the point, when did sex become a mere animalistic instinct? When did “flirting” and “courtship” become synonyms for “sexual harassment”?

As a final indignity, Ann Landers, after 38 years of preaching commitment and caring, offered her commentary on a piece she reprinted from the Los Angeles Times by a Dr. Steven Sainsbury of San Luis Obispo, California. He had written to comment on a 15-year-old girl he was treating for “a rip-roaring case of gonorrhea”—a typical occurrence in his practice, apparently. It was bad enough that he criticized experts who equate condoms with “safe sex,” saying the high breakage rate during normal, vaginal intercourse did not support such a claim. But Dr. Sainsbury committed the ultimate blasphemy when he maintained that the only safe sex is no sex, until one is ready “to commit to a monogamous relationship.” The key words, he reiterated, were “abstinence and monogamy.”

The good doctor didn’t mention marriage, but no matter. Ann Landers took on the heretic, declaring that she was going to “stick her neck out” and “suggest a more realistic solution than abstinence.” Her recommendation? “Self-gratification or mutual masturbation, whatever it takes to release sexual energy.” “This is a sane and safe alternative to intercourse,” she wrote, “not only for teenagers, but for older men and women who have lost their partners.” Her rationale was that “the sex drive is the strongest human drive after hunger.”

It was this sanctimonious diatribe that brought me to the word processor. I’m going to stick my neck out and say: No. The sex drive is not the strongest human drive after hunger. It may be the strongest animal drive after hunger, but it is not the strongest human drive. Love is. Love is what separates animals from humans. Animals may exhibit loyalty, trust, and affection, but these are not the equivalents of compassion and commitment, which comprise the key elements of what we know as romantic love. Certainly there’s physical attraction, or “chemistry.” But having celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary, I can tell you it’s commitment and compassion that keep the “chemistry” intact 25 years after the wedding march is over. Conversely, as any separated or divorced couple will tell you, when there is no love left in a relationship, sex is the first thing to go.

Down through the centuries, music from popular to opera has revolved around love. Love lost. Love gained. Endless love. Falling in love. Unrequited love. Sometimes naive, corny, and sentimental. Occasionally erotic in an amorous, lighthearted way. But love, nevertheless. Until recently, song lyrics were never mean, grotesque, or disrespectful. The music did not remind you of a grand mal seizure. Certainly love was not reduced to crotch-grabbing, cruel images of caged, raped, or battered women and of ripped genitalia (à la 2 Live Crew).

How ironic that the 60’s generation—my generation—which once proselytized “Make love, not war” now admonishes its young to “have sex, not love” and to equate love with a glove, sex toys, and condoms; these, Ms. Gebbie, are the “negative” images; these, Ms. Elders, are the “criminal” messages. Too many psychologists, too many grownups in general, have forgotten what it was like to be a child. Never mind whether it was the 1950’s, 60’s, or 30’s. Just a child. We all had hormones, you know. Today’s kids didn’t invent them. But that first exposure to sexual topics, if I remember correctly, was not about our hormones.

Before I knew where babies come from, before I knew about menstruation, before I knew about the sex act, before I needed a bra, my little friends and I fantasized about love. Paul Newman was handsome; we weren’t interested in his groin. And from the teenage years on into young adulthood, flirting was fun; conversation was the means of exploring the first exhilarating feelings of attraction; and those initial fleeting moments of physical intimacy were exciting. We were in love with being in love. An off-color joke, if it was clever, drew a smile. The details of people’s sex lives did not. They were private. A person’s virginity intensely so.

Because of my recent book, I receive all kinds of adolescent tests and surveys in the mail—some anonymously, some not. One of the most recent, from Nebraska, asks youngsters, among a long list of provocative questions, what they think about when they think of sex. Forgetting the inappropriateness of such a question for a moment, I wonder how many wrote “love.” Or “caring.” Or “warmth.” Or “tenderness.”

I was not raised a Fundamentalist Christian. But ever since my book was published—which struck a particularly sensitive chord among the orthodox Christian community, as well as with other religious groups—I think I better understand why those sneeringly referred to as “religious” these days get bent out of shape when the topic of teaching evolution comes up. It’s not merely that they are offended that humankind may technically at some point have had some close relatives among the simian family, although no direct proof of that theory has ever been confirmed. What really gets under the skin of orthodox religious parents is the suggestion, frequently passed along with this theory, that humans are really just advanced animals.

Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, left to my devices, I would take home the entire contents of the animal shelter. But humans are not animals. And animals, despite some similarities, including emotions and the rudimentary ability to plan, think, and make decisions, are not humans with fur. Humans are not at the mercy of their instincts and emotions. Animals are. Animals, including those species that mate for life, do not contemplate their own existence.

At the heart of the resistance by orthodox religious people to today’s government-mandated sex training is that children are being encouraged to consider themselves as animals, with slightly more complex brain functions, of course—i.e., animals cannot be trained to use a condom. But the fact is, animals don’t need condoms. Nature did not construct animals in such a way that “promiscuous” or indiscriminate sex is going to hurt them. The purpose of sex in the animal kingdom is reproduction. Period. To animals, procreation is of serious interest only when the female is in heat. In humans, procreation is of serious interest mainly when two people are in love.

Love is most fulfilling when it involves loss of self to another person. For that reason, sex tends to fall short of expectations if its sole purpose is self-(much less group-gratification, when it becomes, in effect, a sporting event. It is this point that is at the core of what is called the “sanctity of the family.” Sex, the most intimate way possible to express love on a physical level, is an intensely private matter.

Which brings up the other source of objection among orthodox religious parents to the currently voguish sexual teachings: the rejection of a “privacy ethic” by sex educators. Look at the surveys and the distribution of sexual paraphernalia to young, impressionable children. What is the message? It is that you won’t have any problem with this “unless you have something to hide.” And also that nothing is private. Not even “what you think about when you think of sex.” Not your bowel habits, either, if you read the sex surveys. And when you move on to some of the drug and alcohol surveys, and even to some so-called academic tests, like the Metropolitan Achievement Test put out by Psychological Corporation, it is clear that the details of your family life are not private—and shouldn’t be. Do your parents do such-and-such? Do your parents have this or that in their homes? If you believe the literature, the purpose of this information-gathering is to construct a curriculum that will instill ethical values.

Isn’t it ironic that we once had social sanctions that worked in this country. That kept behavior within tolerable limits and the libido in cheek. When adults, not adolescents, held cultural authority, young men were actually taught that certain behaviors are unacceptable around women. They were taught attentiveness and courtesy and to avoid foul language. They weren’t given lame excuses about their sexuality peaking at the age of 17.

Similar codes of conduct were taught young girls. You didn’t go alone to a man’s room, much less at all hours of the night, and expect no consequences. You were taught what it meant to conduct yourself in a dignified fashion. You didn’t even consider going to bed with a fellow on a first, second, or third date. You didn’t go braless in tank-tops, wear skin-tight skirts, fishnet hose, and spike heels, get your legs shaved by a bunch of drunken sailors, and then turn around and complain about being sexually harassed. Bearing a child out of wedlock was disgraceful and showed a lack of self-discipline and character.

Then the mental “health” experts and the courts came along and in just 30 years managed to remove the stigma from behaviors that, today, are completely out of control. No law against “sexual harassment,” no sex ed course, no “deadbeat dads” legislation is going to bring back the morality and sense of privacy-in-intimacy that was once passed down from generation to generation—values like modesty and chastity, which parents are no longer permitted to pass along, because the schools and the media—backed up unwittingly, perhaps, by the courts—continually undermine the efforts of responsible parents trying to do their job.

Thus has sexuality become the stuff of billboards and bumper stickers, each vying for attention, each more shocking than the last. Oh, yes. Today’s teachings about sex are negative, all right, just as AIDS czarina Kristine Gebbie says. But no more so than allusions to and discussions about the subject in entertainment and the nightly news. As a result, the allure of physical attraction and the rituals of courtship are no longer cute, fun, flirtatious, titillating, or even risque; they’re just plain gross. Sex and love have been granted a divorce.

Sex is now defined as “release of tension.” Art, music, and much of literature focus not on romance, but on genitals, multiple orgasms, and little-understood chromosomal mix-ups that result in unfortunate genetic mistakes like homosexuality and the penchant for pedophilia.

What have we done to love? W’e have debased it. Defiled it. Desensitized it. Depersonalized it. Disparaged it. We’ve even urinated on it. And, judging from our drug and crime statistics, society is paying the heaviest possible price.