the sexual revolution missed a turn, somewhere out in the desert
The discussion of what we didn’t mean to do is becoming an interesting one:
After decades of sexual liberation — Mattachine, Stonewall, Loving v. Virginia, Griswold v. Connecticut, Second Wave feminism and the Sexual Revolution, Lawrence v. Texas, Obergefell v. Hodges, and whatever else I’m missing in there (and I’m not sure Roe belongs on the list, but maybe) — we somehow arrive at a moment in which we merge a sexualized display of childhood and a relentless media-driven commodification of sexuality with the very clear reality that nobody’s having any sex:
One of the most comprehensive sex studies to date — the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior — found evidence of declines in all types of partnered sexual activity in the U.S. Over the course of the study from 2009 to 2018, those surveyed reported declines in penile-vaginal intercourse, anal sex and partnered masturbation1….
Over the last 22 years, Herbenick has co-authored several studies about our sexual activity. Her most recent research finds that all of us, regardless of age, are having less sex, with the most dramatic decline among teenagers.
At the start of the study in 2009, 79% of those ages 14 to 17, revealed they were not having sex. By 2018, that number rose to 89%.
Liberation stabbed pleasure in the heart; we emptied sex. Hypersexualization turns out to be desexualization. The unrelenting joylessness and death odor of contemporary sexual culture emerges from seventy years of growing openness and freedom. How?
There’s no way to fully cover a question of that scope in a single post — but I refer, as a start, to the earlier posts I wrote about the sexualization of childhood and the way Jim Jones used sex as a weapon. Breaking barriers and repressive anchors broke connections and reference points: Yes, some people were trapped in oppressive societal norms, and it’s not at all my view that all the sexual liberation in our past wasn’t really liberating. But we broke marriage to set people free, and whoops. Some people experienced bourgeois heteronormativity as a prison, and so set out to release everybody from their cages, which seem to have not been cages for a whole lot of people. Congratulations, we’ve freed you from being part of a family.
Christopher Lasch wrote about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and described her argument about bread. (Yes, I said bread.) Gilman argued that bread had become so much better since it had been socialized — taken out of the home and moved to large industrial bakeries, to the superior world of speciality production. The bread that professional bakers made was so much better than the bread that farm wives used to make in their crappy little kitchens in their shitty little farmhouses. So we can see, she concluded, how much better all the other household functions will become when we move them out of the realm of homes and families. Over the course of the progressive century, we did just that, or very large parts of it, displacing family functions with the emergence of the “helping professions.” That went well, right?
The apparent accidents of the multifaceted thing I’ll call the Long Sexual Revolution — Seneca Falls to Obergefell, if that works — run alongside a series of what look a great deal like conscious political decisions to change course, or maybe to nuke the old course. Fourth Wave feminism looks from here like a neutron bomb attack on First Wave feminism, and about as violent a negation of Second Wave feminism. (Third Wave feminism feels like filler material during intermission, but I mostly tried to not notice the 90s and may have missed something.) As I’ve said before, and will say again, First Wave feminists led an age of consent campaign that desexualized childhood; now we have this:
A road that started with sentiments like the rejection of coverture and passed through the Redstockings protests at the Miss America Pageant — the latter a protest against the commodification of sexual attractiveness — leads to little boys in dresses, shaking their sexy little asses on network television for an audience that cheers their glorious liberation. In a society in which people have less and less actual sex. What the hell?
What have we done? What are we doing?
I feel like they missed a category here, he says, staring wistfully into the middle distance, but let’s not talk about that right now.