Speaking to an audience of suits and ties and quiet jewelry at the 92nd Street Y on May 11, Norman Mailer told a story about an encounter with Lillian Hellman 20 years ago.
“I once was at a party with my then-wife, it was at Frank Conroy’s house in Brooklyn Heights. We were sitting around, at a given moment there were eight or 10 or 12 people there. Lillian had the most annoying habit of calling me Normie. She said, ‘Normie, why didn’t you ever fuck me?’ This is in front of all those people. So I took a deep breath and I said, ‘Well, Lillian, I guess I didn’t because I was afraid I wouldn’t be the best you’d ever had.’ And she smiled very benignly and said, ‘It’s all right then.'”
The audience laughed politely, but there was a feeling of uneasiness in the air, like, Very nice, Norman, now that will do. Old Norman with your silver-headed cane, put it away now (even though it was a gentlemanly story!). And later, when Mr. Mailer did another sex bit, a raunchier Lenny Bruce memento, the nervousness flared, cooled and curled to the wiry black fretwork of shame. The laughter now was uncomfortable. Isn’t that his wife sitting in the front row?
The wild days of sex are over. It’s not cool to talk about them, it’s certainly not cool to live them. The craziness over Bill Clinton’s shenanigans and the craziness over Viagra are really two aspects of the same orthodoxy. Sex is wonderful if you’re in a monogamous relationship, and if it isn’t wonderful, it had better goddamn well be wonderful.
For this new enforced understanding, like every other piece of conventional wisdom over the last three decades, thank the boomers. Thirty years ago, the boomers invented LSD so they could alter their consciousness and then overturn the power structure. Today they invented Viagra because their lives are too structured, they’re in stuffy monogamous relationships and can’t turn on. Forget all the window dressing-Viagra’s not a gay drug, it’s not a drug for women, it’s not a drug for impotence. Viagra is the drug that is supposed to cure monogamy. Because monogamous sex is so … so, so fucking great.
We are living right now in the most monogamous moment in American history. Democrats run on the family values banner, human resource managers police the work force for affairs. Right here in River City, the Mayor has put cameras in Washington Square Park (where we once dropped acid and made out) and has urged citizens to take pictures of men going into topless bars. When Warren Beatty, a prince of free love, went on ABC Sunday morning, May 17, and said-the boy was stammery and nervous; hey, if you were promoting a movie with adultery, you’d be nervous-that it’s not very complex, he can understand why a politician might drop his pants, Cokie Roberts’ eyes looked away sourly as she set him straight.
“Well, it might be hard to understand, but it’s not complex,” she said sharply. It was a moment of pure puritanism, and we’re living it.
I first recognized this moment when I read Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull , Barbara Goldsmith’s fine new social history of the late 19th century (actually, my wife got the book and recognized it, then I stole her idea).
A hundred years ago, wild sex permeated society. The first woman candidate for President, Victoria Woodhull, whose parents conceived her in the back of a revival tent, launched her campaign with a near orgy. The demimonde bled into august society. Affairs and mistresses were everywhere. A “French Ball” in 1869 brought together “three thousand of the best men and four thousand of the worst women” for open debauchery at the Academy of Music on 14th Street. There were more than 20,000 prostitutes in New York City, and guides to brothels were sold openly.
Now find a hooker in Times Square. The place has been deracinated, its tidy neons make me feel like I’m back in Minneapolis. All you see is Helmut Newton’s billboard blonde, butt in the air in Wolford tights. So wild sex is a virtual reality that serves consumerism. And actual sex is a dutiful grind. It’s not just the fact that people are limited to one partner. It’s that the age has so sanctified these limits and their rewards that it’s shut off any real possibility in people’s minds of experiencing extramural gratification (outside the ersatz video variety), of being bad in an active way. The wayward, ungovernable part of life with which sex is or should be entangled (I remember Kris Kristofferson singing about getting some “strange”) is gone, to be experienced only vicariously.
The novelist James Kaplan first spotted the trend in New York magazine three years ago, a piece called “The End of the Affair.” Even in the repressed 50’s, people didn’t put such absurd demands on marriage. They understood that marriage and sex were not the same thing, and that people shouldn’t get divorced over waywardness. In the 60’s, the cultural guide was John Cheever, writing about suburbanites kissing their baby sitters and falling in love, and in the 70’s, we had one-night stands, and in the 80’s, we fucked around serially before we got married. And put so much emphasis on sexual compatibility in our mate that we convinced ourselves that soul mate meant sex mate.
Now Adrian Lyne’s film Lolita is banned, and who is even allowed to fantasize about the baby sitter? When The Washington Post opens its editorial on Frank Sinatra’s death with a parental warning that Sinatra was not a “role model for youth,” that’s puritanism. I mean, if you want to start off on that note, please, don’t eulogize him.
O Washington Post , what happened to you!? Half a generation ago, the Post newsroom was famous as a hormonal fest. “The average American newsroom makes a rabbit hutch seem a model of monogamous placidity,” Jonathan Yardley wrote in 1988. Ten years later and columnist Richard Cohen is exiled for using sexual language in the newsroom and, reportedly, asking a fetching young reporter to stand up and turn around.
Offensive? You bet. But so what. In our youth we were existentialists, we felt the threads of our lives running through our own fingers. Now we need Cokie Roberts to clamp us in hand and say what is understandable in our behavior and what isn’t. The prevailing spirit about sexual matters is doctrinal: The doctrine of feminism that good sex only comes out of equality, the doctrine of the recovery movement that lust is a disease, the doctrine of the women’s magazines that monogamous sex is great (of course it can be; it can also get old). Victoria Woodhull would be appalled. An advocate of free love, she said women were freer as prostitutes than as wives, and that was not strictly a political statement, but a critique of monogamy as stifling.
The obvious objection to my nostalgia for her age is that it was a raw deal for women. This is unquestionably true. A major theme of Other Powers is that women had desperately narrow social roles. They couldn’t vote, and the reason there were all those prostitutes was that it was all an independent woman could be. Something similar holds for my fondly lustful newsroom, too. Buckos like Ben Bradlee dominated and sometimes got to pick the flowers.
I’m glad that age is gone, but anyone who says we haven’t paid a price for feminist achievements is stoked on ideology, Viagra or self-delusion. Doctrine and passion are antithetical. Fairness is no big part of desire. Desire is the primordial brain at work, and that brain wants what it wants. Variety, possibility (and sometimes two guys and a horse).
Good sex isn’t always monogamous, good sex can feel exploitative (and maybe be exploitative). Good sex is Warren, not Cokie; good sex is filthy. In W.B. Yeats’ great poem about sex, “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop,” old Jane reminds the prelate:
“Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement.”
There’s a reason the genitals are down there. The more you try and clean sex up, the more the bad vibes will bleed out somewhere else. Just wait, someday the boomers will realize this. Someday they will turn on monogamy in the same cultish singsong they’ve used to sanctify it, the same piety and self-glorification with which they’ve invested every other stage of their lives will surround adultery. Meantime, close your eyes and think about Viagra.