Enough! The Overexposure of Sex Is Ruining the Mood for Everybody

Sick of sex?

You’re not alone. But you’d be forgiven for feeling misunderstood in today’s New York. The city has never been so giddily, aggressively sex-positive; some days, living here feels not unlike living inside the brain of a pubescent male: sex-soaked, but not sexy. A visitor from another part of the country might take a look around and conclude that New Yorkers are copulating and cybersexing their way into the new millennium. It’s as if the peep shows were ripped out of Times Square, only to take residence in our collective psyche. One does not have to be a prude to proclaim, ” Enough !” We have entered an era when sex has become so mainstream, so ubiquitous, so… chintzy.

“I think it’s just tacky,” said Galaxy Craze, 28, a novelist and Upper West Side resident, of the Maxim -izing of New York. “Why do you need to be so accessible to everyone? Why does part of everyone’s body have to be so accessible? It seems desperate. I don’t think it’s modern.” Ms. Craze expressed dismay at some of her fellow female writers’ sex-drenched marketing tactics. “I’m shocked that it’s still going on,” she said. “I thought that it was just sort of something in the early, early 90’s. I thought that ended with that hideous, that gross Madonna book. It’s like someone’s gotta break the ground, and then someone’s got to stop breaking the ground, you know?”

But things are getting seamier. Vanity Fair magazine is preparing a glossy story about Nerve , a SoHo-based on-line publication devoted to “literate smut,” headed by 32-year-old Rufus Griscom, who recently shared in his editor’s letter that he enjoys barging in on girlfriends during their bowel movements. Anka Radakovich, the former Details sex columnist who helped invent the modern sex column, then watched that column peter out after she had chewed the very life out of sex, has resurrected herself in Maxim , Talk and Marie Claire . Still writing about, yep, sex. She said she has two screenplays in development and a deal with MTV. In October, she hosted a champagne party at La Nouvelle Justine, a kind of Planet Hollywood of sex where snickering suburbanites bring friends on their birthdays for public spankings. She attributes her recent success to Bill Clinton. “When I started writing, I felt like I was morally judged,” said Ms. Radakovich. “But with Clinton, with Monica going under the table and having that reported, that changed the whole sexual dialogue in America, which was great for my career and great for me .”

Meanwhile, Salon columnist Susie Bright recently flew in from San Francisco to flog her new book, Full Exposure , at both the 92nd Street Y and Toys in Babeland, a store on Rivington Street that holds an annual Masturbate-a-thon (the proceeds go to charity). Ms. Bright’s editors at Salon are publishing a series called Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl . Amy Sohn, who wrote an X-rated sex column for freebie New York Press , landed a book contract and a column at the New York Post . (However, that newspaper’s rules against publishing sexually explicit language have turned her former four-letter prose into tepid PG-13 fare.) The service magazine Time Out New York recently instructed its readers on how to hire a prostitute. On one autumn evening, literary hangout Elaine’s was overflowing with Playboy playmates (and Dr. Ruth Westheimer) at a party for The Century of Sex: Playboy’s History of the Sexual Revolution, 1900-1999 .

TV is also giving viewers a big dose of nudge-nudge, wink-wink–except that instead of nudges and winks viewers are getting must-see-all TV. The raunchy HBO series Sex and the City , based on a column by Candace Bushnell in this newspaper, has become appointment television for scores of Manhattanites. On the season premiere of Fox’s Ally McBeal , Calista Flockhart simulated cheesy slo-mo sex in a carwash and, in the next episode, obliged the Nielsen audience with the now-obligatory lesbian smooch scene.

And opening in spring 2000 at 233 Fifth Avenue at 27th Street will be a Museum of Sex–MoSex for short–an 8,000-square-foot exhibition space with a cafe and retail shop. The board of gift advisers includes comedian Sandra Bernhard, designer Todd Oldham, writer Camille Paglia and performance artist Annie Sprinkle.

One doesn’t have to look too far in the past to discover who is partly to blame for the sick-of-sex feeling: When America read the details of the Starr report, it was not just the fact that the President was indulging in a 21-year-old intern that sickened, it was the grossness of the sex, the image of the leader of the free world masturbating into a sink, the stomach-churning ickiness of the whole affair, that lingered in one’s mind. No longer can most Americans look at Bill Clinton without feeling a certain queasiness, as if he, like Ben Stiller in There’s Something About Mary , has a perpetual glob of semen hanging from his Presidential ear. In a certain way, one could say, Bill Clinton ruined sex for America.

So what about the guy who kind of started all the dirty talk, Nicholson Baker, whose literate phone-sex novel, Vox , was one of Monica Lewinsky’s early, prophetic gifts to the President? Mr. Baker is now in rural Maine where, he told The Observer , “I’m writing about libraries–ha, ha, ha.”

“Sex is always exciting intrinsically,” said Mr. Baker, “but, putting that aside, in order for it to be exciting to write about, there has to be a little tropical foliage of forbiddenness. And that’s gone away, temporarily. It will inevitably come back. We just need a little mini-Victorian episode to kind of help things along. It’s just that there’s a fatigue with the subject. It’s not even distaste, it’s, ‘Let’s give it a rest for a bit, it could be more interesting in a decade.’ Certainly, I think, with the whole Clinton stuff, whatever reserves of enthusiasm we had for talking about sex–they’re gone.”

”On a personal level, I’ve always been fascinated by sex,” said Nerve ‘s Mr. Griscom. The 1991 Brown graduate–who founded Nerve with his then-girlfriend, Genevieve Field, in June 1997–was sitting in its airy, iMac-filled offices, on the eve of a venture-capital-seeking trip to San Francisco. Ms. Field, a 29-year-old blond woman, was perched 50 feet away, tapping efficiently at her computer. Though their romance is over, she’s still president of the company. Mr. Griscom and Ms. Field represent the new sexual entrepreneurship in New York, worn as casually as Banana Republic slacks. (Asked to compare Nerve to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy , Mr. Griscom snorted, “Their core audience is aging ‘Nam vets, in my opinion.”)

Mr. Griscom was trying to explain what sex is like in 1999. “Just as in your late teens, early 20’s, when you first have sex, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m having sex,’ I think that’s how people were in the late 60’s, early 70’s,” he said, his eyes fluttering delicately behind wire-rimmed Armani eyeglasses. “The sexual revolution was like ‘Oh, my God, sex is fabulous, and we can have it whenever we want!’ and I think now there’s definitely a more jaded attitude, like, ‘Well, of course we can have sex.’ Sex was a cause, a societywide political event. Now it’s more like an individual subject of reflection. I think it’s more narcissistic, but I think that’s good. ”

“I’m sort of in a single mode right now,” said the sandy-haired, 6-foot-4-inch Mr. Griscom, wiggling his sock feet. “I tend to go to parties and out carousing with friends. I’m definitely enjoying being single, suffice to say, after, uh …” He gestured at Ms. Field. “It’s very therapeutic.”

Asked later about working with her ex, Ms. Field said, “It’s fine, really. I mean, we’re both …” She paused. “The only difference is, I think, we have less time together at the end of the day to talk about our magazine, to talk about our baby, than we used to.”

Another pair toiling at the sexual grindstone–though they’ve never dated–are Daniel Gluck and Alison Maddex, the future proprietors of the Museum of Sex. “It’s not going to be dildos,” said Mr. Gluck, a slightly built, married 31-year-old with a B.A. from the Wharton Business School. In fact, by the year 2004, they plan to add a theater and a library, with walls that are semitranslucent to passers-by. “There will be these wonderful moments of cleavage ,” said one architect on MoSex’s promotional CD-ROM (soundtrack by Bach).

“We want this to be a temple to the role of sexuality, not a funhouse,” said Mr. Gluck, who wore a Nike watch, the contours of which he declared “sexy,” and a purple shirt buttoned all the way up. People walking through the exhibits will not get aroused, he added, unless they’re the type to be sexually aroused by a painting.

“With Nerve , they cut off sex at the neck,” he said. “We want to try and stay away from cutting sex off at the neck.” MoSex is planning its own on-line magazine slated to go up in January, called Theposition.com . It will be edited by Jack Heidenry, who’s worked at Maxim , the magazine that had handed a generation of American males a grimy ticket back to their oversexed adolescence.

“I see sex as kind of the newest art form,” said the bustling Ms. Maddex, who is 33 and Camille Paglia’s girlfriend. “Sex and technology are the art forms of the new millennium!”

Can revulsion at sex’s current microwave-style esthetic lead one to go cold turkey? Have we perhaps come to a point where to have sex is to be complicit in something cheap and tacky and soul-destroying, like finding oneself trapped in an airbrushed Details magazine photo spread of “Hot Young Actresses”? Can one shun sex and, by doing so, save sex? Without ending up sharing a root beer with neo-puritans like Jedediah Purdy and Wendy Shalit?

One 28-year-old heterosexual male who works at MTV said that about eight months ago, after a period of furious dating, “I decided to stop seeing anybody and stop having sex.”

He explained: “I decided that sex was just kind of stupid, the whole thing. For a while, there was a lot of masturbation and that kind of thing, but now I don’t even do that. I just kind of will it away. Not having sex makes me feel stronger and mentally clearer. I don’t know–energy, you know, chakras–I don’t know exactly what’s involved, but, by not having sex at all, I feel like you become a more intense person somehow.”

Then there’s Dara Herman, a 26-year-old Heather Graham look-alike who works for Travel & Leisure magazine. When she watches TV, well, she feels revulsion. “People on TV are having sex, and talking about sex all the time, like on Everybody Loves Raymond, ” said Ms. Herman. “It’s unnecessary. We know that Raymond is married to his wife, and therefore they probably have sex, and we don’t need to see them sitting in bed with their robes on, talking euphemistically about condoms. It’s not at all immoral –it’s hard to explain exactly–it’s not at all immoral, in fact more power to anybody that tries to explain to kids that they should use condoms. It’s just tacky . It’s tacky and ugly and esthetically displeasing. I don’t know where it started. It just makes me cringe .”

Maybe that cringe is a sign of health–that cringe may be humanity calling out from the morass of sex. Even David Lynch and David Mamet, both directors with a fine eye for sex’s darker pastures, released G-rated movies this year, The Straight Story and The Winslow Boy . “It’s kind of pure,” said Mr. Lynch of his film.

Barneys New York’s creative director, Simon Doonan, told The Observer that sex wasn’t fashionable. “I never use sex in our windows,” he said. “There’s nothing more retarded than a couple of mannequins leering at each other. If you see a man with his shirt slashed to the waist and a woman looking wantonly at him, there’s nothing more corny. It’s become corny and silly.”

What may eventually save sex from its current tackiness, what may put the oomph back into the act, and bring back some of Mr. Baker’s foliage, is a spate of good old-fashioned boredom.

“Oh, my God, all I do is be bored by sex,” said a 23-year-old male assistant editor at Random House. “It’s like so not interesting and such a pain.”

He recalled his most recent encounter: “I was at a party in Brooklyn. I started talking to this guy who started really coming on to me, and I was drunk enough to find him attractive, so you know, we went home together and did the thing , except in the middle of it–well, a friend of mine from Yale University Press had sent me this book about Gothic sculpture. It was right under my bed and it was beautiful, you know, one of those elegant history of art books, gorgeous. And I just thought, Here are my options right now. I could be having sex with this guy, or I could be reading about Gothic sculpture! And as soon as I thought that, it was just over, and I said, ‘You know, I’m sorry, this isn’t working for me.’ I just kicked him out and then I got out my book of Gothic sculpture. And I was just so much happier.” Enough! The Overexposure of Sex Is Ruining the Mood for Everybody