When I set out more than six months ago to begin researching MSNBC.com's special series America Unzipped, I suspected that America’s sexual landscape was more peaceful than Pat “9-11-is-God’s-wrath” Robertson and other combatants in the wars over “values” (whatever that means) would have us believe.
In fact, Americans of all persuasions are experimenting on a grand scale.
Take, for instance, a young couple I met at a in Florida, where they were attending a seminar aimed at teaching women how to tie up men. Neither of them knew much about bondage or the fetish world, but they had heard about the convention and thought it might be a fun way to spend a weekend afternoon. And so there they were, young newlyweds, raised in Tennessee and Texas, with strong religious backgrounds, learning how to get kinky the way other young, upscale couples might spend a Saturday learning how to tell the difference between 18th and 19th century sideboards.
Some of us have always experimented, of course. But now it can sometimes seem as if you’re a total loser if you’re not a dildo aficionado (“Oh, surgical silicone is just sooo much better than rubber!”) or don’t know the first name of the bartender at your local “underground” sex club.
Your bedroom, your business
While it's true that not everyone is experimenting, even those of us who aren't seem much more tolerant of the adventurous. As a woman in Missouri said, “Don’t pressure me, I won’t pressure you.”
Most of the people I have spoken to so far (and keep in mind I have deliberately spoken to those people who seem to be on sexual quests of their own) have no problem with access to adult porn for adults, sex toys, group sex, gay sex, fetish, bondage, you name it, so long as they are not forced to be exposed to it or pressured to take part. Another woman I spoke to said she disapproved of many sexual options, but then quickly added, “That’s just for me and my own standards. I don’t want to tell anybody else what to do.”
So why the sex wars?
Well, America is famous for its guilt. You have to go back, way back, to pinpoint the source of this guilt, but here is one, written by a man who probably has had more influence on American sex lives than Hugh Hefner:
“Freedom from all sexual intercourse is … angelic exercise … But I am aware of some that murmur: ‘What say they, if all men should abstain from all sexual intercourse, whence will the human race exist?’ Would that all would this, only in ‘charity out of a pure heart, and good conscience, and faith unfeigned’ much more speedily would the City of God be filled, and the end of the world hastened.”
That was St. Augustine, perhaps the most important “father” of the early Christian church. Augustine didn’t like sex, believing that it inflamed lust and prevented mankind from following the discipline of reason, the path to God. He felt, as expressed in these words, that the truly charitable, the truly holy would forgo sex altogether and, in an apocalyptic vision, thus hasten the end of the world. His thinking was so dominant that the Catholic church eventually overturned a thousand years of tradition and barred priests from being married so they could focus their minds more fully on God.
Lust was a source of shame. Sex, even in the marriage bed, was a sin unless its sole purpose was the begetting of children. Even then, those who remained abstinent, though married, were holier than those who were not.
Now look at what we expect from politicians and other leaders. They have to appear as paragons of rectitude, practically asexual beings. We want to see them in church, with a prim wife or buttoned-up husband, and we expect to hear lip service paid to, yes, "values." Then, when one slips up (yes, you, Bill), we’re all expected to be shocked at the hypocrisy.
For example, I spoke to several civic officials and public employees when I worked at the adult store in Tempe, Ariz. They were all shopping there, but most of them told me that they could never, would never, stand up in support of such a store being allowed to open if it were being protested by, say, a local church group.
And so, like former evangelical leader Rev. Ted Haggard (or Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker or too many Catholic priests) or politicians as far back as our lusty founding fathers, we learned to espouse one thing publicly and do another in private. We stashed our porn behind furnaces, hid our leather corsets under the bath towels, spoke in code to potential sex partners. We created the American sexual cliché of a repressed population that did it all anyway, but felt creepy about it.
When it comes to sex, we created a hypocritical culture.
The America Unzipped series and my research for the upcoming book of the same name is showing that this is changing, and quickly. Naturally, change makes some people upset.
So you have a man like Joe Beam, a sincere, Bible-believing leader of his faith, advocating the right of married people to enjoy their sex lives, and catching flak for it. Despite the good he seems to be doing for those who believe as he does, he is frequently criticized — one blogger labeled him a “heretic” after the Unzipped story about him came out — for trying to help married people throw off Augustine.
A bourgeois pursuit
But what such combatants do not seem to realize is that an awful lot of people have already done this. For them, the sex wars are over. Augustine? Who’s he? Americans are tired of feeling guilty. Sexual exploration has become a bourgeois pursuit.
This is especially true among people under 35. For many of them, sex has become wallpaper, not a hand-wringing issue at all.
American Apparel, the Los Angeles maker of clothing aimed at youth culture, uses a vaguely 1970s porn aesthetic to sell T-shirts, including hiring a porn star, Lauren Phoenix, who specializes in anal sex (“Buttwoman Iz Lauren Phoenix”) to model socks and underwear. The kids get the joke.
Abercrombie and Fitch’s famous catalogues have featured Bruce Weber-esque nudity and a French clothing maker named Shai goes further by hosting an online video catalogue complete with X-rated scenes of couples in action. You can stop the video and learn about the clothes they are taking off.
Paris Hilton, a parody of herself as the dissolute heiress preening in the grainy, greenish sex video, has ridden that strategy to create a minor financial empire.
There is a lot of fuss about all this, but Americans vote with dollars. So while church groups protest the opening of adult stores in an effort to “save the community,” the community is inside buying vibrators.
Trends like these illustrate something new about American sex and raise a question. We are consumers. If we are to keep up our end of the consumer bargain in the great American capitalist enterprise, we have to buy. To entice us into buying, we are saturated — flooded, really — with media, information and marketing. In it, we are told that a new Bosch dishwasher, a cold Pepsi and a BMW will lead to satisfaction, not just the satisfying feeling of clean dishes, a quenched thirst or great cornering, but of life.
In the void left by the banishment of social restrictions on our sex lives, sexual satisfaction is being marketed this way, too. We need window-breaking orgasms, penises the size of a chorizo sausage and the thrills of the Marquis de Sade or else we’re missing out. Women all over the country watched the striving Manhattan sophisticates in "Sex and the City" talking about rabbit pearl vibrators and suddenly had to have them for themselves.
But what, exactly, are we pursuing? Naturally, the details vary from one person to the next, but in the big picture, I think we are seeking satisfaction and not just the obvious kind.
Some of the people I have spoken to so far have clearly found a measure of satisfaction, depending on what they hoped sex could do for them.
Some have found deeper relationships, a more intense connection with a partner. A few have found membership in an extended community. No doubt some find the enforced open-mindedness itself to be liberating now that they are free to express themselves as they choose.
But as the marketing of sex becomes ever more pervasive, some find that handcuffs and a XXX German discipline video just don’t provide an escape from the loneliness of an atomized, hyperspeed culture in which entertainment is king.
So, caveat emptor.
Still, all of the people I’ve spoken to so far — conservatives, liberals, religious, non-religious, men and women, young and old, satisfied and disappointed — believe they have every right to take the risk, to make the choice, for themselves.
Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and MSNBC.com's Sexploration columnist, is traveling around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, is chronicling his work in the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and in an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.