Contents | January/February 2003
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"The Wifely Duty" (January/February 2003)
Marriage used to provide access to sex. Now it provides access to celibacy. By Caitlin Flanagan
"De Sade's Daughters" (February 1997)
In the new erotic writing by women, sex is a cruel, even murderous business, and men, for the most part, are brutes. By Lee Siegel
"A Birth-Control Crusader" (October 1996)
Marjorie Heins reviews "The Sex Side of Life": Mary Ware Dennett's
Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education by Constance M. Chen.
"The Failure of Sex Education" (October 1994)
"Comprehensive sex education," mandated in seventeen states, is the educational fad of the hour, yet there is little evidence that it "works"—prevents teenage pregnancy and stanches the spread of sexually transmitted disease. By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
"Of Sex and the Catholic Church" (February 1981)
When the bishops' synod on the Christian family convened in Rome last fall, there were hopes that the Church would reform its position on such crucial issues as birth control and divorce. But, despite pleas from liberal prelates around the world, the Vatican-dominated synod reaffirmed the precedence of law over compassion. By Francis X. Murphy, C.S.S.R.
"The Biggest Pimp of All" (January 1977)
The oldest profession predates history, and laws designed to subdue it have rarely proved effective. By Elizabeth and James Vorenberg
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Truth About Love" (February 14, 2003)
A collection of Atlantic articles offers a counterpoint to fairy-tale depictions of love.
The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2003
all me Is-male. You've probably heard about my distant ancestor Ishmael, and the way that when he felt the chill of a "damp, drizzly November" in his soul, he took to following coffins in funeral processions. When Is-male feels a chill in his romantic life, he does something similarly funereal: he tries to give the whole thing the long good-bye. After all, Is-male reasons, he's had more than his fair share of exhilarating encounters—a marriage here, a divorce there—and more than his fair share of misery and heartbreak as well. Why not just draw a line under it, call it done? Style himself after the romantically embittered and disillusioned Graham Greene heroes who trudge off to leper colonies to lose their worldly desires? But Is-male has tried variants of this before, and there has always been some backsliding. He's been looking for something that will put the final nail in the coffin. And then, as if in answer to a prayer, he heard about Sex Week at Yale.
Sex Week at Yale
In which academics ponder "webcam girls," hermaphrodites, demonic-male chimps, the history of the vibrator, and "sex with four professors"
by Ron Rosenbaum
There's nothing like the prospect of a week of academic theorizing about sex and love to make you want to give it all up. And that's exactly what I was hoping for when I heard about Sex Week at Yale—lots of theory, lots of abstraction, lots of intellectual distance.
I heard about Sex Week last year in the following press release, forwarded to me by e-mail:
I'm coordinating a huge event for Yale University which is titled "Campus-Wide Sex Week." Four organizations are organizing the event: Yale Hillel, Peer Health Educators, the Women's Center, and the Yale Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual Cooperative ...
The week involves a faculty lecture series with topics such as transgender issues: where does one gender end and the other begin, the history of romance, and the history of the vibrator. Student talks on the secrets of great sex, hooking up, and how to be a better lover and a student panel on abstainance. A Valentine's Dinner at the Jewish Center with an afro/cuban band and a debate after the dinner between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (author of Kosher Sex) and Dr. Judy Kuriansky (radio show host of [Love Phones] and author of [The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tantric Sex]). A faculty panel on sex in college with four professors. a movie film festival (sex fest 2002) and a concert with local bands and yale bands. and lastly, a celebrity panel with Al Goldstein (screw magazine), Dr. Gilda Carle (sex therapist), Nancy Slotnick (Harvard graduate and owner/operator of the Drip Cafe in NYC), and lastly Dr. Susan Block [also a sex-therapist radio host, and a Yale graduate].
The event is going to be huge and all of campus is going to be involved ...
One of my first thoughts on reading this was that before Yale (my beloved alma mater) had a Sex Week it ought to institute a gala Grammar and Spelling Week. In addition to "abstainance" (unless it was a deliberate mistake in order to imply that "Yale puts the stain in abstinence") there was that intriguing "faculty panel on sex in college with four professors," whose syntax makes it sound more illicit than it was probably intended to be.
But the academic lectures on sex and romance seemed to promise just the aversion therapy I was seeking. I know, from keeping up with trendy literary theory, that the more ostensibly "sexual" most academic theorists get, the further from actual sex they get. Thus the disciples of the Parisian postmodern post-Freudian theorist Jacques Lacan are always going on about "desire" and "the body," but one never feels the remotest presence of desire or the body in their thinking. Listening to academics going on about desire is a profound anti-aphrodisiac treasure for those of us seeking surcease from worldly temptations.
DAY ONE: The Medicalization of Sex
y train arrived in New Haven an hour or so before the first scheduled lecture (on "intersex" issues), which gave me a chance to take a nostalgic sex-scandal tour of the Yale campus and wonder, What the hell is it with Yale and sex?
I first passed the Tomb of Skull and Bones, the legendary secret society that made a ritual of sexual confessions—when not ruling the world, planning the Kennedy assassination, and the like. Seriously, as I once reported, the distinctive element of the Skull and Bones bonding ritual (which two Presidents named Bush took part in) is the sexual confessional session, in which each of the initiates must devote one evening to sharing with the other fourteen initiates a detailed history of his sex life. Whether or not they once lay naked in a coffin while talking about sex has not been definitively established. But nudity does figure in another remarkable Yale scandal, one in which I was both exposed and exposer, so to speak, which took place a few blocks north of Skull and Bones, at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
This was "The Great Ivy League Nude Posture-Photo Scandal." Yale was not alone in being victimized by the posture-photo scandal: just about every Ivy League and Seven Sisters school from the 1930s to the 1960s was inveigled into allowing photos of nude or lingerie-clad freshmen to be taken and then transferred to the "research archives" of a megalomaniac pseudo-scientist, W. H. Sheldon. Sheldon believed that the secret of all human character and fate could be reduced to a three-digit number derived from various "postural relationships" (the photos were taken with metal pins affixed to the spine to define the arc of curvature). I was the reporter who discovered, in 1995, that all these nude photos of America's elite—tens of thousands of them, anyway—were available for viewing by "qualified researchers" in an obscure archive of the Smithsonian Institution.
I don't know if this can be classified as a sex scandal, exactly, but it demonstrates the tendency of a certain strain of academic to find a way to abstract from an actual body to a body of mathematical relationships—to pure number rather than impure flesh, if possible.
But to guard against bias during Sex Week at Yale, I made a point of acquiring, confidentially, lecture notes for Harvard's core-curriculum sex course, in order to compare what two of the nation's pre-eminent schools teach their students about the birds and the bees.
The official title of Harvard's sex course is "Science B-29: Evolution of Human Nature." But according to an impeccable source (a recent graduate), "Everyone just called it 'Sex,' and people would make little jokes to the effect of 'I have Sex right before lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays.'" That Crimson sense of humor!
Actually, that's unfair. Thumbing through the Harvard course notes on the train to New Haven, I came upon a number of funny, flip remarks by the notetaker about the lecturer's solemn pronouncements on the roots of all human sexual behavior. It seems that Harvard's sex course takes a very strict sociobiological, selfish-gene, evolutionary-psychological, chimp-focused view of human nature—one in which culture and nurture take a back seat to genetics, to millions of years of ingrained primate nature. The main variations admitted to exist in human sexual behavior, the chief alternate paths, are based on chimp models. There are the very bad chimpanzees, with their patriarchal "demonic males," and the very good "gentle apes"—the bonobos, pygmy chimps whose females rule. The bonobos have a lot of recreational sex, whereas violence prevails among the demonic males of certain larger primate species. As the Harvard notetaker put it, "So basically Bonobos are a species of female dominated sex freaks. Cool."
The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once put forward the lovable, sex-positive, violence-averse bonobos as her role models for contemporary society. Interesting: as it turned out, not one of the academic lecturers at Yale's Sex Week had anything to say about primates or selfish genes, although on the last day—during the "celebrity panel"—Susan Block, the California sex-advice celebrity, did bring up the bonobos. But in general it could be said that Harvard and Yale were acting out the old nature-versus-nurture split on the nature and nurture of sexuality. For Harvard, your gender behaviors were ruled by your chimp genes. Yale downplayed genetic determinism in favor of cultural contingency: gender identity was up to you.
This was certainly the theme of the first academic lecture of Sex Week. At the designated time, I was the only person in attendance (aside from the lecturer) in the designated room, in Yale's mock-Gothic William L. Harkness Hall. Perhaps it was the title—"The Anatomies of Sex: Theme and Variation"—and the advertised focus on "intersex issues" and hermaphroditism that kept the lecture from being big box office. Suddenly I wondered if Sex Week itself had been a hoax. But then a second person arrived: a fresh-faced young woman bearing a heavily laden backpack, which she set down with relief on the armrest of a chair in the row ahead of me. It soon became apparent what was bulking it up.
"I remembered to bring the sixty-dollar vibrator," she told me, after introducing herself as one of the "peer health educators"—undergraduates who would be leading a seminar and workshop titled "Secrets of Great Sex" for fellow undergraduates after this lecture. She gestured at the vibrator—an anatomically shaped pink latex contraption whose packaging identified it as "The Wascally Wabbit" and whose catchy name appeared to derive from a kind of bunny-ear-shaped attachment.
At this point the lecturer, Professor William Summers, who had been fiddling with his projector apparatus at the front of the classroom, wandered back to greet the peer health educator. Apparently he had attended one of her sex-enhancement seminars, because he spoke enthusiastically about how much he had learned from it.
What I gathered from Professor Summers's lecture was that he is of the school that emphasizes deconstructing the "binary opposition" of male versus female and demonstrating that gender is not some immutable "essence" but a continuum—physiologically, culturally, and psychologically. For the Yale continuum school, the spotlight is on the interzone of "intersex" people, as well as transsexuals and transvestites, because they demonstrate that the binary view of gender is false. Of course, you could also say that the exceptions prove the rule—the intersexual anomalies remind us of the binary poles—but at Yale they don't: the exceptions are the rule.
Enter the hermaphrodites. One could say that the sexual theorists of the intersex school, with their close focus on the genitals of hermaphrodites (or, as some prefer to be called, intersexuals), are allowing the tail to wag the dog. In the past the orthodox wisdom about those who were born hermaphrodites was that they should be surgically "corrected" and assigned a single sexual identity. Now, it seems, hermaphrodites are demanding that they be viewed as normal, just another point on the continuum.
Anyway, such was the theme of Hermaphrodites Speak!, the first documentary about hermaphrodites made by hermaphrodites, "filmed at an intersex retreat"—a film shown by Professor Summers after he treated us to huge blowups of hermaphroditic genitals at all stages of growth. Much of the film consisted of a half dozen or so hermaphrodites sitting around a picnic blanket in a rustic setting sharing their feelings, describing the struggle for self-esteem and their not-so-residual anger at the surgeons who tried to use a scalpel to "correct" them into a single sex. One was talking in bitter tones about his/her desire to take "a dull rusty knife" to the genitals of his/her surgeon. It was at about this time that the "Jazz on Film" contretemps developed.
This is how it happened: Professor Summers hadn't been able to get his PowerPoint software—with which he was to project images from his laptop onto the lecture-hall screen—to work in the originally designated lecture room. Tech help from the crack Yale audio-visual squad had been summoned, and it was determined that the problem was not in Professor Summers's equipment but in the tech infrastructure of that lecture room. A mass shift was made to another classroom. Well, "mass shift" is a bit of an exaggeration: you could still count the number who had finally showed up on the fingers of one hand.
Everything was proceeding smoothly in the new lecture hall, which had been empty at the time of the move, until a half hour or so into the intersex presentation, when students began drifting in expecting a previously scheduled seminar in that room: "Jazz on Film." I could tell as they came in and took seats that they were trying to reconcile what they expected to see onscreen (Mingus and Monk, maybe, talking about the history of bebop) with what they were actually seeing—slides of hermaphroditic genitals, including "ovo-testes," and then Hermaphrodites Speak! There was a bit of cognitive dissonance to be resolved. I suppose that, in a way, the whole intersex/hermaphrodite phenomenon could be considered Nature's jazz—not defect but improvisation.
In any case, after some of the "Jazz on Film" students began to realize that this was, well, something else again, an agreement was reached that the intersex lecture would move on, like a gypsy, to yet another classroom, for those who wanted not to miss the last half of Hermaphrodites Speak!
I must admit I gave it a pass: I had just enough time to catch the next train back to New York, satisfied that the first day of Sex Week at Yale had exceeded my aversion-therapy expectations.
DAY TWO: The Materialist Anthropology of Love and Sex
he second faculty lecture of Sex Week was titled "The History and Theory of Romantic Love in European Culture." At first it seemed to me that Professor Linda-Anne Rebhun's perspective was more down-to-earth than that of Professor Summers, whose lecture was shot through with academic ideology. Down-to-earth even if it was a remote part of the earth. Rebhun is an anthropologist specializing in the effects of urbanization on those folk in Brazil who have left traditional life in rural villages for the cities and are adjusting their notions of sex, romance, and marriage to their new environment.
Although her Brazilian field notes might not seem at first to have a direct bearing on "The History and Theory of Romantic Love in European Culture," the implicit thesis was that something akin to the sudden adoption of the notion of romantic love, which occurred centuries ago in European culture, could be glimpsed going on right now in real time with a set of newly urbanized, newly middle-class types in Brazil. It fit in with a currently fashionable academic mode of thinking that I recently saw referred to as "inventionism."
Inventionism has been rife in the study of romance ever since C. S. Lewis declared in The Allegory of Love that romantic love did not exist until it was "invented" by the poets known as troubadours in eleventh-century Provence, who created the rituals and rules of courtly love and embodied them in their poems; it was, in effect, the poems that created love. Love was a literary convention that became an emotion. I've never understood how a scholar of Lewis's erudition could believe such nonsense—particularly a scholar who had read Catullus' tormented love lyrics, written a thousand years before the Provençal troubadours, or Ovid's Amores, or Virgil's Aeneas and Dido episode. Still, inventionism rules in the humanities, the obvious appeal being that it can allow scholars to become inventors themselves.
I was thrown off a bit by Professor Rebhun. She was wearing a lovely but discreet silver heart-shaped pin that suggested a belief in love. And yet she was asserting that love was merely an illusion imposed by the social structure: that the indigenous Brazilians didn't have love as we know it until economic pressures made it functional. The need to "commodify sexual desire" in an urban context—to embed childbearing in a capitalistic system of ownership and property transfer—required the invention of a fiction called love.
What I took from the lecture was that it's really all about money, if you look at it in a hardheaded cultural-materialist, anthropological way. One could quarrel with the reductive reasoning of this materialist-inventionist view of love and sex. One could ask just how "economic pressures"—these cold abstractions—could possibly invent (as opposed to influence) such profound and complex states as romantic and erotic love. Does it all come down to "We are living in a material world"? And we are all material girls, so to speak?
The professor's lecture made me think of another song, one my parents sang together when we were on a drive or sometimes when they were just standing around the kitchen. It was their favorite song, the one I remember as defining the love that kept them together for forty-five years, till death did them part: "Side by Side."
Oh, we ain't got a barrel of money.
Maybe we're ragged and funny,
But we'll travel along
Singin' a song,
Side by side.
Hearing them sing that refrain made me believe in love even before I met my first supermodel. (Just kidding.) But I grew up believing that love was more than property relations, and not a delusional product of them.
The professor continued her grim disquisition on the specious, epiphenomenal nature of romantic love. Not only was it a delusion, she said, but it could be a deadly delusion, because so many of the great romantic loves in literature, from Tristan and Isolde to Romeo and Juliet, always and inevitably culminated in, aimed toward—were virtually fulfilled in—"mutual suicide." Love—the suicide bomb of the emotions. There is an inevitable disconnect, she told us, between our idea of romance and the stable relationship of marriage. Abandon all hope of love, ye who enter into wedlock. Our ideas of romantic love are incongruent not just with marriage but with all long-term relationships, not to mention with child-rearing. The whole concept of romance can be seen as "an attempt to beautify lust."
Her pessimism, her "realism," her reductionism, her materialism, were so relentless that even though I was seeking to hear words that would help to extinguish the last embers of longing, I felt those embers flare up in rebellion. This lecture was a total multicultural, multidisciplinary, multiphasic attack on the reality of romantic love. And I wish it had been more convincing, because what I remember most from this lecture was the motion-detector problem, which became for me a kind of metaphor.
There were technical difficulties with this room, too, though they were of a nature different from the ones Professor Summers had encountered. The lights kept going out at what seemed like significant moments in Professor Rebhun's lecture. She'd be talking about Tristan and Isolde and mutual suicide, and suddenly the room would go dark. It turned out that this was an attendance problem. There were so few in the lecture room to hear the deconstruction of romance that the sensors that were designed to keep the lights on as long as they detected some motion—some sign of life—would periodically shut the lights off because they detected none. I suspect that if the room had instead featured an "emotion detector," Professor Rebhun's materialism would have turned out the lights for good.
DAY THREE: The History of the Vibrator
all me a coward, but I skipped Day Three. As I understand it, the lecture was a serious academic discourse on the evolution of vibrator technology, from post-Civil War steam-powered contraptions (no joke!) to today's superefficient Wascally Wabbits, Wile E. Coyotes, and Elmer Fudds (note to fact-checking: I made up the last two).
But I did begin to see a pattern developing in the academic lectures. Day One: the medicalization of sex. Day Two: the materialization (or monetization) of sex. Day Three: the mechanization of sex. And then ...
DAY FOUR: The Spiritualization of Sex
hursday, Valentine's Day, was supposed to end in a big debate, and this time on the train to New Haven my Sex Week homework included heavyweight, embarrassing-to-read-on-the-train tomes by the featured debaters: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tantric Sex, by Judy Kuriansky, who is described in that book as an adjunct professor at Columbia and a sex therapist; and Kosher Sex, by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the former spiritual adviser to Oxford's Jewish community and a best-selling sex-and-love-advice author.
Dr. Judy's book was a curious combination of the spiritual and the technical, and even though I'd resolved to leave the pleasures of the flesh behind, I am always open to learning new things. I have to admit I came across two technical terms in The Complete Idiot's Guide that I had not encountered before: the "Kivin method" and the "X spot."
I think I'm just not going to get into the Kivin method in this story; I'm trying for an R rating. As for the X spot, it, too, is X-rated, but at least I can speak of it by analogy with the G spot (which isn't exactly G-rated). The X spot, Dr. Judy tells us, is like the G spot but in another location—an important location that I won't reveal to you (and I'm keeping quiet about the "AFE zone" and the "PFE zone," too). But this brave new venture into alphabetical terra incognita reminded me of one of the more unusual reporting experiences I've had, doing a story I never wrote up: a story about the sixth World Congress of Sexology, which was held in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s, just about the time when the G spot was coming into prominence and people were still debating whether it existed and what it was for.
"Sexology": It's too bad it's such a silly-sounding moniker, one that makes the whole profession seem like a Monty Python sketch. And yet the scientific study of sex (as opposed to unscientific, Kinsey-type sexology) has a place in a world that for centuries lived in ignorance about the way things work "down there" (to use the technical term). Although it may be true that we suffer from too much talk about sex, we don't necessarily have too much information.
What I remember about the World Congress of Sexology is that the debate over the existence of the G spot was similar to the argument of medieval cartographers over the location of the western edge of the world. I remember reeling from all the scientific sex talk and then going almost immediately to one of my Yale class reunions, where I mentioned the G-spot debate. The wife of one of my classmates declared forthrightly, "I don't know what the debate's about; I have one!"
And now, according to Dr. Judy, we have the X spot—if not a new place on the map, a new name for a place whose existence anecdotal evidence, let us say, has suggested. Of course, there's an argument for discovering these alphabet spots in innocence and wonder, although in reality innocence and wonder can be a euphemism for ignorance and error. (But I can't wait to ask about the X spot at my next Yale reunion.)
So I applaud the investigative-sexologist side of Dr. Judy, but that was not the side on display during her appearance at the Yale debate. The Valentine's Night debate—tantric versus kosher sex—took place at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. Dr. Judy entered wearing an electric-blue blazer and turquoise jewelry, and she radiated media-celeb empowerment. (She had to interrupt her talk to do a live feed to CNN, she told us.) Instead of giving a conventional debate presentation, she put on a tape of Bette Midler singing "The Rose," and a selection of Lilith Fair favorites, and led the fifty or so attendees through a series of touchy-feely "intimacy exercises," lining up strangers to hold their hands on one another's hearts and stare into one another's eyes and perform other California hot-tub maneuvers. This seemed to drive Rabbi Boteach out of the room, although he later explained that he'd had a pressing need to phone his family.
What was curious about Dr. Judy's talk, interspersed with the intimacy exercises, was her insistence that tantric sex isn't really about sex, or anything, you know, dirty like that—as if it would be somehow shameful if it were about sex, or certainly something lesser than the religious experience that tantric practices turn sex into, thus sanctifying it.
"Tantric sex is ... not about the penis and vagina," Dr. Judy declared. "It's using sex to move energy, to activate higher states of bliss." Sex, even tantric sex, is just a tool, so to speak, to lift us above sex; the sexual energy is a "generator"—which somehow, inappropriately I'm sure, made me think of those steam-powered vibrators. (It also made me think of the Woody Allen movie where his character is asked by a psychiatrist, "Do you think sex is dirty?" and he replies, "It is if you're doing it right.")
One got the inescapable impression from Dr. Judy that sex was good only when it was goody-goody, spiritualized. Rabbi Boteach was not much different, in his own kosher way. You know about Rabbi Boteach, right? He's the guy who started out as an earnest young Orthodox rabbinical adviser to Oxford students and then somehow, by a process that is still a bit mysterious to me (involving, at a crucial point, Michael Jackson's visit to Oxford), morphed into that special contemporary phenomenon, the "celebrity friend"—of Michael and Uri Geller and the whole Hollywood kabbalah crowd. All of which he parlayed into best-selling books, incessant TV-talk-show appearances, and more best sellers, until ... Rabbi Boteach confessed to the world that he felt used and burned out, and decided that he must step off the celebrity carousel to regain his balance. It was this new, subdued Rabbi Boteach that we were seeing. Although he still had names to drop, he made a point of dropping the name of Sir Isaiah Berlin ("When I was at Oxford, I asked Sir Isaiah ...") before dropping the name of Madonna.
Still, Rabbi Boteach came across as more intelligent and self-deprecating than his previous relentless self-promotion suggested. He displayed an awareness that the realities of making marriage work involved more than kabbalah and sanctification. He even invoked "webcam girls," from reality-porn sites, in the context of what he said would be his next book: Kosher Adultery. The concept here seemed to be to make marriage and monogamy "dirty" (in a good way) as a means of addressing a problem he had evidently heard about from those seeking his counsel: that some husbands can be more lustfully aroused by "webcam girls" than by their wives. "Kosher adultery," I suspected, involves what has often been called "role playing" (or as Rabbi Boteach put it, "bringing the erotic energy of unfaithfulness into marriage"), getting the wives to act like "other women." But when Kosher Adultery came out, later in the year, I was surprised to see it emphasize the notion that husbands should fantasize that their wives were with other men. So the wives are playing other women, the husbands are playing other men ... it takes a lot of work to preserve Shmuleyan monogamy.
Still, I admired Rabbi Boteach's willingness to explore these complex questions. But then I was disappointed when he proceeded to follow a path similar to Dr. Judy's: he abstracted from real people with real bodies to mystical circles and lines. In a way his approach is not unlike Harvard's chimpification of sex, at least in degree of abstraction, although instead of appealing to science it creates a supernatural, kabbalistic gloss—something to do with the fact that God starts out as a circle, an infinity that can't be measured or apprehended. But to create finite creatures "God had to withhold, to vacate Himself to radiate a finite light, a line that represents the masculine aspect of God, Elohim." The Shekinah, or visible manifestation of God, in kabbalah is the feminine aspect, God as circle. Because "men are lines and women are circles," their sexual natures reflect that. "Men are linear, women are cyclical."
Talk about your reflexive essentialism. "The number ten is made up of a circle and a line, which makes it a vision of perfection," Rabbi Boteach averred, sounding like Louis Farrakhan discoursing on the number nineteen. The world is supposed to be about the supremacy of the feminine, "because love is greater than justice," Rabbi Boteach said, now descending into John Gray-style Mars-and-Venus psychobabble.
It was then, after all this talk of sacred lines and circles, that I thought of Ronald Reagan. Not in that way. Instead I remembered a certain slogan that became popular among "movement conservatives" in the eighties—"Let Reagan be Reagan!" And after this double dose of tantric and kosher sanctification of sex following on mechanization, materialization, medicalization, and chimpification, it made me want to say, in effect, "Let Reagan be Reagan": Let sex be sex.
Why won't the experts let sex be sex? An answer to that question suggested itself on ...
DAY FIVE: The Day of "Sex With Four Professors"
his turned out, to my surprise, to be one of the least well attended but most illuminating events of Sex Week. When I say it wasn't well attended, let me put it this way: the attendees, if you exclude the two earnest and thoughtful undergraduate organizers of Sex Week (Eric Rubenstein and Jacqueline Farber), were outnumbered by the four panelists.
Seeing the utter emptiness of the venue, the four panelists, in consultation with the two organizers, decided to turn the event into a conversation among themselves. And it wasn't a bad conversation at all, because the four professors represented, for the most part, the humanistic tradition in Yale social-science thinking about sex. One could hear echoes of Erik Erikson's "identity psychology" as one of the professors spoke of the difficulty college students found in suddenly adjusting their "affectional currents"—directed so long to family members—to sexual partners. (This seemed a little unrealistic in an age when suburban kids are playing oral-sex versions of Spin the Bottle at age fourteen, although that may not be the kind of affectional current the professor was referring to.)
There was also much optimistic talk about the ways in which "Norwegian studies" have shown that "beginning sex education as early as kindergarten" is a Good Thing. All things Scandinavian are Good Things to sex experts: so wholesome, so rational.
But something more interesting emerged from the "sex with four professors" panel. Perhaps it was because one of the professors was a psychiatric counselor and another was a minister. These people had been in the trenches dealing with troubled students. They had not dealt only with the optimistic sex-as-enlightenment, sex-as-sanctifying-gospel, sex-as-Norwegian-kindergarten view of things; they had come face-to-face with young people who had been badly hurt, emotionally devastated, by sexual experiences in college.
I forget which one of them said it, but in my notes is the line "Turned upside down sex can be a nightmare. Sex can have terrible effects." There is another line in the same vein: "Jealousy is the most powerful emotion." That's a major statement: jealousy, the misery-inducing derivative of love and lust, is more powerful than its progenitors. The tail wagging the dog again.
Here, perhaps, is the explanation for why nobody really wants to let Reagan be Reagan when it comes to sex: Because it can be dangerous, even devastating, not a blissful "energy transfer"—and if an "energy transfer" at all, then more like stepping on the third rail.
skipped "Sex Fest 2002," the film festival. Instead I went to the video store and rented the film I recalled as being at once the most erotic and the bleakest and darkest vision of sex on celluloid, one whose very title sums up the destructive third-rail power of sexuality: Damage. Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche destroy themselves and their families in the grip of an insane but utterly convincing passion (she's his son's fiancée!). Just the kind of thing Norwegian kindergarten fails to prepare you for.
DAY SEVEN: The "Celebrity Panel"
'm not sure you could call them celebrities outside the sex, love, and pornography realm. But I was glad I attended, because there were several surprising revelations from the celebrity panel—and one that was truly shocking.
Dr. Susan Block, dressed to thrill with a bare midriff and a cowboy hat, told the audience (more than the usual handful) that she was a Yale graduate and that "we didn't have Sex Week when I was at Yale—we had sex all year round." She also boasted, "We had sex with teachers, and it was a good way of learning more from them."
Dr. Block spoke up for the old values of the sixties sexual revolution: "Sex is revolutionary!" she told the audience. "Nietzsche said that the spiritualization of sex is love." Then she shifted into a paean to Harvard's favorite primates, the bonobos, the feminist heroines of the chimp world—"extremely sexual" primates, she told us, "who have learned to use sex to defuse violence."
Nancy Slotnick, a Harvard graduate who invented a café and dating service on Manhattan's Upper West Side, called Drip, spoke up for love, albeit in a curious way: "Love is women's favorite fetish," she said. "A fetish is something you don't need to get sex but you feel you need to enjoy it."
But it was Al Goldstein who provided a fitting climax to Sex Week. Goldstein at first seemed to take pleasure in bringing his obscenity-riddled view of sex to Yale's august precincts, making indecent proposals to the women panelists while boasting that his son was "a Harvard man, who's graduating from Harvard Law School this weekend at the top of his class." He talked a good game, all the while keeping in character (obscene wise-guy loudmouth), but the subtext suggested that he was just an old softie. Well, maybe that's not the most apt phrase to use. How about "suggested that he was a romantic at heart"? An embittered romantic, but a romantic.
Goldstein disclosed an astonishing autobiographical fact: the publisher of Screw, the self-proclaimed shameless pornographer, has been married four times! Now, they say that a second marriage is "the triumph of hope over experience." But third and fourth marriages are more generally the triumph of addiction over everything else. Addiction to love. Why four marriages unless for love?
It may be the ultimate tribute to the power of love—perhaps the most powerful tribute since Antony and Cleopatra, a tale about two other much married people possessed by addiction to love. It suggests that love triumphs over the lure of pornography; love is more seductive than webcam girls, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive—not the suicide bomb but the superhero of emotions. Of course, Al Goldstein would never come out and say it. "Men are doomed!" he shouted to the bewildered Yale audience. "Love is evil." He was like the maddened King Lear of lust, raging against his most dangerous foe: "Do thy worst, blind Cupid," Lear declares. "I'll not love."
I'm not sure whether Goldstein really meant it or whether it was the bitter love-hate cry of the hopeless addict for his one true fix. Still, it was just what I wanted to hear. It was music to my ears. Love is evil. Thank you, Al.
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Ron Rosenbaum writes a biweekly column for The New York Observer. His most recent book is The Secret Parts of Fortune (2000), a collection of nonfiction. Rosenbaum's article "Degrees of Evil" appeared in the February 2002 Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2003; Sex Week at Yale; Volume 291, No. 1; 135-142.