Is Sex Still Sexy?

There's something missing in today's understanding of romance.
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If you want to get a sense of how college students approach sex, the play Speak About It is a pretty good place to start. It's a series of skits written by students at Bowdoin, a small liberal arts college in Maine. The skits show students in a variety of sexual encounters, based on real experiences. Bowdoin students must watch the play during freshman orientation. It's meant to foster "healthy relationships" on campus by addressing the issue of consent and sexual assault. Speak About It has also been staged at colleges and universities nationwide, including Harvard, Brown, Williams, and Bates.

Think of the play as a half-baked mashup of The Vagina Monologues and Girls: blunt, confessional, lacking in delicacy. In one skit, a bisexual woman reveals intimate details of her sex life. She lets the audience know that she has "kissed big lips, skinny lips, vagina lips, and penis tips." In another, a male student confides, "Having sex with somebody you don't love just isn't worth it. That's why they invented whacking off."

In yet another scene from the play, we see two co-eds hooking up:

Female: We've been making out for a while now. I wish he would just ask me to take off my shirt.

Male: Really? That won't kill the mood?

Female: What mood? We're in a twin extra long bunk bed. You should just ask.

Male: So you think that...

Female: Just ask...

Male: Will you take your shirt off please?

Female: Sure if you take yours off!

The scene represents a normal sexual encounter between two students. There's moaning. There's orgasming. And yet, it falls flat. While the play wants to promote the idea that this kind of sex is hot and fun, in this scene, it is boring and banal. Erotic sex ideally involves mystery and an electric connection—longing—between two people. But the exhibitionism of Speak About It kills this mystery and longing—it leaves little to the imagination. As the writer and critic Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love, tells me in an interview, "Where there is no distance and no sense of transgression at all, where anything goes and everything shows, there is no erotic chemistry.

Speak About It is not the only sign that young people have a limited understanding of the erotic potential of sex. HBO's Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, and very popular among twentysomethings, is essentially one unerotic sex scene after another. When the second episode of season one opens, for instance, Hannah (Dunham) passively lies on a bed as her hookup buddy, Adam, has sex with her. His muscles convulse. He pants. He has a thin layer of sweat covering his body. He even talks dirty: "I knew when I found you, you wanted it this way...you were a junkie and you were only 11." Then, after he climaxes, he asks Hannah if she wants a Gatorade, putting an end to perhaps the most unerotic sex scene ever written for the screen.

Of course, this problem isn't exactly new. Twenty-five years ago the late educator Allan Bloom wrote in his bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind: "The eroticism of our students is lame." Bloom was no conservative prude. He was an atheist who, rumor has it, had student lovers. He wrote extensively about eros, the Greek word for passionate, sexual love. But, reflecting on the vast majority of the young people who came through his lecture hall at the University of Chicago following the Sexual Revolution, he wrote:

Young people, and only young people, have studied and practiced a crippled eros that can no longer take wing, and does not contain within it the longing for eternity and the divination of one's relatedness to being... Young men and women distrust eroticism too much to think it a sufficient pointer toward a way of life... Their lack of passion of hope, of despair, of a sense of the twinship of love and death is incomprehensible to me.

Eros is, in other words, the beating heart of life. Without eroticism, not only does sex lose its depth and meaning, but life itself does. In an essay from 2000 called "All Sex, All the Time," the British psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple captures this point:

In my hospital, for example, adolescent and young adult visitors to their hospitalized boyfriends or girlfriends not infrequently climb into bed and indulge in sexual foreplay with them, in full view of the staff and of old people occupying the beds opposite. This gross disinhibition would once have been taken as a sign of madness but is now accepted as perfectly normal: indeed, objection to such behavior would now appear objectionable and ridiculous. No one seems to have noticed, however, that a loss of a sense of shame means a loss of privacy; a loss of privacy means a loss of intimacy; and a loss of intimacy means a loss of depth.

Rather than promoting healthy sexuality, sexual exhibitionism is killing the eroticism that has traditionally been the essence of sex.

***

From an anthropological standpoint, Speak About It and the culture it depicts bring to mind a set of studies from the 1950s, which Yale psychologist Paul Bloom (no relation to Allan) discusses in his 2010 book How Pleasure Works. Back then, researchers were interested in the sexual patterns of turkeys. Specifically, they were trying to determine the conditions that inspire sexual arousal in the male of the species. The scientists first found that the male turkeys were aroused by models of female turkeys. "The males would gobble, strut, puff up, and eventually mount the model," Bloom writes.

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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