This is, in the United States, an age of (relative) sexual liberation: Sex outside of marriage is common to the point of normalcy. Homosexuality and gender fluidity are increasingly accepted as natural expressions of human sexuality. Sex, in general, is the subject of public and open discussion in a way it hasn’t been before. Within the space of only a few generations—and with an acceleration that occurred over just the past several decades—American culture has done what in the centuries before would have seemed unimaginable: It has become (mostly, sort of, relatively) comfortable with sex.
You can attribute at least some of that, says the sex columnist and LGBTQ advocate Dan Savage, to the queer rights movement—and to the speedy normalization of gay culture in American life that arose as a result of its efforts. As more and more gay characters appeared on TV, and as more actors and athletes came out and encouraged their non-famous counterparts to do the same, and as queer rights advocates worked with their communities, Americans in general became, quickly, much more aware than they had been about gay life. And with that came an awareness, too, of gay sex.
That changed things for the better, and not just for the LGBTQ community. As Savage said today in a conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic: “Gay people coming out, in the face of judgment and shame, about their sexual expressions encouraged a lot of straight people to express their sexual identities beyond just ‘I want to meet someone, get married, and have some babies.’”
American cultural life is still—still!—informed by our origin story: Americans, when it comes to sex as well as many other things, tend to maintain, in subtle ways and not-so-subtle ones, what Savage termed “this puritan hatred of pleasure.” Gay sex, however, disentangles sexual pleasure from the possibility of procreation: It exists for itself, and for its participants, on its—and on their—own terms. (Or, as Savage put it: “Gay people were the original recreational sex-ers.”) And their awareness of that kind of pleasure-for-pleasure’s-sake sexual expression, Savage said, helped to create a model for straight sex that emphasized desire over obligation, and pleasure over guilt.
One thing in particular helped to bring gay sex to the forefront of the American consciousness, Savage argued: the AIDS crisis. The crisis, when it was finally discussed openly in American culture, in some ways flipped traditional ideas of what was permissible, and what was deviant, in sex. “Things that were ‘normal’ were suddenly less safe than things that were ‘perverse,’” Savage said. Sexual activities that had been held up as signs of moral depravity—oral sex and the like—were suddenly safer than penetrative sex. As a result: “I think the AIDS epidemic,” Savage said, “forced people to talk about not the sex we thought we should be having, but the sex we were actually having.”
And that permission for frankness opened the door, Savage suggested, for straight people to think more liberally—and more permissively—about their own sex lives. As gay culture left the shadows, the sense of sex as pleasure alone came out along with it. “I really think that that changed the way people talk about sex,” Savage said, “and the way that they’re entitled to sex and desire.” That forced the members of an aggressively heteronormative culture to question, for themselves, what sex is really for. And it opened up the possibility, formerly foreclosed by Americans’ latent puritanism, that sex could exist, if you wanted it to, for pleasure alone.
Or, as Savage summed it up: “A lot of closets were opened after gay people came out of them.”