Innocent Bystander: The Sex Biz

Time was when a voyeur was a sick—or at least kinky—individual who got his sexual jollies by watching other people doing it, and we felt superior to and sorry for him. Today, willy-nilly (mostly nilly), America is fast becoming a nation of 200 million involuntary peeping toms, a state of affairs I’d like to deplore in the most scathing terms.

Let me begin by saying that I’m not for censorship; this century’s classic legal battles for freedom to treat of sex in print and elsewhere were too hard-won and their consummations (no pun intended) were too devoutly to be desired for us to step back now behind a veil of mid-Victorian hypocrisies. At the same time, though, I think that the sanctity of our private lives, not to mention that of our literature, is being increasingly threatened by the cynical commercial exploitation of secondhand sex.

The sexual life of a human being is a delicate balance between the ideal and the real, between the pragmatic and the impossible, worked out painfully over a period of years—adolescence and early adulthood—until an accommodation, an adjustment that will last for life, is finally arrived at. However imperfect that adjustment, it is at least a partial solution to the problem; it permits us to give and receive love, to build an ongoing family relationship, and to free some of our interests and energies for other concerns, of which excellence in our work is the foremost. Until fairly recently, our sexual expectations were modest enough so that we could accept a partial fulfillment as a condition of life and go on to other things.

Now, though, we are constantly invited by the media to participate voyeuristically in the supposedly ideal sex lives of others, to be intimidated and made guilty by that ideality, and to preoccupy ourselves with our own sexual betterment through any one of the dozens of quick, sure cures that proliferate today as wonder diets used to do.

The first step of this highly commercialized (though not conspiratorial) brainwashing process occurs when we have our sexual expectations raised for us by contact with some magazine or book or movie. Plavboy is the proto-villain in all of this, the first mass pusher of the drug of sex to the sensually disadvantaged of all ages, the first mass packager of denatured (and dehumanized) female flesh, the first mass marketer of measured doses of addictive sexual sensation, as Walt Disney was the first mass marketer of measured doses of addictive cruelty. Like Disney, Playboy went about its dirty work of prettifying, trivializing, and making palatably cute (for example, “Bunny” for paid temptress) a part of the human condition within certain well-defined limits of “decency.” Thus it is not alone because of postal regulations that Playboy has not, until very recently (and then very timidly), admitted pictorially the existence of pubic hair; it is also partly because Playboy needs desperately to be accepted by reader and advertiser alike as an unsubversive, overground publication that is part of the system, and partly because Playboy’s sick male-chauvinist “philosophy” cannot admit the existence of a woman’s sexual power, as signified visibly by pubic hair. In fact. Playboy’s central marketing strategy is to sell fantasies of women as powerless, grateful sexual slaves to men who have found women far otherwise—strong, demanding, and frightening—in real life.

But if Playboy confines itself to selling sanitized masturbatory fantasies, other magazines, books, and movies— for a variety of motives, ranging from literary integrity to naked greed—do not. Perceiving our growing permissiveness, they have rushed to fill the vacuum with millions of feet and words of increasingly “frank” sexual portrayal. Just four years ago, the movie Blow-Up created a small sensation with a single fleeting glimpse of frontal nudity; this year, no self-respecting film would dare make its debut without several long, dull, narcissistic, and often insufferably arty stretches of what John Coleman, the astringent movie critic of the New Statesman, has succinctly dubbed “fake fucking.” Since this is as true of good movies as of bad, it means literally that we cannot sit through a serious film these days without being made voyeurs of a simulation of somebody else’s sex, without becoming a thirdhand party to synthetic intimacy, without sharing a ménage à trois with two impersonators. This is all annoying enough, but what’s worse, if possible, is that since our stupid bodies respond to these bogus sexual stimuli more readily than our clever brains, the threshold of our sexual expectations is raised without our consent and even against our will; if the rate of divorce among the long (and reasonably happily) married suddenly starts to rise, as a recent Yale study of infidelity among men thirty-five to forty-five suggests it will, these rising expectations will be a prime cause.

Books, like movies, contribute to this general malaise, and works of fiction, with their ability to concentrate in extenso on minute descriptions of sex, exacerbate the inadequacies of their readers and increase the dependence of those readers on a vicarious, and hence unreal, experience of sexuality. Since sex is now de rigueur in literary as well as admittedly potboiling fiction, it means that the serious reader, like the serious moviegoer, must become a voyeur in spite of himself. From another viewpoint, it makes me fear for the future of our literature, since so many otherwise able writers now modishly throw their talents away in trying to describe the indescribable. Our wisest writers have known for a long time that sex is most effectively treated by indirection, precisely because, in large doses, sexual exposition tends to engage the physiological, not the intellectual, attention of both writer and reader, and thus polarizes and distorts the fabric of the book and the intentions of the author. There is also the danger of becoming ludicrously clinical; as John Cheever remarks in Some People, Places, & Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel, “Out with this and all other explicit descriptions of sexual commerce, for how can we describe the most exalted experience of our physical lives, as if—jack, wrench, hubcap, and nuts— we were describing the changing of a flat tire?” Finally, there is the peril— again, for both writer and reader—of arrested development, of dwelling eternally in naïve wonderment on the rather simple marvels of the fact that tab A does indeed fit slot B, or what Philip Larkin calls “the printed instructions of sex.” “Isn’t it time,” to quote Cheever again, “that we embraced the indiscretion and inconstancy of the flesh and moved on?”

What we move on to as consumers, though, is more printed instructions: specifically, the great spate of sex manuals loosed on our heads by publishers who get their kicks from grosser profits. Having weathered years of euphemistic explication by the old masters (or Masters) of the sex books like Dr. Theodor Van de Velde and Havelock Ellis and the leering Albert Ellis, we finally broke through to new high ground with the imported ABZ of Love: assorted fully illustrated compilations of positions (from which we were surprised and gratified to learn of the existence of added tabs and slots): and, latterly. The Sensuous Man, The Sensuous Woman, and The Couple. If you doubt that it is a degrading experience to read one of these books with serious intent, spend a half hour with The Sensuous Woman; it is exactly like spending half an hour in the home of a semiliterate woman of execrable taste who insists on explaining to you nonstop the provenance and price of each of her possessions. Yet tens of thousands of unfortunates who lack—or think they lack—a full experience of sexuality buy and consume such tawdry slop in the earnest hope of becoming better and more valued people.

Perhaps equally irritating—though probably far less demeaning—is the parallel trend of late toward childish scatology for its own sake in the media. Thus some late talk shows (but not Dick Cavett) would consider themselves incomplete without at least some unhousebroken bathroom references; thus every youth-oriented new movie must show the hero at a urinal or in a toilet stall; thus one William Magruder, an incredible crew-cut apparition out of the late forties, had to certify himself as one of the boys in the otherwise adult purlieus of the Cavett show by defending his stegosaurian brainchild, the SST, with an analogy involving flies and road apples; thus the crude, inane, and boring film There Was a Crooked Man uses a clutch of those selfsame road apples as a clue to the direction in which the bad guy has gone. Ugh.

Our privacy, we are told, is being increasingly invaded by technology and its mechanical and human agents—computers and snoopers of various kinds. No doubt; but it is equally being invaded by the agents of so-called sexual freedom, the supersalesmen of vicarious experience who would obsess and preoccupy us with sex in exchange for our money whether we like it or not. I, for one, do not; I resent and repudiate this no-knock invasion of an intensely private and personal part of human life with which I feel perfectly capable, thank you, to cope without the interference of a plague of huckstering busybodies.

After I had written the foregoing, I came upon an article by Irving Kristol entitled “Pornography, Obscenity and The Case For Censorship,” in the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Kristol argues persuasively for a “liberal censorship” which would distinguish between erotic art and hard pornography; he believes, following the arguments of Walter Berns in a recent issue of The Public Interest, that pornography, like such outlawed entertainments as bearbaiting and cockfighting, tends to debase and brutalize the people. He feels that “pornography differs from erotic art in that its whole purpose is to treat human beings obscenely, to deprive human beings of their specifically human dimensions.” Further, “when sex is public, the viewer does not see— cannot see—the sentiments and the ideals. He can only see the animal coupling. . . . When sex is a public spectacle, a human relationship has been debased into a mere animal connection.” Mr. Kristol also suggests that pornography and obscenity promote a kind of sexual regression, an infantile sexuality that is “not only a permanent temptation for the adolescent or even the adult—it can quite easily become a permanent, self-reinforcing neurosis.” Finally, he adds the valuable insight that, in the arts, “Gresham’s Law can work for books or theater . . . driving out the good, establishing the debased. ... A pornographic novel has a far better chance of being published today than a non-pornographic one, and quite a few pretty good novels are not being published at all simply because they are not pornographic.” All this leads him to the conclusion that a limited censorship is not only desirable but essential, because “civilization and humanity, nothing less” are at stake.

As I suggested at the beginning of this article, I can’t agree. Much as I sympathize with Mr. Kristol’s arguments, I can’t believe that such a censorship—apart from being a repellent measure in itself—would work much better in this country than Prohibition in the twenties or marijuana laws today. If there is an intense (and profitable) demand for pornography, there will be an immense supply, no matter how severe the penalties of the law.

No, I think we must seek extralegal redress for this infringement of our personal rights. We can do this in two ways. First, by working through consumerist means and consumer organizations to lodge a loud and continuing protest with the producers and purveyors of obscenity; these methods work, as some large corporations know. Second, those of us who are writers, teachers, community leaders, makers of opinion can bury our outmoded, liberal, laissez-faire ideas about freedom of expression at any cost—and help to cramp and cripple the mass appeal of pornography by making it démodé, by pointing out its kitschy insipidity, by exposing its infantilism, by laughing it to scorn.


Cover—Herman/Lees Associates

4—Updike by David Updike Coles by William W. Anderson

40—Alfred Olschewski

49, 55—Herman/Lees Associates 59, 63

78, 82-André Kertèsz