Sex in Our Time

REDISCOVERING LOVE by Willard Gaylin, M.D. Viking, $15.95.
RE-MAKING LOVE: The Feminization of Sex by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs. Anchor Press/Doubleday, $15.95.
“HIGGIMUS, HOGGIMUS, men are monogamous. Hoggimus, higgimus, women polygamous.”My friends tell me I have got this wrong. It should be “Hoggimus, higgimus, men are polygamous. Higgimus, hoggimus, women monogamous.” But I prefer my version, because it expresses a partial truth less often heard: many women have an instinct for sexual adventure, most often stifled, and many men, even promiscuous men, are at heart romantics, sexual conservatives.
These two books, with such similar titles, both addressing themselves to the unendingly interesting subject of sex in our time, could hardly be more different in outlook and intent. Moreover, they bear me out. Gaylin, a psychiatrist, is a self-confessed romantic who fell in love at sixteen, married his childhood sweetheart at twenty-one, and has lived with her for over thirty-five years. He gives this news in the preface and refers so frequently throughout the text to the pleasures of family life that, frankly, were Gaylin not a man and a psychiatrist, one might think him defensive, or sentimental. His book’s message (at one point he refers to it as a “here-and-now gospel”) is that “we” need to shift our emphasis from the narcissistic pleasure of receiving love to the more mature and deeply satisfying pleasure of giving love; that in order to overcome our “mounting sense of isolation, purposelessness, and ennui,” we must rediscover long-term, committed, monogamous, preferably married, and (but this goes without saying) heterosexual love.
Whereas Gaylin writes in the hortatory mode of psychoanalytic-wisdom literature and adopts unabashedly the priestly role of spiritual adviser, the authors of Re-making Love, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs, more modestly offer an account of the sexual revolution which shows its hidden feminist content. Their thesis is that the sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s had more of an impact on women than on men. They trace the evolution of the culturally encoded “meaning” of sex from the 1950s, when male dominance and female submission were the norm in bed as in the workplace, to the present, when in various ways power is still at the heart of sexual activity but the roles of dominance and submission are not so unvaryingly assigned by gender. They believe that all revolutions in meaning present themselves initially as nihilism, an absence of meaning. They feel strongly that sex has had too much meaning in the past, always reinforcing male power, and that now, when it seems we are stripping all meaning from sex, we are merely in the process of giving it a new meaning. Students of culture, they assume that love is something we reconstruct in every age, not something we rediscover, like the lost city of the Incas.
Their materials are the materials of popular culture: Life, People, Beatlemania, Valley of the Dolls, The Hite Report, The Total Woman. In fact, this history of the sexual revolution is written cleverly in terms of key texts, so that the authors don’t have to make any rash statements about what people do but can merely report on what they can conceive of doing. Sex and the Single Girl; The Feminine Mystique; Our Bodies, Ourselves; Masters and Johnson; The Sensuous Woman; How to Make Love to a Man—what a parade! Remember those sex manuals of the 1950s, which told you nothing you wanted to know about sex? How did we get from Theodoor van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage and other books popular in the 1950s, which told us that women’s role in sex was even easier than falling off a log, because it was being the log, to the hairy and energetic lovers illustrated in The Joy of Sex? We can’t help being struck by the eerie inexorability of cultural change as we watch the ideal of female passivity in sex (can it be said?) go down.
It all began with the Kinsey report’s methodology. Its literalist, quantitative counting of orgasms changed the way Americans thought about sex even more than did its shocking revelations about the amount of premarital and extramarital sex people were in fact having. The methodology implied that anything that produces an orgasm is as good as anything else, and that one orgasm is as good as another. Female pleasure began to be as important as male pleasure. Soon Helen Gurley Brown, more radical in some ways than Betty Friedan, told women they could do without marriage. The medical profession lost its monopoly on sex books. The bedroom became a place of “negotiation.” The new emphasis, codified in books like The Joy of Sex, was on sexual “options.” With the growing visibility of homosexuals and the divorce of sex from reproduction, heterosexuality— that is, the traditional “micro-drama of male dominance and female passivity”—seemed more and more an institution, a cult. Re-making Love brilliantly suggests why sadomasochism inevitably became the cutting edge of sex: because it plays with dominance and submission but doesn’t assume that the choice of who plays which role is predetermined by gender. “For some women, S/M may have been an improvement on the old, unconscious variety of sadomasochism promoted by the marriage manuals of the fifties.” Remaking Love argues that even in the Christian right, women are assuming more-active sexual roles, seducing their husbands to the heterosexual microdrama, as Marabel Morgan suggested they should in The Total Woman. It ends by documenting a growing sexual conservatism, which began before the AIDS epidemic but was certainly reinforced by it.
WHILE THE AUTHORS of Re making Love talk about orgasms and sexual politics, Gaylin talks about commitment. While they sponsor realism, he encourages idealism. He takes the high road and they take the low. I imagine he would see them as signs of “our” malaise. They would surely see him as a predictable mouthpiece for the current backlash—reactionary, revisionist, trying to lure women back to traditional sexual roles through that age-old instrument romantic rhetoric. I confess I’m on their side.
It’s not that I don’t believe in love, and it’s not that I don’t value it. But let me not talk about me. I will talk about “the people I know,” who are very different from the people Gaylin posits. The people I know—admittedly, flaky bohemians and deviant intellectuals— still occasionally manage to stay married. Sometimes they settle for casual sex, because that’s the best they can get, but they generally prefer a daily kind of love, for all its occasional tedium and its inevitable troubles. They sometimes turn to promiscuity, often to prove something to themselves about their own attractiveness or power, but it is rarely a lifetime habit. Their impulse toward monogamy may hook them up for too long with people who are less than satisfactory to them. So they go from one five-year or ten-year relationship to the next. Is this a failure of commitment or an exercise in commitment? The people I know do not fly out of their marriages as though from one cocktail party to the next but leave them, if at all, with deep reluctance, difficulty, and guilt. The last thing the people I know need to be told is to reverence love more, because they already reverence it too much and suffer from its absence too deeply. Where are these shallow narcissists on whom Gaylin’s gospel is predicated? He himself is not one. Why does he imagine he’s the only boy on the bus who believes in Santa Claus?
His battle is not really with us debased narcissists, frantically pursuing sexual pleasure, but with debased Freudian thought, which imagines people as motivated exclusively by the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Gaylin believes that by enshrining the sex drive as the primary factor in human activity, Freudian theory vulgarized love and trivialized sex. Freud’s works contain no discussion of what Gaylin would call love, and he complains that psychoanalysts are encouraged to talk not about it but about “cathexes,” “object relationships,” and “attachments.”
“Psychoanalytic theory created a loveless world,” Gaylin writes, missing the entire point of Freud’s effort to unmask love as a genteel cover for instinctual desire. To rehabilitate love and free us all from our delusion that sex is the central activity of life, Gaylin sets out to develop a notion of pleasure more sophisticated than the one he assumes we have— that pleasure is the release of tension. Pleasure results from “an enhanced sense of self,” so mastery, concentration, and giving can all produce pleasure. He proves a great many things one would think didn’t need proving. Human love, he tells us, is different from and higher than that of the animals. Sex is more than instinctual. It is a highly nuanced cultural activity. (This is where Ehrenreich et al. begin.)
GAYLIN OFFERS AN intriguing neoFreudian explanation for why we risk humor, pride, and sanity, spend money and time, in order to find someone to go through life with. It’s more than libido. Paired, he suggests, is the natural state of humanity. We begin life as part of a pair—us and Mom, self and other—and we never feel really comfortable until we get back to that situation. To support his hypothesis, he invokes Aristophanes’ myth (as recounted in Plato’s Symposium) of the dual nature of man. It’s a lovely story. Originally, man was a circular, two-headed, fourlegged, and four-armed creature. Zeus punished man by splitting him in two, and ever after, each half was doomed to seek its original mate and to feel incomplete without it. When the two halves meet—which is rare—they feel the excitement of reunion that we call falling in love. This myth has always appealed to people, perhaps, as Gaylin suggests, because it is in some sense true. He argues that “fusion,” the return to an earlier state of oneness with another, is the “central phenomenon of loving.” In real love two identities merge to create something new, a third thing, a third identity, with the boundaries between self and other blurred.
The tactic of making the love between parent and child the essential experience of love in life is attractive for many reasons. It does away with what Gaylin rightly calls the trivial notion that sexual gratification impels us to love. It suggests a model for loving which is based on nurturing and giving as well as getting. Parental love may well be the most satisfying of all forms of love, and an element of maternal or paternal love within the shifting play of erotic love may be a good thing indeed. But there is danger in making the relationship between parent and child the model for the relationship between adult lovers, even if that model is modified so that the roles of responsibility and dependence can be traded off, so that each member can be the child or the parent at various times. The relationship between adults is consensual, and that between adult and child is not; therefore the parent has an unending and unbreakable responsibility for the child he has brought into life, whereas the adult has no such responsibility for his or her mate. The model is a covert argument for the indissolubility of marriage. “When presented by a quandary as to how to handle a difficult five-year-old,” Gaylin writes, “we do not consider as one alternative, abandonment of the child. We are committed to her care, and we do not conceive of‘divorce’ as an alternative to this commitment. ”
The merging of selves to form a new identity in love is another beautiful but dangerous idea. Traditional marriage has been based on this very notion, and in practice it produces dependent women with no identities, or with identities so contingent upon their husbands’ that they are devastated if their husbands leave them for other “fusions.” A woman these days would be a fool to let herself “merge” her identity unreservedly. Yet nothing seems more lovely to me than the notion of such a merger. I hope it will not seem bitter if I say that a certain kind of idealism about marriage and love comes easier to men than to women. Which brings us back to “Higgimus, hoggimus.” □