That the culture we live in is soaked in sex is not news. In addition to movies and television, it comes at us in song lyrics, magazine advertisements, billboards, newspapers and about 80 percent of the spam in my email inbox arrives with *****SEXUALLY EXPLICIT***** as the subject line.
Although I haven’t run across them yet in Portland, Maine, in my former neighborhood in New York City, sex toy shops display their oversized dildos and other erotic gear in windows next door to sandwich shops and movie theaters.
Also, it has been common for a long time that a day at the beach means a sea of bare bottoms, male and female, now that thong swimsuits are the number one choice of those with behinds worthy of exposure (along with some that are not). And I’ve never been comfortable with three or four inches of bare flesh between skirt top and shirt hem on young women in the workplace. But I’ve obviously reached the age of fogey Puritanism in that regard.
We are so swamped in all this public sex that although an argument can be made that it vulgarizes what is, at its best, a joyous human activity, it is not shocking.
Sex is used to sell everything from little girls’ underwear (thongs for five-year-olds is shocking) to cars and (plastic) surgery. But what it most sells is itself. As Mark Greif writes in the November issue of Harper’s magazine [not available on line]:
“One of the cruel betrayals of sexual liberation, in liberalization, was the illusion that a person can only be free if he holds sex as all-important and exposes it endlessly to others – providing it, proving it, enjoying it.”
Although Mr. Greif is making a different point in his piece, he and I agree that if there were true sexual liberation,
“…we would have also been freed to be free from sex – to ignore it, or to be asexual, without consequent social opprobrium or imputation of deficiency.”
This is particularly poignant for elders whose naturally waning libidos must be denied as aging has evolved into a condition or disease to be overcome instead of as a normal stage of life.
These days, elders are expected to “age well” which appears to involve remaining as sexually active as we were at 25 – or that is what the plethora of Viagra commercials would seem to imply along with the hundreds of questionable compounds, capsules and creams which promise to rejuvenate women’s interest in sex.
All this sex at every turn of our lives began with "the pill" and the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and God knows I took every advantage of it with enthusiasm. When I first noticed a few years ago that sex had become less of a driving force in my life, I was sad to lose that "hot chick" definition of myself. After awhle, however, it was a relief to settle into a less hormone-driven life and now I wonder how I found time for all that bunny rabbit activity which, I realize in retrospect, was often no more than scratching a primal itch.
We are not all blessed (or cursed) with a high level of desire. It comes and goes throughout life depending on circumstances and it gradually diminishes as we get older. But nowadays, as Mr. Greif points out, the culture so overvalues sex that any elder (and younger person, too) who admits to less than total interest is viewed with suspicion and pity.
Jettisoning the shame and secrecy attached to sex in the past is undoubtedly a good thing. But when we stigmatize those who are not flaunting it, we devalue them unreasonably.