From Hookup Culture to Viagra Nation

You wouldn’t expect a conservative sociologist and a liberal-leaning cultural journalist to agree on much — especially when it comes to sex.

But Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and David Friend, a Vanity Fair editor, share the premise that American sexual attitudes and behavior have undergone a sea change in recent decades. And Friend, while he might reject Regnerus’s vocabulary, likely wouldn’t dispute his diagnosis — that nonmarital sex has become easier to access and more acceptable. But Friend is more aggrieved by a different development: the tabloidization and coarsening of the culture.

”Mine is not an elegy for a lost era,” Regnerus insists. Yet Cheap Sex does read at times like a jeremiad — a provocative, if sometimes stodgy and infuriating, lament that the willingness of young women in their twenties and thirties to “hook up” with men, absent any emotional commitment, makes monogamy and marriage ever more elusive.

“Cheap sex,” for Regnerus, is sex for which men, nature’s pursuers, don’t have to court or commit. “Sex is cheap,” he writes, “if women expect little in return for it and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition or fidelity in order to experience it.” Pop culture shibboleths aside, men aren’t afraid of commitment, he maintains — they just don’t find it necessary anymore. “In the domain of sex and relationships men will act as nobly as women collectively demand,” he writes — a statement he concedes women will find “aggravating.”

The widespread availability of “cheap sex,” Regnerus argues, is good for men but also bad for them, since it may well blunt their ambitions and the need to achieve as a prerequisite for impressing and bedding women. (So evolutionary psychology would suggest. But any hard proof that contemporary men’s much-discussed educational and employment struggles are linked to easier sex — as opposed, say, to de-industrialization — is elusive.)

But “the unintended consequences of cheap sex” are even worse for women, Regnerus writes. Biologically destined to be “sexual gatekeepers,” they are failing at their appointed task, undercutting their own romantic and reproductive interests. At its most basic, Regnerus’s argument is the sociological equivalent of that old saw, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

To Regnerus, the original sin that facilitated sexual permissiveness was the introduction of reliable birth control — that is, the Pill, which ushered in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond. (Fear of AIDS may have slowed those cultural currents, but it didn’t dam them.) That much at least is widely accepted, as is the notion that the aforesaid revolution had a darker side, particularly for women.

Regnerus also implicates pornography, a once hidden vice (or sexual aid, depending on your perspective) that has gone mainstream and altered attitudes toward what is sexually possible and desirable. (It may even have led some men to retreat from the vexatious mating market, advantaging those who remain.) Regnerus describes a third factor, online dating, as “a remarkably efficient cheap sex delivery system” that commodifies people and “works against relationship development.”

Drawing on survey data, 100 personal interviews, and a 1992 book by the British social theorist Anthony Giddens, The Transformations of Intimacy, Regnerus focuses primarily on “young adults under 40.” That makes sense from an evolutionary psychology standpoint — those are, for women, the fertile years. But it means skipping over questions about the sexual dynamics of relationships between older women and men, which may challenge essentialist notions about the pursuers and the pursued.

Regnerus notes that “the pathway to marriage is lengthening, and the journey there increasingly circuitous” — a state of affairs he bemoans, since he sees monogamous marriage as a nearly unalloyed good. Proponents of less restrictive partnerships — or of solo living — will no doubt dispute Regnerus’s ideological presumptions.

 

Friend’s attitude in The Naughty Nineties is tougher to pigeonhole. At the center of this sprightly, sprawling, and heavily anecdotal cultural history leers Bill Clinton, a symbol and a catalyst (and perhaps even a victim) of evolving sexual mores. Friend’s subtitle, The Triumph of the American Libido, isn’t devoid of a frisson of ambivalence, which the book’s treatment of Clinton exemplifies. While quoting both Clinton friends and foes, he seems to doubt whether the president’s sexual peccadilloes should have become political fodder, let alone grounds for impeachment. But he also sympathizes with the women caught in the fallout from that infamous libido run amok.

The Naughty Nineties documents rampant pornography, the diminution of sexual privacy, and the spread of cosmetic surgery, among other trends. Friend is comfortable with the expansion of gay rights (his brother, who is gay, had a commitment ceremony in 1994). And he celebrates the serendipitous development and marketing history of Viagra in two chapters, “The Hardener’s Tale” and “Homo Erectus.”

Ranging widely through the decade, Friend covers such familiar touchstones as Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues, the exploits of the celebrity madam Heidi Fleiss, and the rise of gentlemen’s clubs, Brazilian waxes, and sexual addiction. The book bursts with detail-rich footnotes.

But its greatest contribution is Friend’s “morning after” interviews with a series of pivotal cultural figures, including Fleiss (who winds up in Death Valley caring for twenty macaws), Anita Hill (proud to have become a role model), Monica Lewinsky (a newly minted expert on cyberbullying), Paula Jones (who whines about her inability to get a book published), and Lorena Bobbitt.

One of the book’s truly bizarre revelations is that Bobbitt’s ex-husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, whose penis she so notoriously amputated, has since pursued her with lovelorn texts. Whatever the truth of their earlier quarrels — she claimed rape, he denied it — he had become the seemingly unlikeliest of sexual harassers.

Friend’s larger argument is that the transformations he chronicles “laid the groundwork for our current age,” with its “voyeurism and virulence,” “thirst for scandal,” and Internet-fueled “breakdown of private barriers.” Like many commentators, Friend seems understandably uncertain about where (laudable) sexual freedom and pleasure end, and ugly exploitation begins.

Exhibit A for the coarsening of our culture might be Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood boasts about capitalizing on his celebrity to grope women — and especially their failure, after an initial round of revulsion, to ensure his electoral defeat. Friend is on shakier ground when he declares that “the candidacy of Donald Trump would not have been possible, or viable, had it not been for the rhetorical and stylistic precedents set by the slick and ever-parsing Bill Clinton.” Bill Clinton likely mattered less than America’s exaltation of business success and the economic pain of the ravaged Rust Belt. Still, to the extent Friend is right, that eponymous libidinal triumph is looking increasingly like a Pyrrhic victory.

The post From Hookup Culture to Viagra Nation appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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