A coincidence of adjacent news stories at Yahoo last week put me in mind of something. One was the latest revelation about Andrew Cuomo's aggressive pursuit of any nearby attractive woman, and the other was about the Grammys. For those of you who wisely stay out of touch with that sort of thing, the big event at this year's Grammys was a musical number/sex show from winner Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B that, we read in boastful tones, inspired a huge number of complaining phone calls to the FCC. (The only other thing I have even seen mentioned about the show was Harry Styles' boa.) As the Cuomo story unfolds it seems to me that he has done some reprehensible stuff, but the first few allegations amounted to "making clumsy passes at women while working."
So what, exactly, is the sexual climate in America today? We have on the one hand a resurgent neo-Victorianism that has my professor friends afraid to say a single thing about sex in their lectures, lest they get accused of sexual harassment. That doesn't happen very often, but you do see a lot of complaints like the one I was recently shown on Rate My Professor: "He talks about sex and it makes me uncomfortable." This for a literature course that includes Chaucer and Shakespeare, difficult authors to cover asexually. I mentioned here in 2017 the Tumblr donnybrook that erupted when a blogger who focuses on Renaissance art declined to put a "nudity" tag on those posts so followers could opt to block them. The web sites that have correctly identified me as a straight man in my 50s like to offer me teaser links for collections of sexy advertisements from the 70s, and I don't have to click to remember major firms using transparent double entendres and the like that would get them cancelled today.
The fastest growing sexual orientation in the US is "asexual." Asexual people have been campaigning to have their own stripe in the Pride flag, which they imagine would be black.
Ross Douthat, a Christian conservative who worries a lot about the declining birth rate, has an essay this week complaining about the disappearance of romance and romantic sexuality from the movies:
In the modern blockbuster, as the film writer R.S. Benedict put it recently: “Everyone is beautiful. And yet, no one is horny.” Movie stars have never been so ripped and chiseled and godlike; they have to be, if they aspire to play a Marvel or DC superhero. But unlike the old Olympians, these gods rarely seem to have the hots for one another, and their movies mostly exist within the parameters of early adolescence, with little adult smoldering permitted.
He also complains about the disappearance of romance from animated Disney films and the replacement of rom-coms with movies like
the best picture nominee “Promising Young Woman,” set in a present-day dating landscape so bleak that it makes you want to cancel heterosexuality itself.
And on the other side, we have a world in which cam girls can become minor celebrities, Only Fans is big business, dozens of female stars have made the bikini shot and the cleverly nude selfie a cornerstone of their publicity campaigns, and Grammy winners moonlight modeling lascivious lingerie.
One part of this has to do with female empowerment; Cuomo under this logic should be cancelled because he is ruining women's careers, whereas Megan Thee Stallion and all those cam girls are pursuing their own dreams and getting paid for it. But count me skeptical that we could even hope for a world that celebrates sexual boldness but where powerful men never make aggressive passes at women.
On the subject of sex, we are schizophrenic in both senses: of two minds, and out of touch with reality.
Of course there is nothing new about this, and it may be that every culture suffers from sexual confusion. I've been reading a lot lately about Siberian shamanism, and let me tell you we have nothing on the Chukchi when it comes to messed-up sexuality. (Traumatic rape by demons of people who are dreaming or in trance states is a common theme.) Sex is a chaos agent difficult to contain within any sort of social organization.
But I can't see anything good coming out of our current confusion. When things are praised in one context and condemned in another, people will constantly do the wrong thing in the wrong context and cause pain for others and themselves. And what, exactly, are teenagers supposed to think about the adult sexual world and how they should act in it?