There is a nostalgia for time younger people never actually experienced, like for the 60s era bouncing bunnies of the NBC series "The Playboy Club." Is it that we want to be one or be with one?
Does sex have to be taboo-breaking to be hot? And now that just about every taboo has been broken, have people under 40 lost interest?
In essay by Erica Jong in the Sunday New York Times, "Is Sex Passé?", the “Fear of Flying” author frets, "…everywhere there are signs that sex has lost its frisson of freedom. Is sex less piquant when it is not forbidden? Sex itself may not be dead, but it seems sexual passion is on life support."
The essay’s churned up plenty of backlash to her sex backlash theory, with Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan accusing Jong of focusing on middle-aged 30somethings, not actual young people, and ignoring “an entirely new generation's discovery of and fascination with sex.” And Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory calls Jong's piece "just the latest in a long history of arguments about how sex is being corrupted or destroyed."
But I stated similar worries to Jong in my last book, "America Unzipped," because couples and singles -- of all generations -- spoke to me of finding themselves on a kind of sexual treadmill, chasing the next thrill because the last one had become boring.
Now that the great digital cloud delivers depictions of every possible erotic combination, what’s the young taboo-breaker to do other than to retreat into a kind of defiant rejection of passionate sexual exploration?
But while there is some truth to Jong’s fretting, there is no “backlash against sex” as Jong wrote (at least not outside of the elite confines inhabited by Jong and New York and West Coast literati). Young women are not turning their backs on sex, but Jong is right when she writes that they are longing for some of the shuddering thrill that used to go with it.
While porn revenues are way down, free digital erotica (often depicting users themselves) has become an utterly mainstream pastime. Sex toy sales continue to climb and many of those buyers are under 40. (Msnbc.com recently ran a how-to for getting your dildos through TSA checkpoints.) There is no indication younger women are coupling less often than they ever did. Hookup culture is real.
But it is also true that there is nostalgia for an era people under 40 never actually experienced and of which they may have an unrealistic view. Spend any time at all on Tumblr and -- in addition to hundreds of porn blogs -- you will find Audrey Hepburn worship and Marlena Dietrich worship. Eighteen-year-old girls devote time to archiving glamorous photos of models from the early 1960s and Irving Penn photographs of Lisa Fonssagrives. Retro stripper Dita von Tease is a style icon a decade after she first broke into the mainstream. Young women are not rejecting sex, they are craving the glamour that used to surround sex.
Jong’s ziplessness (sexual encounters free of remorse or guilt) still exists, but younger people seem torn. They like the freedom. But they want the best parts of bygone eras, too. They want seduction, uncertainty, pursuit, not necessarily, as Jong argues, monogamy and missionary, pre-JFK-era sex. Maybe not like the new NBC series "The Playboy Club," but white gloves and pearls and flirtation over drinks at the St. Regis bar just seems far more engaging than shots of Red Bull and vodka and a quickie in the parking lot.
There is one other thing to consider: A certain amount of disillusionment with sex isn’t a trend, it’s biology. Our brains are designed to seek novelty. The amount of novelty each of us seeks depends on our own wiring and neurochemicals that activate that wiring. When we don’t get enough novelty, we get bored. Jong and her generation helped make it possible for all of us to get whatever form of sexual novelty we desired, any time we wanted it.
I once worked in a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store. I could eat as much ice cream as I wanted. After the second day, I was pretty bored with ice cream.
Msnbc.com contributor Brian Alexander is currently writing a book with Emory University neuroscientist Larry Young about the brain, love, and sex.
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