Friday, July 25th, 2014
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Fear and Loathing

In 1955, the French journal Esprit accused Kinsey of deromanticizing sex with his mindless fixation on “outlet” statistics and his “rudimentary” understanding of sexual passion. What Kinsey seemed unable to imagine, the French critics argued, was that emotions mattered just as much as, if not more than, the “machine-like” manipulation of another person’s genitals. “The desire to know the other, the vertigo of curiosity” about one’s partner: that was the decisive ingredient at the moment of orgasm that defined great lovemaking. Rather than finding genuine communion and “something precious to exchange,” the “human animals” that Kinsey described could seek at best a “spasm of consolation.” “Lacking all love, all tenderness,” there was nothing but the contact between skin and skin, between “autonomous nerves.” This, Esprit concluded, was truly solitude à deux: deep loneliness in the midst of sexual activity. When Americans had sex with each other, they were really just having sex with themselves. Esprit could hardly have guessed that someday—on the other side of the sexual revolution that Kinsey had helped initiate—these same perceptive criticisms would be used not only to market an endless stream of sex advice and sex aids (both mechanical and chemical) but also to prompt the suppression of sexual liberty.

The sexual revolution that Kinsey anticipated did indeed undermine the blatant hypocrisy that characterized the fifties. After all—as Kinsey’s tomes so scrupulously showed—the culture that existed before the sexual revolution had hardly been free of promiscuity and adultery. Both were rampant, but it was the man’s part in the play, not the woman’s, that the hypocrisy had served. Women were often the ones who had to pay for nonmarital sex: not with money, but with shame, unwanted pregnancies, and dangerous abortions. And within marriage, women were obliged to tolerate their husbands’ sexual escapades. However incompletely, the sexual revolution leveled the playing field for women and brought social norms, laws, and behavior into greater alignment. It made talk about sex more open and contraception more readily available, and brought forth more challenges to the false pieties surrounding premarital chastity. But the sexual revolution also created anxieties—not only about the newfound sense of freedom, but also about precisely the two concerns that Kinsey had overlooked: the quality of physical pleasure and the nature of passionate love.

When the Kinsey Reports had first been published, and Americans were able to learn about other people’s sex lives, the effect was primarily one of overwhelming relief. People discovered that they were far from alone in their secret deviance from the socially approved mores. But as the sexual revolution unfolded over the next several decades, incessant chatter and graphic imagery about the intimate details of other people’s sex lives began to cause tremendous insecurity. Someone somewhere had a more ardent, more adoring, more adept lover than you. Someone somewhere had a more agile tongue; a more fluent, sensational touch; a better knowledge of just what to do with the frenulum and the perineum, the nipples and the G-spot. Someone somewhere was having an easier time reaching those explosive orgasms that always eluded you. Someone somewhere was having better sex. Americans were endlessly comparing themselves to others and finding themselves—or their partners—wanting. The resulting feelings of inadequacy created a huge market for assistive technologies, from vibrators to porn to pharmaceutical remedies.

When Viagra arrived in the spring of 1998, the pill’s manufacturer, Pfizer Incorporated, was rewarded with an astonishing bonanza. Sales in its first year topped $1 billion, and by 2001, Pfizer had become the largest and most powerful drug company in the world and the fifth most profitable company in the United States. By 2003, Pfizer boasted that nine men around the world were ingesting a Viagra pill every second. Meanwhile, the indicated uses for Viagra were expanded to include not only erectile dysfunction but also erectile dysphoria, defined as a “vague sense of dissatisfaction with one’s erection.” Reports circulated that this condition afflicted fully 50 percent of the male population between the ages of forty and seventy. By 2006, perfectly healthy men were using Viagra just “to jazz things up.”

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About the Text

Dagmar Herzog is a professor of history at the City University of New York's Graduate School and University Center. Her most recent book is Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics.

To the moralist prostitution does not consist so much in the fact that the woman sells her body, but rather that she sells it out of wedlock.
—Emma Goldman, 1917
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