The pharmaceutical companies, the women’s magazine industry, and the sexual conservatives all had something in common: each offered Americans the elusive prize of deeper intimacy. All played deliberately on the ambivalence created by the unfulfilled promises of the sexual revolution, and capitalized on the anxiety generated in a society hypersaturated with sexual stimulation. Antiporn crusaders further refined their arguments to contend that even during sex, the husband was “masturbating inside [his wife’s] body while he is having sex with the women on the screen.” Men supposedly had lost the ability to make love; a wife had become a “masturbatory accessory.” In a similar vein, an enterprising group of evangelicals hit the jackpot with a series of books (replete with accompanying audiotapes, workbooks, and expensive weekend workshops) that gave men guidance on breaking their porn habit and redirecting their sexual desires to their flesh-and-blood spouses. The target audience was enormous. The fact that three million copies of these books were sold within seven years suggests the extent of the emotional pain gripping the American heartland.
The new moralists offered what religions have always offered: magic. They promised to provide the most physically intense orgasms and a profound sense of emotional connection with the partner. They pledged an end to the disappointment and estrangement apparently endemic to many people’s sexual experiences. They stoked confusion and fear about the potential perfectibility of sex. And they benefited greatly from the early twenty-first century phenomenon of Internet pornography that is constantly decried even as its audience continues to grow.
The evangelicals tapped into a cultural shift that sexologists and social scientists had noticed as well. Echoing the comments of Kinsey’s European critics from half a century ago, observers around the turn of the millennium began to speak of a frightening trend toward the “onanization of sex.” The orgasm was becoming a trophy of self-reassurance in the battle with another body, rather than the pleasurable byproduct of an interaction with another human being who was passionately desired for him or herself. Orgasm had become the sign that one could quit—that, thank goodness, a particular sexual episode was now over. The idea that sex might be a process rather than a goal-oriented task—that it might be a sensual, transformative, ongoing journey of discovery—had begun to seem quaint and unrealistic.
Both the pharmaceutical companies and the Christian moralists promise more pleasure, not less; they dangle the hope of boundary-dissolving ecstasy, fantastic orgasms, and intense connection. They are not antisex, but rather intent on heightening people’s anxieties about sex; they are interested in generating inner confusion and conflict, not clarity about the rules. They are not silent about sex, but rather talk of it constantly, and in ever more explicit terms. Yet by reducing sex to a mechanical exercise, they are killing the very thing they claim to provide. For the survival of Eros depends on leaving the core legacy of the sexual revolution unresolved: the nebulous intersection of sex and love, the hidden place where bodies and emotions meet.
In today’s sexual wasteland, there are nonetheless grounds for optimism. The electric erotic charge that infuses durable partnerships and fleeting flirtations, meaningful work and abandoned play, political courage and selfless caring, remains palpable for many people. And despite all efforts to dissect him, pimp him, or eulogize his premature demise, Eros continues to show up unannounced—disheveled, but as beautiful as ever—and in the most unexpected places. There is no advice column, drug, technique, or technology that can make us kiss with outrageous sensuousness or generate that delicious “vertigo of curiosity” about another person that suffuses life with wild joy. When it happens—and it does—it is not within our control. It is pure grace.