Pornography – an old perspective that’s still fucked up
“Ever since our Puritan Republic became a gaudy empire, pornography has been big business for the simple reason that freedom of expression is joined with the freedom to make a lot of money.” – Gore Vidal, 1966
Vidal wrote a marvelous essay about pornography in the context of the sixties, and history, and in 2017 Arthur Schott Lopes (a millennial), Class of 2019, wrote a review of Vidal’s work for the Houghton Library at Harvard. Two generational views about the differences in pornography, which show little difference. The Lopes review is below (4 minute read), Vidal’s full essay is below (20 minute read) and it’s in his book, The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal.
Before you read Arthur Lopes’s review, or Gore Vidal’s essay below, or buy Vidal’s book, let me say that a common theme of pornography, written or filmed, is that it doesn’t offer an equal male and female perspective. For women, it’s still fucked up. And it certainly doesn’t fit the mantra of today’s MeToo movement, nor the public viewpoints of history making feminists like Simone de Beauvior, Gertrude Stein, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, et al. Pornography is a man’s POV, both as participant and observer. The woman’s role is to give the pleasure, not be concerned about being pleasured, and there’s little room for her to negotiate the delightful intricacies of a woman’s needs.
Arthur Schott Lopes wrote:
(3 minute read)
Here at Harvard we recently concluded Sex Week, an annual week of events focused on issues of sex, sexual health, sexuality, gender, gender identity, relationships, and more. In my capacity as 75th Anniversary Fellow here at Houghton, I brought a Sex Week focus into my work with Houghton and examined the collection for materials related to the history of sexuality, from erotica and pornography in their many forms to academic and critical pieces on the topic. Sex is actually widely represented in the Houghton collection, and the materials I came across were a mix of the intellectually enticing and the bizarre. Looking through so much from so long ago, however, got me thinking about how different the experience of a 19th or early 20th century pornography consumer was from the way modern society perceives and uses pornography. As I was mulling over this, I came across a fascinating book review by none other than Gore Vidal. Titled “On Pornography,” it does much to analyze the way in which people interact with textual pornography in creative and collaborative ways, harnessing the imagination and weaving our own mental creations into the text to excite ourselves. That was, however, when I began to realize that this is not how most modern porn works anymore.
Vidal begins the essay by arguing that pornography is a tool created by the human species to escape its societal prisons. One of the reasons it exists, he argues, is because we marry late and eschew adultery or premarital sex. The result of these stringent mores is bleak. According to Vidal—who lived in and was writing about very different times than our own—husbands met wives after spending “ideally, the sexually most vigorous period of [their lives] masturbating.” But how, he ponders, would one continue “to make that solitary act meaningful”? To Vidal, the lag between puberty and sexual experience forces one to become a creator of sexual fantasy. He concludes that “the theater of his mind early becomes a Dionysian festival and should he be a resourceful dramatist he may find actual love-making disappointment when he finally gets to it, like Bernard Shaw.” Of course, not all of us have been gifted with Bernard Shaw’s artistic genius, but the point Vidal makes here is that we do have an artist’s spark within us, especially when it comes to our desire for sexual satisfaction. Left to ourselves, we will build fantastical narratives in our heads to compensate for the lack of real sexual experience; we become porn producers, creative masters in our own right.
Vidal’s “Dionysian festival” and the visions it conjures up also reflect the surreality of any attempt to transfer them to paper, a picture, or a screen. The arousal of pornography does not quite map onto that of real life—in fact, our creations are sometimes so good that we would, as Shaw, rather have them in place of reality. Vidal actually begins the essay with that idea, narrating the following post-orgasm dialogue: “Then she whispers, ‘I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.’” To him, pornography cannot be divorced from our sexual lives, even after we are supposed to outgrow it.
Vidal, however, is interested in more than the psychology of sexual fantasy. The piece is, after all, a book review, and Vidal is fascinated by the way the written word can interact with our minds to create the “Dionysian festival.” In a passage about the generic attributes of written pornography, Vidal explains that “pornographers seldom particularize.” Written porn, in his opinion, is actually “so impersonal that one soon longs to read about those more modest yet entirely tangible archetypes, the girl and boy next door, two creatures far more apt to figure in the heated theater of the mind than the voluptuous grotesques of the pulp writer’s imagination.” This adds an interesting dimension to his argument: he posits, here, that we need a certain measure of reality in our sexual fantasies. Our mental creations, our “theaters of the mind,” however fantastical they might be, need to be connected to the outside world in such a way that we could relate to them—see them as possible, as realizable.
Vidal, in fact, concludes that section precisely with an amalgamation of fiction and reality. To him, “by abstracting character and by keeping his human creatures faceless and vague, the pornographer does force the reader to draw upon personal experience in order to fill in the details, thereby achieving one of the ends of all literary art, that of making the reader collaborator.” Written pornography simply enhances our original drive to create our own fantasies. It is a tool for the imagination, not a mere replacement for it. Under this light, pornography becomes an act of creation rather than the passive reception of a sexual stimulus.
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On Pornography by Gore Vidal (written March 1966)
(20 minute read)
The man and the woman make love; attain climax; fall separate. Then she whispers, “I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.” Like most sex jokes, the origins of this amiable exchange are obscure. But whatever the source, it seldom fails to evoke a certain awful recognition since few lovers are willing to admit that in the sexual act to create or maintain excitement they may need some mental image as erotic supplement to the body in attendance. One perverse contemporary maintains that when he is with A he thinks of B and when he is with B he thinks of A; each attracts him only to the degree that he is able simultaneously to evoke the image of the other. Also, for those who find the classic positions of “mature” love-making unsatisfactory yet dare not distress the beloved with odd requests, sexual fantasy becomes inevitable and the shy lover soon finds himself imposing mentally all sorts of wild images upon his unsuspecting partner, who may also be relying on an inner theater of the mind to keep things going: in which case, those popular writers who deplore “our lack of communication today” may have a point. Ritual and magic also have their devotees. In one of Kingsley Amis’s fictions, a man mentally conjugates Latin verbs in order to delay orgasm as he waits chivalrously for his partner’s predictably slow response. While another considerate lover (non-fictional) can only reduce tempo by thinking of a large loaf of sliced white bread, manufactured by Bond.
Sexual fantasy is as old as civilization (as opposed to as old as the race), and one of its outward and visible signs is pornographic literature, an entirely middle-class phenomenon since we are assured by many investigators (Kinsey, Pomeroy, et al.) that the lower orders seldom rely upon sexual fantasy for extra-stimulus. As soon as possible, the uneducated man goes for the real thing. As a result, he seldom masturbates but when he does he thinks, we are told, of nothing at all. This may be the last meaningful class distinction in the West. It certainly proves that D. H. Lawrence was not entirely sentimental; however, the sex-in-the-head middle class which he so much despised are not the way they are because they want deliberately to be cerebral and anti-life; rather they are innocent victims of necessity and tribal law. For economic reasons they must delay marriage as long as possible. For tribal reasons they are taught that sex outside marriage is wrong. Consequently the man whose first contact with a woman occurs when he is twenty will have spent, ideally, the sexually most vigorous period of his life masturbating. Not unnaturally, in order to make that solitary act meaningful, the theater of his mind early becomes a Dionysian festival and should he be a resourceful dramatist he may find actual love-making disappointing when he finally gets to it, like Bernard Shaw. In fact, one wonders, would Shaw have been a dramatist at all if he had first made love to a girl at fourteen, as nature intended, instead of at twenty-nine as class required? Here, incidentally, is a whole new line of literary-psychological inquiry suitable at the very least for the Master’s degree: “Characteristics of the Onanist as Dramatist.” Late coupling and prolonged chastity certainly help explain much of the rich dottiness of those Victorians whose peculiar habits planted thick many a quiet churchyard with Rose La Touches.
UNTIL RECENTLY, pornography was a small cottage industry among the grinding mills of literature. But now that sex has taken the place of most other games (how many young people today learn bridge?), creating and packaging pornography has become big business, and though the high courts of the New American Empire cannot be said to be very happy about this state of affairs, they tend to agree that freedom of expression is as essential to our national life as freedom of meaningful political action is not. Also, despite our governors’ paternalistic bias, there are signs that they are becoming less intolerant in sexual matters. This would be a good thing if one did not suspect that they may regard sex as our bread and circuses, a means of keeping us off the political streets, as it were, and in the sack, out of mischief. If this is so, we may yet observe our strenuous President in his mad search for consensus settling for the consensual.
Among the publishers of pornography (“merchants of smut” as they say at the F.B.I.), Maurice Girodias is uniquely eminent. For one thing he is a second-generation peddler of dirty books (or “d.b.s” as they call them on Eighth Avenue). In the 1930s his English father, Jack Kahane, founded The Obelisk Press in Paris. Among Kahane’s authors were Anais Nin, Laurence Durrell, Cyril Connolly, as well as Henry Miller, whose books have been underground favorites for what seems like a century. Kahane died in 1939 and his son Maurice Girodias (he took his mother’s name for reasons not given) continued Kahane’s brave work. After the war, Girodias sold Henry Miller in vast quantities to easily stimulated G.I.s. He also revived “Fanny Hill.” He published books in French. He prospered. Then the Terror began. Visionary dictatorships, whether of a single man or of the proletariat, tend to disapprove of irregular sex. Being profoundly immoral in public matters, they compensate by insisting upon what they think to be a rigorous morality in private affairs. General de Gaulle’s private morality is reputed to be tolerant but unfortunately his public morality is registered in his wife’s name. In 1946 Girodias was prosecuted for publishing Henry Miller. It was France’s first prosecution for obscenity since the trial of Madame Bovary in 1844. Happily, the world’s writers rallied to Miller’s defense, and since men of letters are taken solemnly in France, the government dropped its charges.
In a Preface to the recently published The Olympia Reader, Girodias discusses his business arrangements at length; and though none of us is as candid about money as he is about sex, Girodias does admit that he lost his firm not as a result of legal persecution but through incompetences, a revelation which gives him avant-garde status in the new pornography of money. Girodias next founded The Olympia Press, devoted to the creation of pornography, both hard and soft core. His adventures as a merchant of smut make a most beguiling story. All sorts of writers, good and bad, were set to work turning out books, often written to order. He would think up a title (e.g., “With Open Mouth”) and advertise it; if there was sufficient response, he would then commission someone to write a book to go with the title. Most of his writers used pseudonyms. Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg wrote Candy under the name of Maxwell Kenton. Christopher Logue wrote Lust under the name of Count Palmiro Vicarion, while Alex Trocchi, as Miss Frances Lengel, wrote Helen and Desire. Girodias also published Samuel Beckett’s Watt, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man; perversely, these authors chose not to use pseudonyms.
READING OF THESE happy years, one recalls a similar situation just after the Second War when a number of New York writers were commissioned at so many cents a page to write pornographic stories for a United States Senator. The solon, as they say in smutland, never actually met the writers but through a go-between he guided their stories: a bit more flagellation here, a touch of necrophilia there…. The subsequent nervous breakdown of one of the Senator’s pornographers, now a celebrated poet, was attributed to the strain of not knowing which of the ninety-six Senators he was writing for.
In 1958, the Fourth French Republic banned twenty-five of Girodias’s books, among them Lolita. Girodias promptly sued the Ministry of the Interior and, amazingly, won. Unfortunately, five months later, the Great General saw fit to resume the grandeur of France. De Gaulle was back; and so was Madame de Gaulle. The Minister of the Interior appealed the now defunct Fourth Republic’s decision. He was upheld. Since then, censorship has been the rule in France. One by one Girodias’s books, regardless of merit, have been banned. Inevitably, André Malraux was appealed to and, inevitably, he responded with that elevated double-talk which has been a characteristic of what one suspects will be a particularly short-lived Republic. Girodias is now in the United States, where he expects to flourish. Ever since the Puritan Republic became a gaudy empire pornography has been a big business for the simple reason that when freedom of expression is joined with the freedom to make a lot of money, the dream of those whose bloody footprints made vivid the snows of Valley Forge is close to fulfillment and that happiness which our Constitution commands us to pursue at hand.
The Olympia Reader is a collection of passages from various books published by Maurice Girodias since 1953. Reading it straight through is a curiously disjointed experience, like sitting through a program of movie-trailers. As literature, most of the selections are junk, even though the writers include such celebrated contemporary figures as Nabokov, Genet, Queneau; and of the illustrious dead, Sade and Beardsley.
Pornography is usually defined as that which is calculated to arouse sexual excitement. Since what arouses X repels Y, no two people are apt to respond in quite the same way to the same stimulus. One man’s meat, as they say, is another man’s poison, a fact now recognized by the American judiciary, which must rule with wearisome frequency on obscenity. With unexpected good sense, a judge recently observed that since the books currently before him all involved ladies in black leather with whips, they could not be said to corrupt the generality since a taste for being beaten is hardly common and those who are aroused by such fantasies are already “corrupted” and therefore exempt from laws designed to protect the young and usual. By their nature, pornographies cannot be said to proseletyze, since they are written for the already booked. The worst that can be said of pornography is that it leads not to “anti-social” sexual acts but to the reading of more pornography. As for corruption, the only immediate victim is English prose. Mr. Girodias himself writes like his worst authors (“Terry being at the time in acute financial need…”) while his moral judgments are most peculiar. With reverence, he describes his hero Sir Roger Casement (a “superlative pederast,” whatever that is) as “politically confused, emotionally unbalanced, maudlin when depressed and absurdly naive when in his best form; but he was exceptionally generous, he had extraordinary courage and a simple human wisdom which sprang from his natural goodness.” Here, Mr. Girodias demonstrates a harmony with the age in which he lives. He may or may not have described Sir Roger accurately but he has certainly drawn a flattering portrait of The Serious American Novelist, 1966.
OF THE FORTY SELECTIONS Mr. Girodias has seen fit to collect, at least half are meant to be literature in the most ambitious sense and to the extent that they succeed, they disappoint. Beckett’s Watt, Queneau’s Zazie, Donleavy’s The Ginger Man are incapable of summoning up so much as the ghost of a rose, to use Sir Thomas Browne’s handsome phrase. There is also a good deal of Henry Miller, whose reputation as a pornographer is largely undeserved. Though he writes a lot about sex, the only object he seems ever to describe is his own phallus: As a result, unless one lusts specifically for the flesh of Henry Miller, his works cannot be regarded as truly edifying. Yet at Miller’s best he makes one irritably conscious of what it is like to be inside his skin, no mean feat…the pornographic style, incidentally, is contagious: the stately platitude, the arch paraphrase, the innocent line which starts suddenly to buck with unintended double meanings.
Like the perfect host or madam, Mr. Girodias has tried to provide something for everyone. Naturally there is a good deal of straightforward heterosexual goings-on. Mr. Girodias gives us several examples, usually involving the seduction of an adolescent male by an older woman. For female masochists (and male sadists) he gives us Story of O. For homosexual sadists (and masochists) The Gaudy Image. For negrophiles (and phobes) Pinktoes, whose eloquent author Chester Himes, new to me, has a sense of humor which sinks his work like a stone. For anal eroticists who like science fiction there are passages from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, works which have appealed to Mary McCarthy. For devotees of camp, new to the scene, the thirty-three-year-old The Young and Evil by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler is a pioneer work and reads surprisingly well today. Parenthetically, it is interesting to note the role that clothes play in most of these works, camp, kinky, and straight. Obviously, if there is to be something for everyone, the thoughtful entrepreneur must occasionally provide an old sock or pair of panties for the fetichist to get, as it were, his teeth into. But even writers not aiming at the fetichist audience make much of the ritual taking off and putting on of clothes and it is significant that the bodies thus revealed are seldom described as meticulously as the clothes are.
Even Jean Genet, always lyric and vague when celebrating cock, becomes unusually naturalistic and detailed when he describes clothes in an excerpt from The Thieves’ Journal. Apparently when he was a boy in Spain a lover made him dress up as a girl. The experiment was a failure because “Taste is required…I was already refusing to have any. I forbade myself to. Of course I would have shown a great deal of it.” Nevertheless, despite an inadequate clothes sense, he still tells us far more about the travesti manqué than he ever tells us about the body of Stilitano for whom he lusted.
IN MOST PORNOGRAPHY physical descriptions tend to be sketchy, which is odd. One would think that the pornographer would think that his readers would want to know exactly how each body looked. But hard-core pornographers seldom particularize. Inevitably, genitals are massive, as Edmund Wilson would not say, but since we never get a good look at the bodies to which they are attached, the effect is so impersonal that one soon longs to read about those more modest yet entirely tangible archetypes, the girl and boy next door, two creatures far more apt to figure in the heated theater of the mind than the voluptuous grotesques of the pulp writer’s imagination. Yet by abstracting character and by keeping his human creatures faceless and vague, the pornographer does force the reader to draw upon personal experience in order to fill in the details, thereby achieving one of the ends of all literary art, that of making the reader collaborator.
As usual, it is the Marquis de Sade (here represented by a section from Justine) who has the most to say about sex…or rather the use of others as objects for one’s own pleasure, preferably at the expense of theirs. In true eighteenth-century fashion, he explains and explains and explains. There is no God, only Nature, which is heedless of the Good as well as of the Bad. Since Nature requires that the strong violate the weak and since it is demonstrably true that Nature made women weak and men strong, therefore…and so on. The Marquis’s vision—of which so much has been made in this century—is nothing but a rather simple-minded Manicheism, presented with more passion than logic. Yet in his endless self-justifications (unNatural this: Nature never apologizes, never explains) Sade’s tirades often strike the Marlovian note: “It is Nature that I wish to outrage. I should like to spoil her plans, to block her advance, to halt the course of the stars, to throw down the globes that float in space—to destroy everything that serves her, to protect everything that harms her, to cultivate everything that irritates her—in a word to insult all her works.” But he stops considerably short of his mark. He not only refused to destroy one of her more diverting creations, himself, but he also opposed capital punishment. Even for a French philosophe, Sade is remarkably inconsistent, which is why one prefers his letters to his formal argument. Off-duty he is more natural and less Natural. While in the Bastille he described himself as possessing an “extreme tendency in everything to lose control of myself, a disordered imagination in sexual matters such as has never been known in this world, an atheist to the point of fanaticism—in two words there I am, and so once again kill me or take me like that, because I shall never change.” Latterday diabolists have tried to make of his “disordered imagination in sexual matters” a sort of religion and, as religions go, it is no more absurd than that of the crucified tri-partite mangod. But though Nature is indeed nonhuman and we without significance except to ourselves, to make of that same indifferent Nature an ally in behavior which is, simply, harmful to human society is to be singularly vicious.
Yet it is interesting to note that throughout all pornography, one theme recurs: the man or woman who manages to capture another human being for use as an unwilling sexual object. Obviously this is one of the commonest of masturbatory day-dreams. Sade’s originality was to try, deliberately, to make his fantasies real. But he was no Gil de Rais. He lacked the organizational sense, and his actual adventures were probably closer to farce than to tragedy, more Charlie Chaplin trying to drown Martha Raye than Ilse Koch castrating her paramours at Buchenwald. Incidentally, it is typical of our period that the makers of the play Marat/Sade were much admired for having perversely reduced a splendid comic idea to mere tragedy.
Mr. Girodias’s sampler should provide future sociologists with a fair idea of what sex was like in the dawn of the age of science. They will no doubt be as amused as most of us are depressed by the extent to which superstition has perverted human nature (not to mention thwarted Nature). Officially the tribal norm continues: The family is the central unit of society. Man’s function is to impregnate woman in order to make children. Any sexual act which does not lead to the making of a child is untribal, which is to say anti-social. But though these assumptions are still held by the mass of human society in the West, the pornographers by what they write (and mention) show that in actual fact the old laws are not only broken (as always) but they are being questioned in a new way.
Until this generation even non-religious enemies of irregular sexuality could sensibly argue that promiscuity was bad because it led to venereal disease and to the making of unwanted babies; also, more to the point, sex was a dirty business since bodies stank and why should any truly fastidious person want to compound the filth of his own body’s corruption with that of another? Now science has changed all that. Venereal disease has been contained. Babies need not be the result of the sexual act (“I feel so happy and safe now I take the pill”) while improved bathing facilities together with the American Mom’s relentless circumcision of boys has made the average human body a temptingly hygienic contraption suitable for all sorts of experiment. To which the moralists can only respond: Rome born again! Sexual license and excessive bathing, as everyone knows, made the Romans effete and unable to stand up to the stalwart puritan savages from the German forests whose sacred mission was to destroy a world gone rotten. This simplistic view of history is a popular one, particularly among those who do not read history. Yet there is a basic point at issue and one that should be pondered.
Our tribal standards are those of Moses combined with that military sense of caste which characterized those savage tribesmen who did indeed engulf the world of cities. The contempt for people in trade one still finds amongst the WASP aristocracy, the sense of honor (furtive but gnawing), the pride in family, the loyalty to class and (though covert) the admiration for the military virtues and physical strength are all inherited not from our civilized predecessors who lived in the great cities but from their conquerors, the wandering tribesmen, who planted no grain, built no cities, conducted no trade yet preyed successfully upon those who did these contemptible, unmanly things. Today of course we are all as mixed in values as in blood, but the unstated assumptions that it is better to be physically strong than wise, violent than gentle, continent than sensual, land-owner or coupon-clipper than shopkeeper linger on, a memorial to those marauding tribes who broke into history at the start of the Bronze Age and whose values are with us still, as the Gallup Poll attested recently, when it revealed that the President’s war in Vietnam is most popular in the South, the most “tribal” part of the United States. Yet the city is the glory of our race and today in the West, though we are all city-dwellers, we still accept as the true virtue the code of our wild conquerors, even though our actual lives do not conform to their laws, nor should they, nor should we feel guilty because they don’t.
IN TEN THOUSAND YEARS we have learned how to lengthen human lives but we have found no way to delay human puberty. As a result, between the economics of the city and the tabus of the tribe we have created a monstrous sexual ethic. To mention the most notorious paradox: It is not economically convenient for the adolescent to marry; it is not tribally correct for him to have sex outside of marriage. Solutions to this man-made problem range from insistence upon total chastity to a vague permissiveness which, worriedly, allows some sexuality if those involved are “sincere” and “mature” and “loving.” Until this generation, tribal moralists could argue with perfect conviction that there was only one correct sexual equation: man plus woman equals baby; anything else is wrong. But now that half the world lives with famine and all the world by the year 2000 if Pope Paul’s as yet unborn guests are allowed to attend the “banquet of life,” the old equation has been changed to read: man plus woman equals baby equals famine. If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically, if not by atomic war, by law, an unhappy prospect for civil liberties but better than starving to death. In any case, it is no longer possible to maintain that those sexual acts which do not create (or simulate the creation of) a child are unnatural; unless, to strike the eschatological note, it is indeed Nature’s will that we perish through over-population, in which case reliable hands again clutch the keys of Peter.
Fortunately, the pornographers appear to be on the side of survival. They make nothing of virginity deflowered, an important theme for two thousand years; they make nothing of it for the simple reason we make little of it. Straightforward adultery no longer fascinates the pornographer; the scarlet letter has faded. Incest, mysteriously, figures not at all in current pornographies. This is odd. The tribal tabu remains as strong as ever even though we now know that when members of the same family mate the result is seldom more cretinous or more sickly than its parents. The decline of incest as a marketable theme is probably due to today’s inadequate middle-class housing. In large Victorian houses with many rooms and heavy doors, the occupants could be mysterious and exciting to one another in a way that those who live in rackety developments can never hope to be. Not even the lust of a Lord Byron could survive the fact of Levittown.
HOMOSEXUALITY IS NOW taken entirely for granted by the pornographers because we take it for granted. Yet though there is considerable awareness nowadays of what people actually do, the ancient somewhat ambivalent hostility of the tribe persists, witness Time magazine’s recent diagnosis of homosexuality as a “pernicious sickness” like influenza or opposing the war in Vietnam. Yet from the beginning, tribal attitudes have been confused on this subject. On the one hand, nothing must deflect man the father from his duty. On the other hand, man the warrior is more apt than not to perform homosexual acts. What was undesirable in peace was often a virtue in war, as the Spartans recognized, inventing the buddy-system at the expense of the family unit. In general, it would seem that the more war-like the tribe, the more opportunistic the response. “You know where you can find your sex,” said that sly chieftain Frederick the Great to his officers, “in the barracks.” Of all the tribes, significantly, the Jews alone were consistently opposed not only to homosexuality but to any acknowledgement that the male was an erotic figure (cf. II Maccabbees 4:7-15). But in the great world of pre-Christian cities, it never occurred to anyone that a homosexual act was less “natural” than a heterosexual one. It was simply a matter of taste. From Archilochus to Apuleius, this acceptance of the way people actually are is implicit in what the writers wrote. Suetonius records that of his twelve emperors, eleven went with equal ease from boys to girls and back again without Suetonius ever finding anything remarkable in their “polymorphous perverse” behavior, to make the obligatory reference to our own Norman O. Brown’s illuminations. But all that, as M. Stanley Kauffmann would say, happened in a “different context.” Nevertheless, despite contexts, we are bi-sexual. Opportunity and habit incline us toward this or that sexual object. Since additional children are no longer needed, it is impossible to say that some acts are “right” and others “wrong.” Certainly to maintain that a homosexual act in itself is antisocial or neurotic is dangerous nonsense, of the sort that the astonishing Dr. Bergler used to purvey when he claimed that he could “cure” homosexuals, as if this was somehow desirable, like changing Jewish noses or straightening Negro hair in order to make it possible for those who have been so altered to pass more easily through a world of white Christians with snub noses.
Happily, in a single generation, science has changed many old assumptions. Economics has changed others. A woman can now easily support herself, independent of a man. With the slamming of Nora’s door, the family ceased to be the inevitable social unit. Also, the newly affluent middle class can now pursue other pleasures. In the film “The Collector,” a lower-class boy captures an educated girl and after alternately tormenting and boring her, he says balefully, “If more people had more time and money, there would be a lot more of this.” This got an unintended laugh in the theater but he is probably right. Sexual experiment is becoming more open. A placid mid-Western town was recently appalled to learn that its young married set was systematically swapping wives. In the cities, group sex is popular, particularly among the young. Yet despite the new freedoms which the pornographers reflect (sadly for them since their craft may ultimately wither away) the world they show, though closer to human reality than that of the tribalists, reveals a new illness: the powerlessness that most people feel in an over-populated and over-organized society. The sadomasochist books that dominate this year’s pornography are not the result of a new enthusiasm for the vice anglaise so much as a symptom of helplessness in a society where most of the male’s aggressive-creative drive is thwarted. The will to prevail is a powerful one, and if it cannot be fulfilled in work or battle, it may find an outlet in sex. The man who wants to act out fantasies of tying up or being tied up is imposing upon his sex life a power drive which became socially undesirable once he got onto that escalator at IBM which, by predictable stages, will take him to early retirement and the long boredom of sunset years, medically prolonged. Solution of this problem will not be easy, to say the least.
MEANWHILE, effort must be made to bring what we think about sex and what we say about sex and what we do about sex into some kind of realistic relationship. Indirectly, the pornographers do this. They recognize that the only sexual norm is that there is none. Therefore, in a civilized society law should not function at all in the area of sex except to protect people from being “interfered with” against their will. Unfortunately, even the most enlightened of the American state codes (Illinois) still assumes that since adultery is a tribal sin it must be regarded as a civil crime. It is not, and neither is prostitution, that most useful of human institutions. Traditionally, liberals have opposed prostitution on the ground that no one ought to be forced to sell his body because of poverty. Yet in the affluent society, prostitution continues to flourish for the simple reason that it is needed. If most men and women were forced to rely upon physical charm to attract lovers, their sexual lives would be not only meagre but in a youth-worshipping country like America painfully brief. Recognizing this state of affairs, a Swedish psychologist recently proposed state brothels for women as well as for men, in recognition of the sad biological fact that the middle-aged woman is at her sexual peak at a time when she is no longer able to compete successfully with younger women. As for the prostitutes themselves, they practice an art as legitimate as any other, somewhere between that of masseur and psychiatrist. The best are natural healers and, contrary to tribal superstition, they often enjoy their work. It is to the credit of today’s pornographer that intentionally or not he is the one who tells us most about the extraordinary variety of human sexual response and in his way he shows us as we are, rather like those Fun House mirrors which even as they distort and mock the human figure never cease to reflect the real thing.
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The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal is a must-have book on anyone’s bookshelf. Buy here.
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