COMES NATURALLY #80
February 12, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg
THE SIXTIES AND THE EROTICIZATION OF EVERYDAY LIFE
They tell us the Sixties came and went -- a mysterious time of social aberration that vanished as mysteriously as it appeared -- like a good (or bad) dream, a fleeting hallucinogenic vision, or some equally unexplainable collective psychotic episode. If we believe the media moguls, whatever the Sixties may have been, they are certainly over, vanished more or less without a trace -- a moment in history whose time has gone and is certainly not likely to come back any time soon.
According to the remarkably unanimous media line, concocted with the benefit of some 25 years of supposedly sagacious hindsight, we are now privileged to understand that the era we call the Sixties -- the mythic cataclysmic social, sexual, and political upheaval which actually extended well into the 70s -- was less a time of mass insight than a time of mass confusion. It was a time, we are told, when millions of young and not-so-young Americans believed -- falsely and naively -- that fundamental American social institutions could be radically changed simply by disassociating from them and creating alternative social forms and institutional structures based on very different values, different life priorities, and a fundamentally different notion of what the Good Life was all about.
We are repeatedly reminded these days how foolish people in the Sixties were to think that lives could really be organized in the name of creative expression of the self rather than for the pursuit of economic security or social convention; how naive the Flower Children were or to believe that individuality and diversity were more fundamental to emotional and personal fulfillment than conforming to monolithic, socially-defined models of propriety. And we are told how reckless it was for people to abandon the fundamentals of reason and moderation and follow the dangerously passionate paths of challenging authority in the name of social justice, responding to the unwieldy yearnings of heart and soul, and respecting the fundamental wisdom of the body and its senses.
According to the most critical and threatened interpreters of those times, the Sixties were a dark and dangerous moment in American history, a moment of collective insanity which we as a society barely survived. More friendly pundits speak of the worldview of the Sixties in less dire terms -- as an expression of a quaint and well-intentioned innocence -- but stress nonetheless with exaggerated maturity that that innocence was also, of course, psychedelically misguided and pathetically self-defeating.
What friends and foes of the Sixties seem to agree upon is that whatever those times may have been, they have now most definitively ended, leaving little lasting effect on life as we know it in the Realistic 90s, where careers, financial advancement, playing by the rules, and sexual repression have reasserted their proper place at the core of a smoothly functioning social order.
Now, maybe I'm just ridiculously nostalgic about a time in my life when meaning, passion, commitment, and discovery came together as founding principles for my burgeoning life, but I really don't think the Sixties can be shrugged off as conveniently as all that. Even though the clothing and hair styles have changed, even though some of the more extreme forms of social experimentation ended by blowing themselves out of the water, even though the promise of Woodstock degenerated into the disappointment of Altamont, I believe that the radical shift in attitudes that overtook the country at that time is still very much with us, albeit in more subtle and less explicit forms. Indeed, I think that the sexual and social revolution of the Sixties is so much part and parcel of how we now look at the world that we don't even remember that it was not always so.
(When I say "we," I mean the 60-70% of the American people who have been moving in an essentially progressive direction for the past 25 years or so. I know, of course, that there is another group of Americans -- maybe 20-30% -- that has been moving in an opposite direction during that time, in direct reaction to the very changes in popular attitude that the Sixties fostered. But, for all the noise, wealth, and political organization of these social and sexual conservatives, they are finally being exposed as a distinct minority voice, however much trouble they (and many politicians) seem to have trouble accepting that reality. The exercise in anti-Clinton futility being waged on the floor of the U.S. Senate as I write this, for example, speaks very much to that point, as a reactionary minority, unable to comprehend that its historical era is over, uncontrollably bangs itself bloody against the wall of change. But that's another story....)
There are some basic truths so obvious that once they are recognized, there is no way to return to the blindness that existed before. It's the Biblical question of eating from the Tree of Knowledge: Once you have stumbled onto awareness, there is no way to undo that process. Once a fundamental realization is introduced into the collective consciousness, its presence can never be removed, even though that perspective may itself evolve over time. The road out of Eden is a one-way street.
Thus, for example, once the common people came to understand that they had the right to govern themselves, and the power to rise up and overthrow King Louis or Czar Nickolai, it became forever impossible to reassert the Divine Right of Kings or to return to a time when everyday folks did what they were told not only out of fear, but more fundamentally out of a sense of moral duty. Once the absurdity of Divinely legitimized royalty was exposed, that sacred concept was gone for all time -- no matter that it had been the basis for social order for some thousand years or so. Similarly, once workers learned that they could stand together and collectively challenge the authority of employers to run the workplace as they saw fit, the balance of power between employers and employees was likewise fundamentally changed, and changed forever. This irreversibility of Common Sense is the main reason that the Powers That Be work so hard to keep such notions from ever taking root among the populace. Fortunately, they are not as omnipotent as they like to believe.
The uprising we call the Sixties challenged and overthrew so many previously unquestioned assumptions about The Way Things Must Always Be, about what constitutes the natural order of things, that the very fabric of American life was quickly, radically and, I am saying, permanently altered. All the historical ups and downs since that time have simply been a matter of people getting used to the reality of that fundamental change. Obviously, there have been all sorts of unpredictable social developments over the past 25 years -- many of them reactionary -- and nothing ever remains static. But the major social and philosophical notions called into question by the various social movements of the Sixties will never again be accepted unquestioningly as a matter of social inevitability.
Take, for example, the quaint but previously accepted notion that masculinity and femininity were fixed entities, and that the one proper gender-based division of labor and privilege meant essentially that it was up to the men to earn money, deal with the world at large, and rule with final authority at home, while women's role was to maintain the functionality of the household, raise the children, and legitimize the primal authority of men.
Once a notion as fundamental as this is called into question, there can be no going back to unquestioning acceptance of earlier social definitions of gender and gender privilege. Once feminism became part of the national consciousness, men and women might still choose to live their lives in accordance with traditional gender roles, but if they did so, they did so by choice, not because that was the only way life and gender could possibly be conceptualized. The very notion that there was a single social model that applied to all individuals was shattered. Clearly, there were many ways to think of both gender and gender roles, many ways people could choose to lead productive lives, many personal and social priorities for both women and men to weigh and consider, many different ways to be fulfilled as a woman, as a man, as a human being.
The same process of calling into question previously unchallenged beliefs was applied during the Sixties to traditional notions of race and racial privilege, to the need for and meaning of material wealth, and to the supposedly sacred institution of going to war to defend American corporate interests abroad. There was, over a short period of time, a coming together of so many different challenges to the established social order that it was hard to keep track of all the changes or to keep them from informing, influencing, and encouraging each other. "Question Authority" was one perhaps the most fundamental general watchword of the time, and once the very notion of authority becomes the subject of thoughtful skepticism, the world becomes a very much changed place indeed.
One of the Sixties's most far-reaching challenges to traditionally unquestioned beliefs came with regard to sexual behavior. First and foremost, the notion that sex was principally about reproduction rather than about pleasure, relationship, and personal expression, was washed out to sea on the mighty river of reliable, relatively safe, inexpensive birth control. Mass access to birth control effectively separated sex from the production of babies for the first time since the Aztecs. Sexually speaking, it was very quickly and very dramatically a magnificent New World Order, and millions of people jumped right in and began exploring the intriguing new sexual possibilities that the new reality made available to them.
Thirty years later, the Pope and Pat Robertson can preach until they're blue in the face, and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases can inject a genuine need for caution and attention, but no one is ever again going to believe that pleasure is an insignificant aspect of sexual behavior (for women as well as for men), or that the only important function of sex is the propagation of the species. Nor can anyone undo the general social awareness that people of all ages, classes and ethnicities -- women as well as men -- take pleasure from having easy access to unlimited and varied sexual entertainment, even if that is primarily the stylized, repetitious outpourings of commercial porn.
Equally important, the monolithic notion that there is but one relatively narrow, "normal" way to express oneself sexually has, thanks to the accepting and experimenting tradition of the Sixties, been as thoroughly laid to rest as have monolithic notions of man, woman, and family. Homosexuality, bisexuality, sadomasochism, extramarital flings and relationships, casual group sex, sex with vibrators and other toys, interracial sex, sex between people of different ages -- all of these, while not fully embraced and accepted by all people, have nevertheless become part of the acknowledged reality of what more than a few people customarily do with each other sexually. And the range of sexual activity included under the tent of social acceptability continues to expand, year after year, decade after decade.
The genie is out of the bottle; the cat is out of the bag. People -- lots of people, lots of good-hearted people -- do all these different sexual things with and for each other as a way of having fun, as a way of expressing their love for each other, as a way of learning about who they are, as a way of satisfying some primal, creative, even spiritual, urge of the species. Some people are up in arms about this, but everyone knows it's true. So if you find your sexual desire running in unanticipated directions, you no longer need to feel wrong or alone. Indeed, with just a bit of effort, you can now find plenty of other people who share your particular sexual tastes -- people with whom you might be sexual in those particular ways, people who can help you learn how to be more deeply satisfied, whatever your sexual predilection might be.
To be sure, guilt, shame, and the ostracism and violence reserved for people defined as sexual deviants are still rampant and will, in all probability, never completely disappear. But each year it takes more and more moralistic huffing and puffing to maintain the notion that the world can be cleanly divided between the good people who have sex in narrowly proscribed ways and a general class of subhuman perverts who dare to transcend those proprieties. Sexual diversity and exploration, two great traditions of the Sixties, are as alive and well as is the joyous pursuit of sexual pleasure.
Indeed, our culture has gone beyond the specifically sexual issues of the Sixties and absorbed what emerged then as a more general eroticization of everyday life. The media of the time latched onto the scandalous fact that there was all sorts of specifically sexual experimentation going on, but the media and the public were equally fascinated with the more subtle understanding that the men and women of the emerging counterculture were simply going about their daily lives in ways that were magnificently and unprecedentedly sensual and erotic. The body was being unapologetically worshipped as a temple of creative, sensual, erotic energy. Clothes were colorful and celebratory of the body. Incense was intoxicating. Music was overwhelmingly physical. Dance was a free-form celebration of the pleasure of movement.
A pleasure-fearing frontier culture was being challenged and changed at its root. Once people experience the pleasure of loving their bodies and listening respectfully to what those bodies have to teach, is there any way the pleasure-fearing can reassert the peculiar notion that the body and physical enjoyment are fundamentally sinful and to be denied at all costs? I think not.
As a result of the Sixties, these sorts of fundamental and traditional notions about who people are and how life can be lived have been being challenged for more than a generation. As a result, the unquestioned hold these assumptions once had over people's lives has been loosened. People may and do still choose to lead their lives in traditional ways, sexually and otherwise. But it is a matter of choice, not inevitability, and therein lies all the difference in the world. Diversity -- the breaking of the notion that there is a universally accepted, monolithic standard of social propriety -- is also here to stay, another heritage of those tumultuous times.
And this is true not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Strange as it may seem, it is now the popular culture of the Judeo-Christian West -- complete with its twisted heritage of sexual repression and the schizophrenic split between body and spirit -- that is now spreading the gospel of sexual openness and diversity throught the world, while traditionalists try to defend antisexual mores against the seductive influences of the Western infidels. The effect internationally is as far- reaching as it is insidious. Embracing erotic and sexual expression turns out to be about as compelling in Iran as it is in Iowa, as infectious in China as it is in Chicago. Thus, before the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, young people there were risking arrest in large numbers just to secretly listen and dance to outlawed rock and roll music, the music of sexual delight. The same instant appeal took hold of mass audiences as soon as Western popular music began to be performed in China. And even the threat of being arrested by the police cannot stop Iranian young people from running off into the bushes in ways that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.
Far from being dead, the fundamental values of the supposedly naive Sixties are very much alive and well, in these tortured United States and, increasingly, throughout the world as well. Gone and forgotten? Hardly. For all the excesses of those times and for all the reactive conservatism that era inspired, the social/sexual revolution of the Sixties has been both far- reaching and enduring -- you might even say historically inevitable. The honest pursuit of sexual pleasure, broadening notions of sexual diversity, and the joyful eroticization of daily life -- as well as a more general willingness to question monolithic authority at all levels of life and governance -- are irreversible social forces that are simply here to stay.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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