COMES NATURALLY #91
December 17, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg
HOW MANY XXX'S DOES IT TAKE TO SPELL MILLENNIUM?
As you are certainly more aware than is humanly reasonable, the digital counter on the grand temporal odometer in the sky is about to roll over from 1999.9999 to 2000.0000. In the larger scheme of things, as we all know, this means nothing whatsoever. Nature wastes little attention on the arbitrary boundaries that humans love to erect between here and there, this and that. But, nature aside, these arbitrary notions do have a way of collecting their own meanings, especially when they gain a foothold in the collective consciousness, as the notion of the millennium has certainly done. So, as the digital counters in the post offices spin their way down to 000:00:00:00, we're likely to find ourselves wrapping our minds around some feeling, however vague, that some big thing is ending and another big thing is coming along to take its place.
Some people find this anticipation distinctly unnerving. Israel has already stepped up its security to deal with unstable types expected to show up in Jerusalem on the Great Day, expecting to witness (or in same cases try to bring about) the end of the world as we know it. And, minor technical glitches notwithstanding, I suspect that the exaggerated public panic surrounding the Y2K question is largely an expression of a more generic malaise -- the feeling that we are jumping off the cliff of the known (symbolized by dates that start reassuringly with the number "19") into the ether of the unknowable (dates that start with that foreign number "20"). That sense of undefinable uncertainty needs something to worry about, a peg on which to hang its nervousness whenever we walk in the door. If it weren't YKK, it would be HIV, or FBI, or GNP.
But let me be just naive and blindly optimistic enough to suggest that stepping out of the old into the new needn't be first and foremost about anxiety. New beginnings, even arbitrary ones, have their own special kind of magic -- the chance to wipe clean some slate that's gotten all smeared with soot or dust or mildew, and make the proverbial fresh start -- innocent, ignorant, and unpolluted as a newborn babe, at least for the first few minutes. It's the feeling that "today is the first century of the rest of your life," to hopelessly mix two metaphors. Heady stuff, for those who have a taste for uncertainty, who like not knowing how the story of their life is going to turn out. If changing the first two digits on the calendar breaks old habits and helps people enter a zen state of beginner's mind, well, maybe this notion of millennial shift has something to be said for it after all.
When we start looking ahead to what we are likely to see in neo-millennial sex, this kind of excited, basically optimistic, gleeful anticipation of what's coming down the pike seems particularly appropriate. If you're the sort of person who sees expansion of sexual openness and expression as a good thing. (If you're not, you're definitely reading the wrong column....) No, I have not forgotten that the forces of social conservatism and sexual repression are hard at work as ever, tilting their swords at such diverse sexual windmills as pornography, abortion, public funding of erotic art, homosexuality, sex-positive education in schools, and anything that has to do with celebrating and enhancing the body's capacity for physical pleasure. But the hysterical urgency of these reactionary campaigns is really a testament to how rapidly sexual issues are moving in progressive directions, rather than an indication that American sexual mores are about to return to the wasteland of the 50's.
So many new and intriguing sexual genies have been popping out of one tight-fitting bottle after another that the poor traditionalists who want to return to the antisexual past are right to be in such a tizzy. The social and sexual fabric of Norman Rockwell America is in shreds, just as the most dire prophets of the Right say it is. All hell (as they call us) has indeed broken loose, and will break loose even more in the years that start with the number two. The end is indeed nigh -- thank God(dess). To wit:
The pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake -- separate and above any desire to bring adorable new children into the world, separate from any enlightened attempts to strengthen marriages and other ongoing relationships, separate indeed from any concern about relationship at all -- is here to stay, an indelible fixture in the consciousness of the vast majority of Americans, even the people in the Heartland. Sex is good. Pleasure is good. Calvin was wrong. Renunciation of pleasure does not lead to the good life. There is just too much evidence that self-imposed misery only breeds more misery for that basic truth to be unacknowledged.
The notion that women have a right to their own sexual desire, sexual identity, and sexual satisfaction (rather than orienting their sexual existence around the sexual desire and satisfaction of men) is also a permanent feature of the sexual landscape. Yes, Virginia, women do have clitorises, g-spots, orgasms, vibrators, and extra-marital affairs, and now that the rose has found its way (back) to their cheeks, ain't no amount of anti-pleasure preaching going to take that sweet truth away from them, except for those few who are unfortunate enough to have thrown their lot in with the radical right-wing fringe.
Awareness and public acknowledgment of homosexuality as a pervasive and increasingly normalized social fact of life is growing with all the power of historical inevitability, even though virulent homophobia and violence against gays is as prevalent as ever. The significant news is not that a majority of Americans still oppose gay marriage, but that 30% of Americans have already radically revamped their perspective on this most basic social institution, recognizing that, except for a few sexual details, gay people and heterosexuals are all just plain folks wanting social recognition of their love and all the economic benefits that married people enjoy. Too many gay people are out and too many het people have put personal faces on the once-dispersonal notion of homosexuality for many people to still believe that homosexuals are inhuman monsters. Bisexuality, s/m, fetish play, open non-monogamy, intergenerational sex, and the mutability of gender are a few historical steps behind gays, but the shape of the progression over time is the same.
One by one, sexual perspectives outside of what was once an unchallenged and exceptionally narrow sexual mainstream are making themselves known and emerging from legacies of guilt and shame. Local and national communities of support are being built for all sorts of sexual diversity, and subcultures of sexual information, elaboration, and celebration are blossoming and multiplying everywhere.
The importance of the Internet is no small factor in this shift away from ignorance and isolation for the sexually unconventional. Sexual information and perspective -- much more significant than the graphic images that have been the focus of so much media attention -- are available on the Internet in a way that they has never been available to large masses of people before. The Internet has taken the means of information production and control out of the hands of a small elite of socially powerful individuals and put them in the hands of the multitudes. That simple fact changes the rules of the information game in a way that can never be reversed.
The Internet is already proving to be the most significant advance in the democratization of information since the invention of the printing press, and we are just beginning to understand and explore its possibilities. With information -- sexual and otherwise -- freely available outside the control of magazine and newspaper editors, book publishers, television network moguls, and Hollywood power brokers, no one needs to struggle alone for sexual identity and understanding these days, even if their sexual fantasies, tastes, or practices are radically different from those of most people around them.
Once people have real access to truthful, nonjudgmental information about diverse sexualities, and access to the company, conversation, and support that comes from interaction with dozens, hundreds, and thousands of sexually like-minded souls, the lie that there is something wrong with people who go beyond the sexually straight and narrow is exposed as exactly that -- a fiction designed by those in power to keep people with diverse sexual interests stigmatized, isolated from each other, powerless, and therefore controllable.
What is most significant of all, perhaps, is that there are now so many different sexual minorities flowering that even the boundaries and fixed definitions established by these individual sexual countercultures are dissolving. We are quickly moving beyond easy, static, sexual and gender identifiers like gay, straight, s/m, vanilla, bisexual, man, or woman. When there are so many sexual and gender possibilities out there, why choose only one? More and more people are noticing that their sexual tastes, passions, and orientations may not be quite the same as they were five years, five months, five weeks, or five minutes ago. People seem to be getting used to the idea that it's just fine (indeed rather wonderful) to let your sexual perspective shift and change over time, or in the moment -- that you can play your sexuality by ear, make it up as you go along, not try to keep it confined to one easily-labeled and static category -- however unconventional any one sexual designation might be.
With all this sexual exploration and creativity going on, the antisexual rantings of all the old white men in the halls of power becomes increasingly irrelevant. Time, as the song says, is on our side. In time, the old people wither and die. Their place is taken by people who have grown up in different sexual times, and who therefore have different sexual needs and different sexual visions. Sexual battles that had to be fought, sexual rights that had to be won, are forgotten and taken for granted by people too young to ever have experienced the way it used to be. Sex for pleasure? Sure. Sex between men and between women? Sure. Sexual power games and role playing? Of course. What is your problem? Did people really used to worry about these things?
Now, don't get me wrong: It's certainly important to take the forces of sexual repression seriously. This country has a real potential for puritanical fascism growling just beneath its fair-minded, populist, don't-fence-me-in surface. But even with all that violent reactionary potential, the time when it would have been possible to turn back the sexual clock in some significant and long-standing way -- if such a time ever really existed at all -- has passed.
The backlash against the sexual Great Leap Forward of the 60's and 70's has essentially played itself out. The political fortunes of social conservatives are clearly on the wane. Both popular and financial support for the religious and social right have been declining for years. At long last, all sorts of people -- ranging from media mavens to politicians in and out of office to just ordinary folks -- are realizing that the mean-spirited, born-again Emperor has no clothes, that the number of people who make up the well-organized and exceedingly vocal subculture of moralistic extremists is pretty damned small compared to the rest of us who also think and vote. The electorate's response -- first yawning, then angry -- to attempts by the likes of Kenneth Starr, Tom De Lay, and Henry Hyde to turn Bill Clinton's sexuality into some kind of moralistic Armageddon was a welcome indication that everyday Americans have grown up a great deal around issues of supposed sexual outrage. The undertow from the political wave that washed all those nasty young conservatives into Congress in 1994 (and scared the bejesus out of just about everyone else) came back to wash many of them out again in 1998 when the brash, impetuous, and just plain immature True Believers bet the store on Presidential impeachment and lost.
Next year's elections will be crucial for determining what happens in the short run. For all the depressing similarities among the mainstream candidates and political parties, it does matter whether George Bush or Al Gore comes to inhabit the White House, and whether the Democrats or the Republicans control Congress, the various statehouses, city governments, and local school boards. But whatever the details of the next four or eight years may be, the longer, larger picture remains essentially both unalterable and delightfully positive. If we are to salvage anything meaningful from all the millennium madness, it might as well be to notice that it's this longer, larger picture that matters the most in the end.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at email@example.com. 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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